December 16, 2012 at 8:53 am #837
Hi all, and welcome back..!
In my previous installment of the ‘COFFEE 101′ series I mentioned that while roasting is a large part of the style of your coffee, it’s just as important to note where the beans come from because the weather and soil conditions are a very large contributor to how the coffee will taste, too. All the world’s coffee is contained in a band about 20 degrees either side of the Equator but not every region will produce the same taste. A large percentage of the coffee that you find on your store’s shelf comes from South America and some from Africa. The coffee that’s produced there is not roasted as dark and tends to be ‘familiar’ to everyone since – as I mentioned in the opening installment of this series – the manufacturer roasts the coffee to their specifications and everyone is drinking nearly the same thing. Some know no better coffee because all they’ve ever drank is what that manufacturer provides. It’s only when YOU branch out and try other, fresher, coffees that you’ll begin to notice the depth you can get in a single cup – and, again, that ‘depth’ is based on where the beans come from. My objective in this installment is to give you a notion, by region, what to expect from the beans. There is no hard and fast rule that the taste will always be the same from that region – - again, soil and weather conditions play a large role in how that complex taste is defined year to year – - and like anything, each year yields different results.
There are four distinct regions where coffee is produced: The Americas (South and Central along with Mexico), Africa and Arabia, Asia, and the Islands (Hawaii, Jamaica, etc). I’ll do my best to describe the characteristics of the beans using Sweet Maria’s methodology of ‘common flavors’ such that you get an idea what to expect. As I mentioned in my previous installment on roasting, if the beans aren’t roasted to City+ or Vienna (darker) then you have a shot of tasting the subtle flavors of the beans from each region. The ‘harder’ the bean is roasted to Vienna, those subtle flavors somewhat go away and you’re left with more of the roast flavor and some ‘tannic’ (or acidic) characteristics that don’t necessarily go away.
And so with that, here we go!
The Americas (South, Central and Mexico): Coffee beans from from South America will taste somewhat familiar to any coffee drinker as more than half of the domestic ‘store bought’ coffee is made from these beans. I purchased Colombian coffee one time and my first impression was: “tastes like domestic American coffee”. – I didn’t think it was that special for being custom roasted coffee. Flavors from this region are often bold like hazelnut, brown sugar, or dark caramel, yet have a subtle acidity to them like grapefruit, grapes, lemon, tangerine or tart apple. It’s a well balanced cup of coffee (not being too bold or too acidic) but still has it’s own character that separates it from other regions. As you travel a little further North into Central America, the flavor of the beans will be less bold and have characteristics of honeywheat or graham cracker to a wheat bread flavor along with red currants, golden raisins, and crisp red apple. You can easily see that the acidity is less in this region than is on the South American mainland. Getting into Mexico, you find that the flavors are more almond and vanilla-like with red plum and cherry acidity. While similar to Central America, the beans of Mexico have more of a nutty flavor than the brown sugar and molasses flavors in South and Central America. While beans from this region can be good (and it depends on your own taste), you won’t find anything ‘new’ about this region because of what you’re accustomed to already (store bought coffee) – - but it’s always worth a try..! In terms of roasting beans from this region I would roast no more than City+ (going into 1st crack and then giving it about 3 – 5 minutes). Flavors are subtle and the roasts to preserve those flavors can’t go beyond City+ without roasting them all away and just making it taste like espresso. Everyone has their own style (as I may have mentioned in other installments, I like darker roast coffee) but beans from the Americas should be roasted lighter for the best overall character.
Africa and Arabia: Coffee beans from this region impart the ‘chocolate bomb’ flavor that is so desirable in custom roasted coffee. Ethiopian coffee beans in lighter roasts will produce almond extract, sweet grains, or caramelized sugars along with berry and peach notes. The darker roasts of this region will produce that ‘chocolate bomb’ that EVERYONE looks for, along with more of a fruit jam flavor. It’s not uncommon to roast coffee beans from Africa and get a bittersweet chocolate flavor for that level of roasting. Most DIY coffee enthusiasts will tell you that the basis for most of their coffee blends are peaberry beans from Kenya along with beans from other regions (I know a fellow coffee roaster that taught me this hobby that uses Kenyan peaberry, Colombian, and Jamaican Blue Mountain in his blend and it’s GREAT roast coffee!). You’ll also note that SOME beans from this region will be ‘familiar’ to you since a lot of the domestic coffee that’s on the store shelf is based on African beans, but aren’t as flavorful as what you can roast yourself and customize. Overall, African beans on their own provide a ‘depth’ to DIY roast coffee that rival the best beans from the Islands (…and that’s coming up soon). Roasting beans from Africa and Arabia tends to be toward the City+ to Vienna end of the scale – and it wouldn’t be out of character to roast these beans to espresso darkness (almost black). Flavors of the beans tend to be ‘caramelized’ or that ‘chocolate bomb’ flavor that you can only get by roasting to darker levels. I’ve found that if an African bean is too lightly roasted that the results are less than desirable (almost ‘tea-like’ citrus and tannic – - NOT very coffee-like). Again, when you’re picking beans from this region you’re shooting for that classic BOLD espresso-roast flavor – don’t hedge on letting them run about 2 minutes (or less) past 2nd crack. You WON’T regret it…!
Asia: This region produces some of the highest caffeinated coffee you’re going to find on Earth..! Possibly the most impressive bean for this quality comes from Sumatra in the Pacific rim countries and adjacent to Thailand. Sumatran coffee is characterized in lighter roasts as malty with thyme herb, fading to chocolate with plum/prune fruit at the finish. Rustic flavors of ‘tree bark’ and cinnamon stick are also noticeable in the lighter roasts. A darker roast (which is more common for Sumatran) produces a dark malt syrup taste along with fruity-chocolate notes in the finish. What’s more is that espresso is made from this region will REALLY pry your eyes open..! The caffeine in this bean is legendary and the best espresso shots made use the Sumatran beans. I recall buying Sumatran for the first time (Starbucks, before I was roasting) and drank two cups of Sumatran coffee while doing other things around the house. WOW!! Did my productivity increase 12-fold..! So bear in mind, this ISN’T your Grandfather’s coffee here…It’s something like coffee on steroids..! Other beans from this region include India, Timor, Bali, and Java and, again, have that ‘tree-bark’, cinnamon stick, and cedary notes, too. Darker roasts have similar characteristics of Sumatran being of heavier, darker syrups in the finish and somewhat reminiscent of apple cider acidity. For Sumatran beans it’s best to roast those to City+ to Vienna – again, your tastes will vary (I would roast these between Vienna to espresso – you know how I like my coffee). Beans from the other parts of the region can be roasted to a full City+ and still have the subtle ‘earthy’ flavors you’re seeking from this variety of bean. When it comes to caffeine – - LOOK FOR ASIAN BEANS..!
The Islands: This final region includes the islands of Hawaii, Jamaica and St. Helena. Coffee beans from these locations are characterized by their rich, dark volcanic soil and produce the ‘high dollar’ and most prestigious coffee beans on the planet. Hawaiian Kona coffee beans are the most highly sought after beans right behind Jamaican Blue Mountain. Coffee brewed from these beans are served in some of the highest class restaurants, hotels, and cruise lines around the world. There are coffee plantations in Jamaica that will not sell to the public – only offering their beans for sale (at $23 to $60 per pound) to high-end establishments and private clients. Hawaiian Kona coffee is characterized by apricot, peach and floral notes in the finish at lighter roasts. Toward City+, the flavors begin to get nutty tasting like macadamia and sweet squash, while even darker roasts toward Vienna produce cocoa and vanilla flavors. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans are harder to come by and you would think would have a similar profile to Kona – but not so..! The few plantations that do sell beans to the public produce a bean that has no real character until it’s roasted to Vienna or espresso – - but when roasted to this level produces a cup of coffee that is very well bodied and balanced. It’s hard to describe (since I have roasted and drank Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee that I bought at $23 for one pound of green beans) – the mouthfeel and ‘depth’ of this coffee is like none other I’ve had. While there are beans in the African region that can rival ‘JBM’, there’s a quality of ‘heaviness’ to the roast that you just don’t get from beans in other regions. Is ‘JBM’ worth the price? I would say that everything is worth trying once – and, to me, JBM is just that. I’ve tried it, but won’t be buying it again until I think I need to compare notes with a different year and batch in the future. Beans from St. Helena are characterized in lighter roasts as being citrusy with a peppery-like finish. Darker roasts tend to impart a ‘cola-nut’ to chocolate notes. Just like their cousins from Hawaii and Jamaica, St. Helena coffee beans AREN’T CHEAP. If I had to buy coffee from the islands again, I would focus more on Hawaiian Kona than anything else. It’s a little less expensive (usually $18 per pound), but has better qualities in the roast than the offerings from Jamaica and St. Helena.
Overall: If there was one coffee that I could suggest that’s inexpensive and easy to roast as a ‘first time’ DIY roaster, it would be Sweet Maria’s ‘Monkey Blend’. It’s cheap ($6.25 a pound currently) and produces an EXCELLENT cup of coffee when roasted up to 2nd crack (and not quite Vienna). I’ve had incredibly good luck with this bean because it reminds me so much of better coffee I’ve had and have marvelous mouthfeel for the money. It may not be from a specific region, but the beans they do use for Monkey Blend do come from at least 2 of the regions described in this installment.
Well, that’s it for this installment of Coffee Roasting 101..! Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas on what you’d like to roast first and experiment on as your journey into coffee roasting begins. In future installments of ‘COFFEE ROASTING 101′ I’ll discuss my own results and share my ‘personal bests’ with you. Until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy a cup of fresh roast coffee..!
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