Following on from my last blog Beauty in Travel, we’ve now been on our travels for a couple of months, and loving it 🙂 The first leg was in Panama, where we experienced (among other things) a masterclass in coffee farming and tasting at a plantation. We were struck by how much rigour and analysis goes into each single cup of coffee – so I thought I’d look into what sort of pretty data is out there…
Our guide was a professional coffee taster who has undertaken years of training to develop his palette, meaning not only can he taste the various flavours to identify the species but also whether a particular production stage has been done well or not. He participates in competition judging for the relative merits of different farmers each year – a great way to travel all over the world for him!
In order to be able to taste flavours beyond the usual bitterness of a coffee, our guide drinks several cups of plain coffee first (then goes for a long run at the end of each day to sweat off all that caffeine!). The Geisha variety of coffee is the easiest to detect flavour in, since it is one of the least bitter coffees, and to us it barely tasted of coffee at all even. This really allowed other flavours to come through, in this case blueberries, flowers and citrus – although the flavours each individual can pick out are the result of our different backgrounds (so if we hadn’t experienced blueberries much whilst growing up, we’re less likely to be able to pick that up in a coffee).
Flavour is actually divided into a sequence of: fragrance (smell of the grounds), then aroma (smell of the liquid), before finally tasting (a spoonful on the tongue, after removing the froth, the most bitter part). A particular coffee can be quite different between these different aspects. Did you know that the strength of a coffee in terms of smell & flavour is inverse to its strength in terms of caffeine content – so espresso might taste stronger, but it’s a relatively poor caffeine hit!
Taste is similar to colour in that we have the 4 ‘primary’ tastes (sweet, salty, bitter & sour) and these combine to give a full continuum, and similarly for aromas, as per this coffee wheel:
Geisha coffee was has won countless awards and praise from the industry. The coffee industry has informally agreed that certain tastes and flavours are ‘better’ than others, where the measure of superiority denotes those that have a more rare flavour, in terms of a fruit, tea or a floral flavour. This doesn’t necessarily mean people will like it more (which will vary by individual anyway), but just that, as occurs in many markets, scarcity drives up price.
The species of coffee hugely affects the flavour of course, but also the production process, the grower’s quality standards and the land/climate also affect the flavour and therefore price, and has served to make Panama’s plantation of Geisha coffee very expensive.
Coffee production process
There is also an array of production deficiencies that can be identified in the taste by the experts, or at least if you have a much more advanced palate than mine! These are all the tastes of when it’s gone wrong:
This photo shows the coffee bean in various stages in growth from bean to seedling to flower to new beans:
Then comes harvest, and since coffee is often grown in mountainous areas (except in Brazil), mechanical harvesting is often not possible and the ripe coffee cherries are usually picked by hand. Coffee trees yield an average of 2 to 4 kilos of cherries and a good picker can harvest 45 to 90 kilos of coffee cherry per day; this will produce nine to 18 kilos of coffee beans.
The economic model for paying coffee pickers has been well thought through: in times of heavy harvest they are ‘strip picked’ and workers are paid by the kilo, but during the rest of the year picking must be done more delicately (since breaking off the bean too harshly will discourage other beans from ripening over the next few months), so during this time owners encourage care from their workers by paying per day instead of by volume. Selective picking is primarily used for the finer Arabica beans, since it’s more intensive.
The two layers of the outer skin are removed and the sugary sap washed off (otherwise these can cause a bitter or vinegary taste) before laying them out in the sun or an artificial drier (each will create a difference in taste) to fully dry them. The beans are then roasted until two ‘pop’ noises are heard, rather like popcorn – the bean has then expanded slightly, and should then be cooled rapidly to prevent further roasting.
Coffee bean grinding can then take place, but ideally only after transportation to the consumer, or at least consumer country. There are then of course various ways to serve the coffee (filter, espresso, siphon etc) but our expert just added hot water to the grounds 😉 Try here for more info.
Coffee family tree
The coffee tree is a tropical evergreen shrub that grows between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The two most commercially important species grown are Arabica (making up 70% of the world’s production) and Robusta, but each of these have many varietals, over 100 in total. Varietals are generally known by the region in which they are grown, such as Colombia or Java: Arabica is mainly cultivated in Latin America, eastern Africa or Asia, and Robusta in central Africa, southeast Asia, and Brazil.
Geisha (from the plantation in Boquete, Panama) is just such a varietal, a naturally mutated species in the wider Arabica family of coffee. Geisha is distinctive for its organised leaf growth patterns (usually cherries/beans grow randomly all over the plant, but Geisha cherries are renowned for being much more regular / organised, growing in clusters around the base of the leaves, in intervals along each branch) and unusual and complex non-bitter taste, as above. The original spelling was Gesha (a mountain in Ethiopia, the country where all coffee originally came from), but a spelling mistake of ‘Geisha’ later stuck due to its exotic connotations.
The type of coffee an owner will choose to grow depends on their local climate, as well as economic risk appetite that will determine how rare vs prolific a varietal to select:
- Maturing time: Arabica cherries are rounded and mature in 7 to 9 months; Robusta fruits are oval and smaller and take up to 11 months to mature
- Temperature: ideal average temperatures range between 15 to 24ºC for Arabica coffee and 24 to 30ºC for Robusta, which can flourish in hotter, harsher conditions.
- Rainfall: coffee needs an annual rainfall of 1500 to 3000 mm, with Arabica needing less than other species.
- Altitude: Whereas Robusta coffee can be grown between sea-level and about 800 metres, Arabica does best at higher altitudes and is often grown in hilly areas.
Coffee flows – consumption vs production
As you might expect, over 90% of coffee production takes place in developing countries (mostly South America – a third of all the world’s coffee is produced in Brazil alone), while consumption happens mainly in developed economies. This is not necessarily an exploitative trend though – in some areas coffee has been responsible for turning around the economy of developing countries, especially if the varietals grown are rare, as in Panama: http://members.coopcoffees.com/resources/coffee/coffee
Over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world every day. More than 150m American adults drink coffee on a daily basis.
For more info, the US industry body scaa.org has plenty of data reports on the ‘coffee economy’, including “Coffee Market Retail Value Report”, “Roaster Financial Ratio Report”, “Economics of the Coffee Supply Chain”, and “National Coffee Drinking Trends” – I never knew there was quite so much to a cup of coffee!