10 Things You Should Know About Coffee You Love

1. Coffee "beans" are actually the seeds or pits of the coffee cherry, not beans. Prior to being roasted, they're yellowish-green, hard, and half their roasted size. In the roasting process, moisture inside the seeds causes them to almost double in size, and the sugars inside the seeds are pulled out from within, caramelizing on the surface. This caramelization gives them that nice golden brown color most folks are used to.

2. Coffee is primarily grown between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn in three primary growing regions. Those regions are Central and Latin America, Africa, and Indonesia/Pacific Rim.

3. The method used for processing coffees greatly determines what the coffee will taste like once it's brewed. Coffees that are wet processed are loaded into long concrete troughs of water. After around 36 hours, the mucilage that surrounds the seeds and any remaining skin is fermented off, leaving the seeds on the bottom. There's also machine-assisted wet processing, which scrubs the beans clean of the mucilage and remaining skin. Wet processing of coffees lends to a more mild and mellow flavor, as some of the coffee's flavors are washed away. These coffees will generally have heavier bodies and be sweet and smooth. Lots of Central and Latin American coffee is processed this way.

The second major processing method, the natural or unwashed method, is where the coffee cherries are loaded onto raised screen beds and dried out in the sun. After about four weeks, the coffee cherries' fruit dries onto the seeds inside. After hulling, the beans are then graded, sorted, and bagged up. These coffeeswill generally have more intense flavors because of the drying process and the amazing sugars from inside the cherry. The coffees will also be much brighter, cleaner, fruitier, and perhaps more acidic. Lots of African coffees are processed this way.

4. After the coffee seeds are pulped away from the skin, the skin has several uses. First, the coffee cherry skins are used for fertilizing naturally and organically around the farm. Many farms grow organically because it's less expensive, so they compost the skins with manure and other things from around the farm to create an organic fertilizer. The second use is for cascara, which is where the skins are dried and brewed as a tea. The smell of the dried cherries most closely compares to sweet pipe tobacco, and the tea has a nice, sweet, clean taste that is very high in caffeine. A third use, which is being experimented with in countries like Uganda and the Netherlands, is for creating energy. The husks are burned to create energy, and a study from the Netherlands showed a CO2 reduction of 90% at a Dutch power station.

5. Coffee is a natural product and should be treated as such. As soon as it's roasted, it starts breaking itself down and going stale, because it's been exposed to oxygen. The three things that cause coffee to go stale even faster are oxygen, sunlight, and moisture. Keeping your coffee away from these won't stop the coffee from going stale but will slow the process. Coffee tastes best when consumed within a few weeks of being roasted. Coffee that you buy should have a roast date on the bag— If it doesn't, chances are there's a reason they don't want you to know.

6. Coffee capsules, like the ones for the Keurig and Flavia machines, are filled with already stale coffee. Why? Well, coffee releases carbon dioxide and oxygen for several days after being roasted, which is why most coffee you buy will come in bags that feature one-way valves. That valve allows for those gasses to be released without letting oxygen in. The capsules are sealed solid with seals with no valves. How do they do this? Magic? I'm afraid not. Coffee is ground and left out to rest, settle and degas naturally— basically, it's made stale— then loaded and sealed into the cartridges. So the coffee inside is already stale and will contain considerably less flavor than fresh roasted and ground coffees will.

7. Coffee should always be sweet. There's nothing in coffee that should make it bitter. The seeds are loaded with sugar, and roasting pulls those sugars out. If your coffee is bitter, it's either stale or it was roasted improperly.

8. Espresso is not a flavor, a roast, or a coffee blend. Espresso is a brewing method that results in a small portion of coffee brewed quickly. You can use any beans to make espresso— I've found some of my favorite espresso shots use single-origin African beans.

9. There are two main species of coffee grown around the world. The first,robusta, is grown at lower altitudes, is machine harvested, has a greater yield, and is more resistant to most coffee diseases, but it's most often bitter in taste. The second, arabica, is grown at higher altitudes, is mostly picked by hand, grows much sweeter cherries, and yields less, but produces much better tasting coffee than robusta.

10. The only U.S. state growing large amounts of commercially available arabica coffee is Hawaii. It's grown in the Kona districts of the Big Island. There's also a farm outside Santa Barbara, California, that has been growing small amounts of arabica coffee with great results and hopes to eventually start producing it.

Patrick Walsh
Patrick Walsh