Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Altitude is key for good coffee

Coffee marketers are clever, they use the altitude claim over and over, but without really committing to a range. And that is actually the most important issue in coffee quality.

That is why, the next time you see a bag or an ad promoting HIGHLAND coffee or MOUNTAIN GROWN coffee, please ask how tall the mountain was. Why? Because it makes all the difference in the world. Coffee quality is classified according to altitude ranges, being the highest and best the SHB, or Strictly Hard Bean.

SHB is coffee that grows between 4,900 and 6,000 feet. Above that, coffee quality and productivity starts to dwindle and below that you get an array of lower quality beans without a well defined personality that are mostly good for fillers, specially in the 2,400 feet altitude range.

So why is coffee better in the SHB range? Because at that altitude, the temperature at night goes very low, around 45 F to 50 F, and that slows down the metabolism of the tree which then produces a smaller, denser bean that concentrates aroma and flavor. The size of the true SHB beans is much smaller than the regular coffee beans and can be recognized because they have a corrugated surface.

In the SHB range, the growth process is slower than normal and the plant goes well into the dry season (summer) maturing the bean. This also contributes to the smaller size because the plant and the bean dehydrate. Our farm, in the Dota county of the Tarrazu region, is a late harvest area if you compare it with the rest of the country. Most areas in the Central Valley of Costa Rica are done with their coffee harvest by the time we start in late December.

If you are serious about coffee, please make sure you demand Strictly Hard Beans (SHB). Now, if the coffee you buy is a blend, the SHB beans will not be pure but used only in a small percentage to flavor the blend and most of the beans will be lower altitude ranges. Long gone are the days when blending was done to search for the ultimate cup of coffee.

Nowadays, blending is the norm and done to stretch out the good beans with lower cost fillers. The rule is that the more commercial the coffee, the lower the quantity of good beans in it. Unfortunately, coffee is like a drug where every hand that touches it on the way to the market cuts it down. Just to give you an idea, you can find blends where the percentage of Single Origin SBH coffee is 3% to 5% and the rest is fillers. The worst problem is that the coffee at this quality abounds in the market and the finer coffees are the exception. but there is always hope, and you just have to be careful of what you buy and always demand the best.

Enjoy your cup!

Coffee blends are bad

What is so bad about coffee blending?

Well, first of all, I want to make clear that, plain and simple, blending is done to make a bag of coffee more profitable. Fortunately for marketers, and unfortunately for you, excellent quality beans can positively impact the flavor of a blend in a very low percentage, sometimes as low as 10% to 20%, and turn it into the $8 to $10 bag of coffee that you have in your kitchen.

Now, what are the consequences of commercial coffee blends?

First of all, you get a higher caffeine content. Low cost fillers are produced in low altitude plantations, picked under less strict standards than gourmet coffee and most likely come from the Robusta tree.

All of these conditions brew a higher caffeine content in your cup. A ripe coffee bean that has reached its perfect stage of maturity has 50% less caffeine than 4 weeks earlier when it was green; highly commercial coffee operations do not make an effort to pick only the ripe coffee beans and also harvest beans that are still green, therefore bringing in more caffeine to your cup.

The Robusta tree, purposely used to produce low cost fillers, has a higher caffeine content than the Arabica beans and it is heavily used in blends, with some low end brands exclusively using 100% Robusta beans. The Robusta beans, four and five times cheaper than the gourmet Arabica beans, are mainly the product of Brazil, Vietnam and Honduras, and prohibited by law in Costa Rica.

How about taste?

The effect of blending in the taste of your cup ranges from a feeling of watered down elements of aroma and flavor to a harsh, bitter aftertaste.

If the fillers used are decent, they will take up space in the bag and will not bring in any specific characteristics to the cup, they will immediately dilute the excellent taste of the good beans at one fourth the price; if they are used in a great percentage, they will simply neutralize the elements of aroma and flavor of the good beans and produce an unattractive run of the mill cup of coffee. Either way you are in the losing end of a proposition that has been created to allow the brand name to cash in big time.

Now, if the fillers are very low quality beans, the fine aroma of the original beans is overtaken by the imperfections of the low end fillers. That is when your brand name coffee needs to be sprayed with chemically produced coffee aroma in order to be appealing. Also, coffee this bad will generate a harsh feeling in your throat and will leave a lingering bad aftertaste that ranges between bitter and metallic. Generally, makers of this coffee will resort to a very dark roast in order to create the perception of "richness" in the cup while narrowing the range of aroma & flavor and hiding the low quality.

All in all, a blend simply destroys the distinctive characteristics of a Single Origin coffee and spoils what should be a very rewarding coffee experience. If you want to further explore this subject, search the web for an article by the Wall Street Journal called "Why does coffee taste so bad in the USA". It is as shocking as informative.

So, what can be done to avoid the pitfalls of coffee blending? A couple of things come to mind. The simplest is to avoid buying ground coffee. Grinding coffee is the best way to hide the telling characteristics of a low quality blend.

A harder approach is to enact changes in the law, like forcing brands to list the types of beans used in the blend and in what percentages. That would empower you by allowing you to better decide on the coffee you buy. Now, how do we achieve a change like this? I sincerely do not know. Should you write your congressman about it? Well, he has more important things on his desk right now but for sure something must be done.

Meanwhile, put your money in the Single Origin coffees and enjoy your cup.

Coffee is great fertilizer

Coffee is a great fertilizer and its low PH will intensify the color of your flowers.

So, stop complaining about the number of Starbucks stores on your way to work and ask them for the leftover grounds. They will gladly give them to you and your flowers will look better than ever.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

How to store coffee

Coffee has two enemies: humidity and oxygen. Keeping it away from those two is the best way to preserve its characteristics.

Humidity: coffee is higroscopic. This means that it absorbs moisture very fast. If you want to verify this, simply put a bit of ground coffee in a plate on your counter. In a couple of hours it will look "bigger" because the moisture that it is absorbing will increase the volume of the grinds.

Oxygen: the minute we roast coffee it starts to oxydize and lose the good properties of aroma and flavor. To preserve them, you must minimize coffee's contact with oxygen in order to slow down that reaction. that is why good coffee is always packaged in a foil bag with a fresh valve, the whole that allows gas to go out and no oxygen in.

So,the key to keep coffee in good shape and tasting great is to make sure it is in a tightly sealed container, in a dry place. This is specially important if your coffee is already ground.

Why am I writing about coffee?

Because you need to know more about it. You need to know where it came from, what is being added to it and how to identify the additives.

It is pretty sad but most people don't know much about coffee, while 440 billion cups are drank around the world every year...and that is with most of the Chinese still drinking tea.

So, in my book, an informed, educated person who dares question the coffee establishment is a "snob", so snob is a good title.

Do you want to be one? Hey, keep on reading then.

Be aware that you are going to be fighting very powerful forces. Companies can't help aim for the quick buck. Just imagine how much money a company makes when the low cost fillers are valued at 1/4 of the price of the good stuff? And you could get 90% to 95% fillers in a blend!

Or when a famous coffee brand outsources the production and distribution of the coffee bound for supermarket shelves, but doesn't tell you that it is not the same stuff you have learned to like in their coffee shops.

Good coffee beans are so powerful in their aroma and flavor, and so distinctive in their characteristics that a simple 10% will impact positively any blend.

Long gone are the days when blending was done to search for the ultimate cup of coffee. These days, blend is synonymous with screwed.

Stretching good beans with low cost fillers is a huge business and every company does it; to what degree and with what interest in mind is the big question. And, please, don't get me started with the guys that use 100% of low grade filler beans and put them in a can.

But let's give the bad guys the benefit of the doubt. Let's say they have not realized that you are now learning to appreciate better coffee. That you will soon want to know what fillers have been added to your coffee, where do they come from and in what percentage.

Wouldn't that be fun? The rules would definitely change and that will mean better coffee for you.

So, start questioning:
1. If you see a label that says highland coffee or mountain grown, please call somebody and ask HOW TALL THE MOUNTAIN WAS? This question makes all the difference in the world since the higher the altitude the better the quality of the coffee, and you are expected to pay good money for it.

2. If you see the name of a region in the bag, call the company and ask them what guarantees you have that it is 100% pure and single origin guaranteed. Follow up with a question about percentages of the main ingredient versus the fillers and you will hear a deep silence on the other side of the line.

My rules of thumb:

• Coffee should taste cold as good as it tastes when it is hot.

• In coffee, if the label does not say it, then it is not there. As simple as that.

• The fancier the name, the lower the quality of the coffee; and that includes the evocative names for the roasts, you know, European themes like French, Vienna, etc...or the enticing names for the blends, like "thanksgiving", "Xmas", "breakfas", etc.

There is no industry like coffee to cheat, mislead, omit, forget. Please be aware of that and enjoy your cup.