Local coffee experts help us brew up some aromatic answers
"See if you can tell the difference between these two coffees.”
After staring blankly at the two glasses of freshly brewed coffee before me, I protested, claimed ignorance, reminded my questioner that I was relatively new to specialty coffee. But he smiled and assured me that even I would be able to pick out the differences of taste and texture between these two varieties.
So I took a sip from the first glass. The coffee was sweet and almost fruity, and after I swallowed there was a slightly acidic aftertaste. The second coffee had a richer, deeper flavor, and I tasted undertones of honey and lemon.
I hesitantly described my findings to Matt Busby, general manager of The Camp House (and inventor of my coffee quiz), and he revealed the bean behind each drink. The first coffee was from Buziraguhindwa in the Kayanza province of Burundi, while the second was from the crop of Workiye Shallo in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia. Matt explained that their difference in taste was partially due to the post-harvest process that each bean had undergone. The Buziraguhindwa had been naturally sundried, while the Yirgacheffe had been washed.
As Matt described the effects of each process, I realized that far more work went into producing a cup of coffee than I had ever realized—an impression that stayed with me throughout my search for the perfect coffee bean.
As a tropical plant, coffee survives in a narrow temperature range, so it is primarily grown in equatorial Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Other than the temperature requirements, however, the coffee plant is not too picky; it can grow in a variety of soil types, elevations, and environments. Of course, each of these factors will influence the coffee plant and, ultimately, the taste of the coffee in your cup.
The coffee plant itself is a tree with dark, shiny leaves, white flowers, and berries. But the real prize is nestled inside the berry. The berries, usually red when ripe, are harvested and processed in order to reveal the seed. Though the seed is just that—a seed—it is referred to as a bean because, well, it looks like one.
The next step in the life of a coffee bean is roasting. In their raw state, coffee beans are green, but during roasting extreme heat sets various chemical processes into motion, changing the color of the bean. Every variety of coffee has different flavor characteristics, and a skilled roaster is able to take those differences into account and roast the beans accordingly. Traditionally, beans are roasted anywhere from 370-480°F for 10-15 minutes.
The temperature and duration of a roast will bring out different flavors—and colors, for that matter. Roast levels range from light, to medium, to dark, and everything in between. Certain coffees are better if roasted to certain colors, but generally the longer a coffee is roasted, the more bitter it will taste.
Once roasted, coffee begins to lose its taste and aroma within a matter of days. Ideally, coffee beans should be used within a week of purchase and ground immediately prior to brewing—facts that any consumer of roasted whole bean coffee should keep in mind.
Perhaps now is a good time to mention that while I have always enjoyed a good cup of coffee, I am by no means a coffee expert. In order to find the perfect coffee bean, I enlisted the help of some local professionals: Andrew Gage of Velo, Matt Busby of The Camp House, Jennifer Stone of International Coffee Group, and Matt Ludwikowski of Brash Coffee. Each expert also shared some advice for how to select and prepare specialty coffees.
I began with a visit to Velo—a locally owned and operated micro-roaster situated on Main Street—and a conversation with Velo founder Andrew Gage. Velo’s niche is small-batch, specialty roasts, and bicycle is their primary delivery method (hence the name “Velo,” which is French for “bicycle”).
When it comes to brewing coffee, Velo employs a range of methods. “From Chemex to Aeropress to Kalita,” Gage explains, “we use methods behind the counter that people can replicate at home.”
Gage insists that the brewing process should be “as scientific and systematic as possible.” One of the most important factors to consider is the coffee-to-water ratio, which is generally 2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 ounces of water. Another consideration when brewing is water temperature, which should fall within the range of 195-205°F.
When selecting coffee, Gage looks for coffee with a complexity of taste that cannot be immediately described. He quickly names Ethiopia as his favorite region of coffee production, but hesitates before naming a specific bean: “I guess one of the best beans I’ve come across is the Gelana Abaya from Ethiopia,” he thoughtfully concludes.
The Gelana Abaya undergoes a full-natural, sundried process after being harvested. Its flavor is bright, with berry undertones, and it makes an especially delicious espresso (as I can attest).
This was not the last I would hear of Ethiopian coffee. Matt Busby of The Camp House, comments, “If our roasters had to drop everything and choose one country to source their coffee, it would be Ethiopia.”
Busby’s advice to new coffee drinkers is: “Never trust your first sip.” He explains that your mouth initially registers the hot temperature of coffee instead of the taste, so reserving your judgment and giving your coffee time to cool are essential for better tasting.
He also elaborates on the differences between natural and washed processing. In natural processing, the coffee berries are laid out to dry in the sun as soon as they are harvested; no part of the fruit is removed until later. In washed processing, however, the fruit is immediately removed (usually by soaking) to reveal the seed inside, which is then given a final wash to ensure uniformity.
As for the perfect bean? “There’s no right answer,” Busby says, “but we and our roasters are always in pursuit of excellence.” He names the washed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from the crop of Workiye Shallo as an excellent bean. The Yirgacheffe is floral, with notes of honey, lemon, and even peach. It has a bright acidity and a distinctive vibrant aftertaste.
“The Yirgacheffe is a great everyday sort of coffee,” Jennifer Stone, founder of the International Coffee Group, comments. “But I wouldn’t say it’s the perfect bean.”
So what is the perfect bean, according to Stone? The Panama Geisha. “The Geisha is floral and light, with notes of citrus. It’s almost tea-like, and it has many layers.” Stone adds, “You might not want to drink it every morning with breakfast, though. It’s more of a special occasion drink, like the champagne of the coffee world.”
Stone advises new coffee drinkers to source good coffee. She explains that yes, specialty coffee can cost more than, say, grocery store coffee, but, “If you do the math, you’ll find that it’s only about a nickel a cup more to drink good coffee. And it’s worth it.”
Stone, like Gage, contends, “There’s no mystique to brewing coffee. It’s scientific—a matter of time and temperature and other variables.”
Another vote for the Panama Geisha comes from Matt Ludwikowski, founder of Brash Coffee in Warehouse Row. Admittedly, Ludwikowski was hesitant to give a definitive answer. “Finding the perfect coffee bean could take years, maybe even decades,” he says to temper his answer. “I don’t even know that there is such a thing as the perfect coffee bean. But great coffee? Amazing coffee? I can talk about that.”
Ludwikowski explains that the Panama Geisha is an heirloom coffee and that its lineage can be traced back to Ethiopia where it was discovered growing in the wild. When it found its way to Panama a few decades ago, it flourished in that climate, and it has recently enjoyed high acclaim in the world of specialty coffee.
In terms of coffee selection, Ludwikowski cautions, “You can never make a bad coffee taste good. So always start with a quality bean.” After that, it is a matter of method: “Think of preparing coffee in the same way that you would think of cooking any other food,” Ludwikowski advises. “You should use quality, measured ingredients and follow a recipe for precision.”
So what is the perfect coffee bean? It is difficult to say, and it largely depends on personal taste. Whether you choose an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a Panama Geisha, or an Ethiopian Gelana Abaya, if proper attention is given to the coffee at every stage of the process, then you can make an amazing coffee. If the advice offered here seems overwhelming, take Ludwikowski’s parting words to heart: “Coffee is actually extremely simple, and you don’t have to understand the history and science of coffee in order to appreciate it. Coffee is for everyone.”