As I write in the early evening of this burgeoning spring day I do so with a mug of steaming coffee close at hand. The slim ring of bubbles circumnavigating the rim reflects the unforgiving light cast by the small desk lamp. Wisps of steam begin to fade as the coffee cools to meet the cool, nearly uncomfortable temperature of this older home in Southeast Portland. The brown of the desk nearly matches the hue of the coffee I now drink – the blackness of the coffee diluted with a hint of cream. It’s lovely, this cup of coffee that sits beside me, a constant companion, filling my senses with chocolate, citrus and sweetness of plum.
I blame my friend Jon. One harmless afternoon, a year and a half ago, we began talking about coffee, and I just haven’t been the same since. Thank goodness. It’s that conversation about coffee that began my own education – a journey he’s been on for some time now.
Just a few weeks ago I met up with Jon as he was finishing up work for the day at the roaster. Perhaps dish duty might be a more accurate picture of the end of his workday. Shot glasses, coffee mugs, water glasses, ceramic cone filters, and teaspoons filled the bottom of the stainless steel sink. We tag-teamed the cleanup so as to escape to a nearby pub as soon as we could, yet Jon’s workplace isn’t one that a person may really want to leave. Perhaps Jon’s co-worker, a person responsible for roasting the green coffee beans, put it best: ‘I never not want to come to work.’
Jon works for one of the local independent coffee shops. If I were to tell you that we live in Portland, Oregon, and if you were familiar with Portland at all, you might well understand the significance of Jon doing what he does. It’s not easy to get a coffee job such as he has. Coffee is significant in our town and not just any coffee. Artisan coffee. Coffee that is done right with care and craft, from the grower to the mug. In our big corner of the city I can count on two hands the number of large chain coffee outlets. I can’t count the number of local independent cafés serving coffee roasted in the Pacific Northwest. There are too many. We’re a town serious about cafés, roasting, and this thing called coffee.
Portland is a place where coffee is found on nearly every corner. Good coffee. Coffee that has come to be known as artisan coffee, the third wave of coffee, or specialty coffee. It’s coffee that may exhibit traits such as single-origin, or direct trade, or blended varietals of a specific geographic region, or locally roasted, or extracted by a method that many may not have ever heard of. It’s coffee where the supply chain is more familiar to the people who drink the coffee. Prepared with methods where the baristas draw out the subtleties of the roasted bean with knowledge and experience. I love this holistic approach to coffee. And I love that we simply just know this as coffee in our town.
Coffee, Historically Speaking
Here’s the thing, coffee has been loved passionately for many centuries, and likely much longer than that. The naturally occurring effect of the plant, namely caffeine, appears to have been well recognized by the Ethiopian ancestors of today’s Oromo people.
The legend on the discovery of the wonders of coffee finds an Arab boy named Kaldi working the East African trade route. As a goat herder in the country of Ethiopia he found one particular night his goats were disturbed, making noise and apparently agitated through the night – characteristics unbecoming of a goat and disruptive to the shepherd tending them. Kaldi found that his goats had been eating a mysterious cherry, and so he tried some for himself. The tiredness of the night faded. The cherries gave an energy, a stimulation unbeknownst to him previously. Kaldi and his goats had found our beloved coffee bean, hidden in the likes of a cherry.
The popularity, or perhaps drive for the ‘beverage as black as ink’ drew interest along the trade routes and by the mid 16th century the bean had found it’s way throughout the Middle East, Persia, Turkey and northern Africa as not only a drink but an agricultural product. Similarly, just following this expansion, the coffee beans were being introduced in Italy and England, where the first coffee house is believed to have opened in Oxford right around 1650. By 1675 it is estimated that 3,000 coffeehouses populated the country of England. North America was introduced to coffee and the coffee bean around this time, though popularity during the Colonial Period waned and never quite found the footing represented in England, that is until modern day.
Jon and I met back in the early parts of 2010. He, newly arrived from traveling Taiwan and Thailand, back in his home state of Oregon, and I, a recent transplant into the city of Portland from parts unknown. We had the opportunity to share a house for a bit in Southeast, and I like to think this is where my education of coffee began.
Jon spends his hours at work as an educated and trained barista. He’s good at what he does, really good. More importantly, I think, he loves what he does and he inspires others with his passion, further empowering fellow baristas and customers to properly and passionately enjoy the coffee whether by learning a particular extraction method or simply knowing where the coffee came from.
Understand that the depth of our early conversations ran the gamut of the coffee bean’s life. As a knowledgeable barista Jon is well versed in the methods of brewing or extraction (pour over, press, chemex, espresso) and certainly how to best prepare the bean for those methods of extraction (how to grind the bean, what grind size). Yet much of our conversation also rested on where that bean came from. Were the coffee bean farmers given a fair price? Who was involved in that process to get the bean into my cup?
The Bean We Call Coffee
A coffee bean is the seed of the berry from a shrub or small tree of the coffee plant, a woody perennial evergreen dicotyledon. The two main species of coffee plant commercially cultivated are Coffea Canephora and Coffea Arabica, also known as Robusta and Arabica. Three-quarters of the cultivated coffee in the world is Arabica, prized for its flavor based on its greater number of oils and sugars. Robusta, though bitter and less flavorful, makes up for this in it’s improved body and nearly half again as much caffeine. Arabica is the species that is used in artisan or specialty coffee. Robusta is at times blended with Arabica, even within specialty espresso roasts, or used on it’s own, most often in those tins of coffee you might find on the supermarket shelf (i.e., lower grade). However, there are many more genetic subspecies, commonly known as varietals, of coffee plant cultivated commercially and, in fact, primarily provide the base for the different roasts you might find at your corner artisan café (Typica, Bourban, Gesha).
Coffee plants are grown and cultivated using a variety of methods: shade grown and sun grown are terms often used in literature. Shade grown is regarded as the ‘traditional’ method and is done so within the shade of much larger, and often mutually beneficial species of trees. Shade grown produces lower quantities and lengthens the ripening time for the berries, but arguably provides a higher quality coffee. Sun grown, as the name may imply, is row grown and generally a full sun exposing operation producing shorter ripening of the berries and higher yields in shorter time frames. The expense of this sun grown method is the habitat destruction, deforestation, and soil erosion resulting from the changing landscape. Both methods of growing the coffee plant are used throughout the various growing regions of the world.
Of great debate both now and in recent history is the most sustainable growing method for producing coffee – a debate not simply limited to shade grown or sun grown. Sustainability is not just an environmental discussion but must also include those that grow the coffee – the farmers, the supply chain of our coffee drink. The production of coffee has historically seen themes of oppression of those that grow and work the plants. In terms of our Western uses, the coffee plant was introduced to Great Britain, The Netherlands, and the fledgling United States during a time when the Caribbean slave trade was at its peak. Coffee became a staple of the Caribbean plantations, eventually spreading to the Central American countries where the slave trade was also well established.
The oppression continues today as the price for coffee on the commodities markets swings wildly, a price most often controlled by what the large coffee purchasing giants are willing to pay. Arabica coffee, for example, is grown at latitudes of 16 to 24 degrees, with altitudes between 1,800 and 3,600 feet, and latitudes of 10 degrees or below, with altitudes between 3,600 and 6,300 feet. If one were to compare those latitudes to a global map indicating the third-world or developing nations it would appear quite clear that the coffee we drink is grown in nations far below the wealth of where most of that coffee is enjoyed.
While you might argue that the growth provides employment to the people of these nations, I would turn that argument back to you and ask you to consider that coffee is grown, harvested, and processed by subsistence farmers and laborers. The coffee they produce is seeking to be produced with the lowest possible cost for our developed world markets. When we demand cheap coffee with our purchasing power we also demand cheap labor – cheap labor that cannot afford to be paid any less.
And Coffee Found Him
Jon found himself in a dilemma during the college years of life. ‘What to study?’ His leanings were toward a business degree with an international twist, but as only he can so eloquently put it, ‘I didn’t just want to work in business, I wanted a business I could believe in.’
And here we enter into the depth of what Jon is saying. If you were to meet him, you would recognize his welcoming personality and easy approach, yet it may take more than one conversation to grasp the depth within him. He doesn’t do what he does simply because coffee is a beverage he enjoys. In fact, he wasn’t even drinking the stimulating drink until college – he didn’t even like the stuff. It was during this time in college that Jon began working at a campus coffee shop, and as he learned the techniques of producing various coffee drinks from the roasted beans his search for knowledge began.
‘I began doing my own research. Learning about coffee and the process,’ Jon noted, ‘I began to understand the craft, the artistry of preparing a coffee drink, the complex route the bean travels.’
Some two years after beginning work in the campus café, Jon completed a bachelor’s degree in international business. His search for work eventually led him to Northeast Portland’s Pearl District where his application for a managerial position at a café morphed into his being hired for preparing coffee as a barista.
Jon spent 14 months working at the Northeast café, further learning the varying techniques of preparing coffee drinks, understanding the attitudes and approaches of customers who came to him requesting liquid stimulation, and thinking upon how the coffee beans his café prepared came to arrive in this eclectic corner of the Pacific Northwest.
From Ripened Cherry to Roasted Bean
A black mug of coffee. Rich, thick, bold, tasty. Truth be told many of us enjoy a bit of milk or creamer, sugar, and, heaven forbid, flavored syrup. Truly, a mug of coffee on a cool, rainy, dark day (a typical Portland winter day) is heavenly.
The route of a coffee bean, once ripened on the branch of the farmer’s coffee plant, is simple, but not as simple as it may sound here. After 3 years a plant will begin to produce its first cherries, which are good for harvesting around year 5 or so. Those cherries are picked, most commonly by hand, on a per volume or per weight pay scale, or by mechanized picking. Trees are picked in a selective manner. Only the ripe cherries are picked or all the cherries are stripped off the tree, ripe or not. A good picker is capable of handpicking between 100 and 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day, eventually producing only 20 to 40 pounds of green coffee beans for export.
The cherry is then processed as soon as possible to remove only the green coffee bean within, leaving behind the pulp (outer flesh of the fruit), as well as twigs and leaves and the overripe coffee cherries. There are two main processing methods (existing also in a number of sub-variations): the dry method and the wet method. The dry method is the traditional, or natural method. The cherries are placed out in the sun on large, flat surfaces, and are rotated by raking multiple times a day, often for days or weeks until the moisture content of the cherries drops to around 11 percent, the debris being sorted out in the process.
The wet method, requiring plentiful water resources, uses water to sort the debris and cherries and extracts the beans through a pulping machine leaving a silver skin and parchment layers still attached to the bean. The green beans are also sorted in the wet process through flotation methods and left in a fermentation tank to further remove the skin through enzymatic action. The final step to any wet method is to allow the green beans within their parchment layer to dry in the sun until, like the dry method, the moisture content drops to about 11 percent.
Worth noting here is that the processes described above will factor into the flavor characteristics of the coffee. In fact, the type of processing used is likely the single largest contributor to the flavor profile. The local climate and soil of the growing region would be the second major contributor to the flavor profile.
The parchment coffee is put through a hulling machine to remove the parchment layer from the wet processed coffee. Or, in the case of dry process, the hulling removes the entire dry husk of the dried cherries. Following the hulling some beans go through an optional polishing step. The final step, prior to exportation, is to grade and sort the coffee beans based on more precise size and weight evaluations and a removal of color flaws or other imperfections.
The commodity chain of coffee includes producers, middlemen exporters or cooperatives, exporters or traders, importers, roasters, and retailers prior to reaching us, the end consumers. Either the producers, cooperatives, or middlemen exporters may bring the coffee cherries through the processing described above. The chain may not appear so concisely, nor have all pieces – it’s rather complicated to understand how coffee exists as a commodity yet understand that it’s arguably the roaster who operates the most ‘control’ in any given chain.
‘Traditional’ roasters (think coffee tins at the supermarket or your favorite instant coffee) are accustomed to ‘selling large quantities of relatively homogeneous and undifferentiated blends of mediocre to poor quality.’ Due to the fact that they sell large quantities, they require very large supplies of green coffee beans. The economics and commodity chain of this supply becomes involved, to say the least.
Specialty, or artisan roasters, (read ‘not traditional’) make up a small, but increasing percentage of the overall market (20% of the domestic market in 2002, which does not include a well known green mermaid). There is insufficient space to carry on within this text regarding many notable efforts by small roasters to establish fair buying agreements directly with coffee growers or cooperatives. Such efforts at greater transparency and fairer practices with coffee producers serve to bridge the usually unknown gap between end consumer and point of origin.
And so it is the roasting of the coffee that often becomes the defining moment in the life of the bean – as a fine wine is uncorked so a green bean is roasted. Roasting is the transformative process that turns the green bean into the aromatic brown beans we are accustomed to. Additionally, roasting hastens the time in which we as the consumer must prepare the finished drink as the roasted beans begin to lose their flavor characteristics as soon as they are roasted.
At the heart of the roasting process is the heating of the internal bean temperature to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, whence the caffeol, or oil begins to emerge from inside the bean. This process, called pyrolysis, allows the aromatics, acids, and remaining flavor profile to become fully realized as the bean is now prepared for the long anticipated brewing of the coffee. And, not desiring to gloss over the roasting process, I must leave the discussion of roasting for another time, in all likelihood when a simple method of home roasting can be shared for all to enjoy.
Can Coffee Drive Passion?
For Jon I think it fair to say that coffee is not everything. In 2009 Jon left his job in Portland to pursue other endeavors. Namely, he and a couple friends shoved off of the West Coast shores, destination: Southeast Asia. The thought was to travel a bit, exposing themselves to the culture and people of these eastern nations, and hopefully to sign contracts for a year of English teaching in Taiwan. Jon’s stories of this venture are a fun listen in and of themselves – the short story is, in Jon’s words, ‘I decided not to sign.’
Five months after leaving the United States, Jon returned, not out of a place of failure, rather stepping into a place of hope. It’s clear in sitting across the table from him at a local pub that his desires had not strayed as he sat foot again on American soil, rather his travels had strengthened his character, resolve, and pursuit of holistic living. It’s at this point in his life we meet, and the cascade of events begin that land him into his present working situation.
Jon’s return from Southeast Asia, however unplanned, held in it a series of surprises, not least of which was a recent wedding to his beautiful wife. I recall conversations with Jon in early 2010 about what he was hoping to do now that he had returned to Portland. He was looking to gain some further experience in the coffee business as a barista, maybe toying with roasting, or with a hand in the management side of things. But, as will resonate with many, jobs were scarce in our city at the time, notably jobs within the niche cafes of Portland.
Yet it was a bit of networking and a heap of Providence that Jon soon found himself hired on as a barista at a nearby café for his current coffee roasting company. He’s continued learning how to extract beautiful coffee and become more knowledgeable in roasting and other aspects of the coffee bean lifespan.
Jon’s love for coffee isn’t found completely in the full-bodied shot of espresso which he pulls out of the espresso machines countless times a day. It’s Jon’s personality, his desire for knowing the overall process, his ‘love for the international, complex, and consumer’ oriented nature of this coffee business. He’s found a business he believes in. And not only a business but a way of life – for those farmers in so many nations that grow and care for the coffee plants, for the harvesters that pick each berry, bringing them to the place of processing where they are hand-sorted and dried, for the roasters who carefully weigh the temperature to which dried beans will be exposed, and for the baristas at your corner café who prepare roasted beans into potent double-shot tall lattes or the beautifully smooth and undressed mugs of single-cup method.
Grinding is significant. The grind size directly relates to the longevity of brewing – the smaller the grind size the quicker the brewing method must be. Of the two grinders most commonly available the burr grinder is preferred for its uniformity, yet it is expensive for the home user. The common blade grinder, found in my home and many others is the amateur version and disliked for its named ability to simply ‘grind’ the beans by whacking them with metal blades.
Methods of brewing coffee, or of extraction, are vast. An Internet search will display any number of brewing methods or variations on these brewing methods. Only a handful of brewing methods are recommended by those who are in the know. While the other steps of cherry to bean are vital, it is in this last step of brewing where coffee can truly display its complexity – in aromatics, taste, acidity, and body – through means of proper extraction (over-extraction commonly results in bitterness or undesirable characteristics). Commonly used in the artisan coffee world are the French press, chemex, moka pot, vacuum pot, Melitta filter, café solo, siphon pot, pour over, and the ever-loved espresso.
Brewing is the collision of the art and the science. It is a land where knowledge and experience can conquer the all too common mediocre coffee. It is a place where the complexity of the aroma, acidity, and body of a particular coffee can be fully realized and appreciated. It’s here where one can appreciate the more than 1,000 aromatic compounds coffee has to offer (compared to wine’s 700).
One of the first resources at the bottom of this writing will take you to a trusted Internet place to research on your own the methods of brewing. However, I’ve left you with a step-by-step guide in just a few paragraphs that will allow you to brew a simple and great cup of coffee at home.
A barista who is trained, knowledgeable and experienced in what they are preparing and how they are preparing it can likely blow your mind with an amazing cup of coffee (small tip – no flavors added and go light on the sweeteners). It’s likely a cup of coffee that you will not be able to repeat at home – notably so if it’s an espresso based drink.
The Bottom of the Cup
Jon is a motivator. He motivates those he works with by attempting to find how they are motivated. He loves witnessing his fellow baristas ‘being able to see that they can do it right.’ His desire for that perfect pull of espresso, or the aroma of a fresh, properly prepared pour-over communicates to his co-workers, in his words, ‘knowing that I know what I’m talking about.’ His passion is contagious, and I believe that is why he is effective in doing what he does.
At the end of the day Jon notes this final word: ‘I’m excited to share with people – to make a cup of coffee that will blow them away and to explain to them how complex and how many hands are involved in executing that coffee in a way that results in the delicious cup.’
Coffee is often labeled a commodity – a product that is treated as an equivalent regardless of how it differs from supplier to supplier. Yet when a coffee bean is enjoyed, its taste and aroma taken in, geography of growth and farmer appreciated, and route to your cup understood, an epiphany awaits.
You’re enjoying a beverage similar to how many enjoy wine, or micro-beers – yet you may be doing so without giving credit where it’s due. Enjoy coffee responsibly by learning that a good cup of coffee is not a cheap cup of coffee – the farmer who grew that bean for you depends on it. Travel down to your local roaster or artisan café. Begin asking where the coffee comes from, how it travels from the producer, where the baristas receive their training. Get to know that mug of coffee before you get to the bottom of the cup.
Demand good coffee. Demand fair practices with the coffee farmers. Demand transparency.
Vote with your dollar.
A Good Cup
As a final, parting word, the following will describe the steps for a good, simple pour over (also known as single cup or Melitta) style cup of coffee. This method does take a couple attempts to master.
- Obtain a ceramic (or plastic) ‘Melitta’ style cone coffee filter with paper filters. Purchase fresh roasted coffee beans and grind these beans to a medium course consistency (the roaster may be able to do this for you).
Place the cone with paper filter inserted onto the top of the waste cup or mug. Pour hot water into the paper filter to wash the paper filter and to preheat the cone (if ceramic).
Move the cone to the top of your drinking mug. Add three heaping tablespoons of fresh ground coffee for 8 oz. of prepared coffee. A total of 12 oz. of water will be used to prepare 8 oz. of coffee in your drinking mug.
After bringing the water to a boil, allow to cool for 45 seconds and make the initial pour. The initial pour is just enough water to saturate the grounds in the cone filter – little to no water should be dripping through the cone on this initial pour. Allow to sit no longer than 15 seconds.
The second pour will be at an even pour rate, saturating the grounds as you move in back and forth or spiraling motion. The top of the bloom should be an even color with few dark or blonde spots appearing.
Once you have 8 oz., or have filled your drinking mug, quickly move the cone filter to the waste mug.