What does the land of Reggae have to do with a fine cup of coffee? For that matter, how does a weasel-like mammal improve the flavour of coffee? Or is it the musty winds of the south-western monsoon that I’m thinking of? The coffee bean grows in many countries – in fact, ever since a shepherd called Kaldi noticed that his herd of goats grew friskier when they nibbled on the fruit of a particular bush. That turned out to be the coffee bush, from whence the beverage soon shot into prominence. For centuries, coffee was traded in the port of Yemen, though it almost certainly originated in Ethiopia, but although Kaldi and his herd have become the stuff of legend, exactly where he lived has been lost in the mists of time.
Today, coffee grows in many African countries, Hawaii, some islands in the Caribbean, South America and across South East Asia, starting from South India. The largest producer of coffee is Brazil and the largest consumer is the United States. However, in the international market, Brazil’s crop is not considered particularly fine: the area under cultivation is too large and there’s no scope for labour-intensive harvesting, which is practically a requirement, because no machine, however sophisticated, can compensate for skilled hands.
The best producer in the world is generally considered to be Jamaica’s Blue Mountain region. Coffee also grows in other regions of Jamaica, and is known as High Mountain Supreme and Prime Washed Jamaica, but the difference in quality is as great as the difference between night and day. Manideep Chhokra and Aharnish Mishra, the partners of specialty micro roasters Finca Specialty Coffee, claim that it is “Because of the balance of sweet nuttiness, slight acidity and natural sweetness in the soil that exists nowhere else in the world.” Chhokra and Mishra caution that laws being what they are, it is possible to print the words “Blue Mountain Coffee” on a package even when the coffee has come from elsewhere in the world. Moreover, it is perfectly legal! “That is because you could have an estate in Guatemala or Colombia called Blue Mountain, and you could claim, seemingly innocently, that the beans are from there.”
The partners insist that with astronomical prices fuelled by the Japanese market – Japan buys 90% of the entire Jamaican Blue Mountain crop – inferior crops, over-production, careless processing are all unfortunate fall-outs. “Coffee,” they point out, “is just like any other agricultural crop and is subject to the vagaries of the weather.” In fact, according to them, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is a function of the soil as much as of the type of bush itself, because when cuttings have been taken and planted in other parts of the world, none of the superior characteristics of the original bean have been observed.
There are two main types of coffee beans: Arabica and robusta. Enough has been said by Starbucks about the superiority of one over the other, and robusta – stronger, less subtle in flavour and a hardier plant – may have been treated like the step-child of the coffee industry for a long time. Arabicas are more delicate in flavour, need more care while growing and have notably less caffeine content in them and most countries have far better arabicas than robustas. One notable example is Indonesia, whose finest arabicas include Mandheling, Gayo Mountain and Ankola. However, the highest price for any coffee in the international market goes to the niche crop of kopi luwak.
The luwak is a weasel-like animal that exists in wilderness areas of Java. It feasts on coffee beans while they are still on the bush and hence covered by pulp. The weasel chews the pulp, swallows the seed and expels it in its droppings. Villagers collect the droppings and sell them to agents who process them. They are sold as an exceptionally expensive coffee bean because of the chemical changes they undergo in the weasel’s digestive tract. I have never actually tasted kopi luwak, and because of the extreme discrepancy between supply and demand, its price is high indeed.
During a trip to Bali, I spent a great deal of time trying to find out something about this specialty bean, but drew blanks all around. The Balinese prefer their coffee black with dried ginger in it, and though a small crop of coffee grows on the island of Bali itself, nobody could tell me where I could buy Balinese coffee beans from. Conversely, every time I would taste a particularly fine, well-rounded coffee at a coffee house in town, nobody seemed to know where the bean came from!
Ethiopia produces some exceptionally fine coffees, as does Kenya, whose grade AA is light, clean and floral. Ethiopian coffees on the other hand, are gamey, strong and individualistic and because it is a desperately poor country, with not much in the way of coffee bean processing infrastructure. Sidamo and Yergacheffe are distinctive beans from that country.
India’s coffees turn conventional wisdom on its head: our robustas are some of our best coffees and are probably used in many international blends. We’ll never know for sure, because companies like to keep the recipe for their espresso blends a top secret. Two of our hottest selling coffees are Mysore Nugget Extra Bold, a robusta and Monsoon Malabar, a bean that is strewn on the floor of sheds after harvest, so that the damp winds of the south west monsoon cause them to become musty: a flavour that finds several takers in the west!
Your cup of coffee:
So, with coffee beans from all over the world at your disposal, how do you plan to drink your cup? There are two ways of doing it. One is by choosing a single-origin coffee that you like and leaving the coffee grounds to steep in boiling hot water in a plunger (also called a French press). Kenya AA is a light, champagne-like, floral coffee and hence is a good choice.
The other choice is drinking an espresso. There are specialized blends for espresso coffee, but the name refers to the machine rather than the blend. Italy is the world leader insofar as espresso machines goes: Gaggia is commonly considered to be the finest espresso machine, but there’s a hierarchy within Italian espresso machines as well. La Cimballi, Saeco, Pavoni and many other companies all have several models. Any machine which has a porta-filter is considered better than a super-automatic machine. Costa Coffee, Café Coffee Day, Barista and many high-end restaurants have semi-automatic machines, in which 7 to 10 grams of freshly ground coffee beans are poured in a moveable lock, tamped firmly and attached to the machine. When it is switched on, 30 ml of steam at 90 degrees Centigrade is forced through the porta-filter at a pressure of 9 bars. In the space of 22 seconds, the essence of the coffee grinds flows into the cup.
Roasting your beans
As an agricultural product, coffee beans contain over 450 volatile compounds. In their raw state, they can be kept for upto two years in ideal conditions. However, once roasted, the volatile compounds come to the surface of the bean and are extremely liable to become lost. That’s where micro-roasters like Finca come in: they roast beans for you the day you want to use them and the beans carry a shelf-life of a week for optimum freshness. Because their roasting facility is specifically set up for handling small amounts, they can roast different components of an espresso blend individually. “Most espresso blends are composed of three lots: specialty – the expensive beans that give the blend its top notes; a filler – for which beans like Brazilian coffee is ideally suited, not having a marked characteristic and a base.” The partners claim that no espresso blend can have fewer than three types of beans but the truly great blends have as many as fourteen types.