WITH JAMAICAN, BRAZILIAN, KENYAN AND ETHIOPIAN ON OFFER, WHY IS JAVA’S KOPI LUWAK EVERYONE’S CUP OF TEA?
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 history of the coffee bean is dotted with tales. For aeons now, the coffee bean has been growing in scores of countries—ever since an Ethiopian shepherd called Kaldi noticed that his goats grew friskier when they nibbled on the rosy berries growing on a particular bush. He copped a few himself and was soon frolicking with his flock. The legend goes that witnessing Kaldi’s gutsy gambol, an alert monk plucked some berries for his holy brothers at the local monastery. Late night prayers proved no problem that day, and hallelujah, the coffee bush was discovered. Romance or real, readers can take their pick, but the fact is coffee has been trad-ed in the port of Yemen for aeons, though it almost certainly originated in Ethiopia.
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; the largest glugger the US (just think of all the characters who rush about with caffe lattes in hand in America’s top films and TV shows, and you’ll understand why). 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 a strong requsite, because no machine-however sophisticated-can compensate for skilled hands. Which brings us to reggae land. The best producer in the world is 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 Indian 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.” But alarmingly, the 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 in all innocence, that the beans are from there,” the Finca men explain.
The partners say the current astronomical prices fuelled by the Japanese market-Japan buys 90 per cent of the Jamaican Blue Mountain crop-have had unfortunate fall-outs like inferior crops, over-production and careless processing. Coffee, after all, is just like any other crop, subject to the vagaries of the weather. In fact, according to Finca, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is as much a function of its soil as the bush it grows on, because when cuttings are taken and planted in other parts of the world, none of the superior characteristics of the original bean is observed.
Coffee beans are typically categorised into two main species: arabica and robusta. Arabica accounts for most of the world’s production, while coffea canephora, or robusta, accounts for just about 20 per cent. Enough has been spouted by Starbucks about the superiority of one over the other, and robusta stronger, less subtle in flavour and a hardier plant-has been treated like the step-child of the coffee industry for a long time. But then, arabicas are more delicate in flavour, need more care while growing, have a notably lower caffeine content and most countries have far better arabicas than robustas. The best example here is provided by 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 the wild areas of Java. It feasts on coffee beans while they’re still on the bush and covered by pulp. The weasel chews the pulp, swallows the seed and expels it in its droppings. Villagers collect these droppings and sell them to agents who process them. As disgusting as that may sound, the processed bean is then sold at exceptionally high prices because of the chemical changes undergone by the coffee seed in the weasel’s digestive tract. I have never tasted kopi luwak, but know that because of the extreme discrepancy be-tween supply and demand, its price is very high.
During a trip to Bali, I spent a great deal of time trying to find out more 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 is-land, nobody could tell me where I could buy Balinese coffee beans from. Conversely, every time I would taste a particularly fine, well-round-ed coffee at a coffee house in town, nobody seemed to know where the bean came from!
As Kaldi knew, 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 but with poor coffee bean processing infrastructure. Sidamo and Yergacheffe are two 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. But 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. Does that make them good? Go brew and find out.
BE A BEAN COUNTER
As an agricultural product, coffee beans contain over 450 volatile compounds. In their raw state, they can be stored for up to two years in ideal conditions. However, once roasted, the volatile compounds come to the surface of the bean and are liable to be lost. That’s where micro-roasters like Finca come in: they roast the 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, the players 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 that of Brazilian coffee are ideally suited, not having a marked characteristic), and a base. The Finca partners claim that no espresso blend can have fewer than three types of beans but the truly great blends have as many as 14 ingredients.
MAKING YOUR CUPPA
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 specialised blends for espresso coffee, but the name refers to the machine rather than the blend. Italy is the world leader insofar as espresso machines go: Gaggia is commonly considered to be the finest espresso machine, but there’s a hierarchy within Italian espresso machines as well. La Cimballi, Saeco and Pavoni et al offer several models.
Any machine which has a porta-filter is considered better than a super-automatic machine. Coffee bars and most 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 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.