Know Your Bean: The Coffee Bean

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Over the past few decades coffee has moved from being a functional pick-me-up beverage to a worldwide cultural phenomenon. There are now a myriad of ways in which we all can enjoy our coffee these days but all of them have to start with the coffee bean.

 

The coffee ‘bean’ is actually the seed of the coffee plant (genus coffea) and not really a bean at all. On the tree, the coffee fruit or cherries grow in clusters, turning a bright red colour when ripe. Once picked, the fleshy outer layer of the cherry is removed revealing the ‘bean-like’ coffee seeds. They are then dried and shipped green to the roasters around the world.

 

Interestingly although all coffee is grown in the tropics, the vast majority of the coffee is roasted outside of these areas, closer to where the coffee is actually consumed. This is why countries like Italy and Australia are famous for coffee even though there is no coffee grown in Italy and very little grown in Australia. Brazil is the only country to be listed in the top 20 growers (No. 1) and the top 20 consumers (No. 14) of coffee in the world. Vittoria Coffee selects its beans from various locations in South America including Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia.

 

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Although there are quite a few different species of coffee plant, the two most common and commercially available are the Arabica and Robusta species. Around 80% of the world’s crop is actually the more expensive Arabica variety. Coffea arabica grows in high altitude areas that are relatively free of pests and diseases. This means that their natural defence mechanism (caffeine) is lower and the complex aromatics tend to be higher. Robusta tends to grow at lower altitude and has a higher tolerance to disease and pests (higher caffeine). Generally this means that the flavours are less complex but it does give an extra kick. Instant coffee is predominantly robusta as it is both cheaper and to a certain extent more functional.

 

That said, although arabica generally produces a more interesting and complex coffee, there are high quality robusta and low quality arabica beans. Like any living thing, coffee plants are affected by their environment.

 

The climate, the minerals in the ground and the way they are cultivated all affect the end product. Different origins produce very different beans both in size and appearance and in flavour. An arabica bean from the mountains of Ethiopia, for example, will tend to be smaller and rounder and have an earthy almost nutty flavour. An arabica bean from Venezuela on the other hand will be slightly larger and more oval in shape and have bright, fruity characteristics.

 

Balancing the flavours and aromas is where the art of blending takes place. Coffee roasters take a lot of time to blend beans from different origins to get the flavour they are looking for.

  

 

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The roasting itself is also an art as different roast will bring out different characteristics in the bean. Light roasts bring out the grassy aromas and a higher level of acidity. It has less of the typical coffee flavours and in drip coffee almost has the flavour of tea. Darker roast bring out the chocolaty notes, caramel flavours and the slight bitterness we look for in an espresso. Balancing the sweet, sour and bitter flavours of the coffee requires a strong knowledge of roasting, blending, the origin and how the coffee will be extracted get the best out of any coffee bean.