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The Artistry of Coffee

by Paul Etcheverry
The perfect cup of coffee is among the few Holy Grails that fallible humans can realistically attain. A fine brew delights the taste buds while clearing the sinuses. The delicate balance and collaborative expertise involved in creating a quality coffee, however, may shock even the seasoned aficionado.

The ubiquitous drink endured considerable trial and error before finding its modern form. A millennium (and countless tons of spent grounds) before the chic coffee house, Ethiopian tribesmen made a nasty type of bonbon from coffee beans and animal fat.

Even after the idea of using coffee beans as a basis for a hot beverage caught on, the popular recipes proved something less than savory. In eighteenth century Europe and America, coffee was boiled for anywhere from twenty minutes to an entire day. One tablespoon of ground coffee was used for each pint of water. To make matters worse, fish skins or egg whites (with shells) were added to the pot as a means of filtration.

Coffee flavor didn't necessarily improve from there-even in the almost enlightened twentieth century. Progress-happy Americans embraced the pumping percolator, a wonderous device which provided a great show while boiling the unsuspecting brew beyond culinary reason. No wonder it has been customary to serve coffee with a shot of booze.

Coffee boasts a surprisingly spicy past, having spread across the globe largely as a result of ingenious chicanery. All Coffea Arabica trees, with the exceptions of those in Yemen and Africa, are distant descendants of a stolen plant. In 1723, a French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, had a notion of growing coffee in French colonies throughout the West Indies. To achieve this end, he led an armed gang into Paris' royal court garden. Once their masks were situated in appropriately threatening positions, the thieves absconded with the Jardin des Plantes' prize possession, a thriving coffee tree. De Clieu promptly smuggled the purloined plant-and himself-onto a ship headed for Martinique. The two endured countless catastrophes: pirates, storms, severe shortages of water and food. Fortunately for latter-day gourmets, both survived the ordeal. De Clieu lived to see enormous coffee industries develop in Martinique (which would boast 18 million coffee trees by 1775), Santo Domingo and Guadeloupe. The young Frenchman's adventure would ultimately spawn modern coffee industries throughout Central America and East Asia.

Such intrigue was not limited to the French West Indies. India's Mysore coffee arose from the successful smuggling of Arabian coffee seeds by Moslem pilgrims in 1600. Dutch spies stole a live coffee tree from Arabia. By the late seventeenth century, Dutch colonies in Ceylon and Java had established lucrative coffee plantations.

The catalysts for Brazil's coffee empire were a heated inter-colony dispute-and an equally fiery romantic tryst. In 1726, two developing coffee producers, French and Dutch Guiana, had reached a stalemate in a disagreement over boundaries. Brazil was asked to send an arbitrator. The chosen emissary was army officer Francisco de Melo Palheta, noted for his exploits in international business, the battlefield and the boudoir (not in that order). Typically, Palheta managed to spice up an otherwise mundane assignment, in this case by seducing the fetching wife of French Guiana's governor. After the dispute was resolved, the lady bestowed Palheta with a bouquet: a novel thank-you gift, since it included cleverly concealed cuttings from young coffee plants. This bold act-the penalty for exporting coffee cuttings in the French and Dutch colonies was death-enabled Palheta to establish the coffee industry in Brazil.

The popularization of coffee started when fifteenth century Arab traders wheeled and dealed their way through Ethiopia, returning to their homeland with the fertile seeds of Coffea Arabica trees. When the venerable mufti of Aden, Sheik Gemaleddin Abou Muhammad Bensaid, endorsed coffee as a suitable alternative to alcoholic beverages (which were forbidden by the Koran) in 1454, the hot drink quickly found itself in popular demand throughout the Moslem countries. Arabian countries guarded their secrets of coffee brewing and growing for over 150 years; it was forbidden to take coffee plants, seedlings or cuttings out of the countries, and only a select few individuals were allowed to visit the coffee plantations. Until 1690, all coffees in the world hailed from Arabia.

The hot black brew was often on hand when history was made. In Arabia, Europe and the United States, coffee houses provided popular meeting places as well as breeding grounds for new ideas. Within the range of this lively institution-catering to every conceivable profession and political persuasion-Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette enjoyed the finest in upper-crust debauchery, Voltaire refined his literary ideas, Marat and Robespierre preached revolution. Alexander Hamilton founded the Bank of New York. The Merchants' Coffee House in New York served as government headquarters during the early days of the Revolutionary War. The Declaration of Independence received its first public reading at Boston's "Bunch of Grapes" cafe. Another New England coffee house, "The Green Dragoin" was termed the "headquarters of the American Revolution" by Daniel Webster. Regular patrons of the famous Paris and London cafes included a mind-boggling array of notables: Hogarth, Defoe, Pope, Zola, Hugo, Rousseau, Turgenev, Talleyrand, Manet, Rossinin and Diderot, to name a few.

Coffee species number well into the hundreds, but only three are used for the potent ebony beverage. Coffea Arabica is most coveted. First discovered in Ethiopia, Arabica trees provide the basis for the classic coffees of Indonesia, the West Indies, Latin America, the United States (Kona), Arabia, and Equatorial Africa. It's also the most fragile Coffea strain, much more susceptible to disease than Coffea Robusta or Coffea Liberica. Robusta proves a great deal hardier and higher yielding than Arabica, capable of flourishing in a much wider range of climates, soils and altitudes. "Robusta," however, does not describe this species' body, aroma and flavor-which is bland, neutral and superficial by comparison to Arabica. Liberian growers recently developed the Liberica strain; at present, it rates somewhere between the best of Robusta and the worst of Arabica. Robusta and Liberica are primarily used for instant coffees, or as fillers in commercial blends.

Coffee "beans" are actually the hulled and dried pits from berries of coffee tree blossoms. Each cherry contains two beans (a notable exception being coffee trees that produce peaberries-cherries that hold one bean). Three approaches can be utilized to remove a bean's outer skin and pulp, inner "silver skin" and parchment. A few countries-Ethiopia, Yemen, Brazil (specifically, the city of Rio)-practice the most primitive hulling technique of all: allowing the coffee cherries to sun-dry on the trees. The unwashed technique has been used for over five hundred years. In the unwashed method, all cherries are picked from the trees, regardless of their degree of ripeness. Beans are spread on thin layers on patios and turned regularly as they sun-dry. After three weeks, the dried-out husks are stripped off in milling machines. In the washed method, the outer husks are cut away by rotary pulpers; then the beans are soaked in water until the inner pulp, silver skin and parchment prove soft enough to be easily removed by hulling machines. As the more costly washed approach uses only ripe coffee cherries, it is the preferred technique by far.

Unroasted beans, surprisingly enough, are utterly devoid of the dynamic sensations we associate with coffee. Only a lovingly controlled roasting will develop the magic oils which transform undistinguished green seeds into zesty, aromatic coffee beans.

Roasting coffee beans make a popping noise as they expand, unleash distinctive aromas, and shift colors from green to resonant brown; at the moment when the scents, colors and oils reach the proper development (for the individual style of roast), the heating must be stopped. Oils start evolving when the beans' internal temperature reaches 400 F. If the roasting is not hot enough, oils do not develop, and the beans retain a "green" quality to their flavor: dull, with a flour or paste-like "baked" taste. If heating exceeds 500 F, essential oils are burned away, destroying subtleties of flavor and leaving charred unpalatable results. During roasting, the beans receive constant movement-in many commercial roasters, they are rotated inside a drum-to insure an even, thorough heating. A roaster strives for uniform heating, to achieve the precise temperature and shortest roasting time necessary to meet a given coffee roast's individual requirements.

Cup of coffee and beans

The Roasts
Coffee roasts embrace an impressive diversity of flavors and textures. The lightest roast, known as Cinnamon, New England or Light, is notable for a highly individual sourness of palate. A Light Roast's beans are very pale brown, have a dry surface, and show no traces of oiliness. The medium brown roasts remain most popular in the United States, still the style used for commercial ground coffee brands. Names for these include American, Regular, Medium, Medium High and Brown. Not as tart as the light roasts, these coffees are nonetheless similar in their dry appearance and overall acidity; an American roast will taste less grain-like and sweeter than cinnamon roast. Many commercial U.S. blends of Colombian coffees-acidic, with sweetness in the background-exemplify this style. Only slightly darker than the medium-brown roasts is City roast, equally mild while less sour. Medium to dark brown roasts possess a milk chocolate hue, with traces of oil. Spicy and low in acidity, this medium bodied style includes Full City, Viennese and Light French roasts. Viennese roast can also refer to a blend of dark and medium roasts.

In dark roasts, acids, oils and a modest amount of caffeine literally get smoked out of the beans. As some oils are destroyed, others rise to the surface, giving dark roasted coffees a shiny, very oily appearance. Their intense, bittersweet taste sensations differ drastically from those of light and medium roasts, and remain most popular throughout Europe.

Such dark brown coffees as After-Dinner, Italian and Continental roasts offer a hearty, acid-free complexity. They balance a caramelized quality, sometimes on the sweet side, with a pleasant bitterness-not unlike the mixture of dark roasted malts and hops in a dark beer. To confuse matters, Continental roast is sometimes called French roast-while individual merchants may label their extra-dark espresso coffees as French, Italian or European roast. Another dark brown style, Spanish or Cuban roast, blends French and Italian roasts.

Espresso and Heavy roasts describe thick, lusty brews that give profound meaning to the phrase "black coffee." Although carbon flavors dominate even the finest heavy roasts, they should be complemented by a sharp, spicy bittersweetness. The style draws parallels with semi-sweet chocolate or Dublin "bitter stout." Ideally, an espresso's lusty, roasty personality is pungent on the palate, while not necessarily devoid of subtleties.

The trick to choosing a first-rate espresso roast is examining the beans. They should present a dark, brown-to-black color and a shiny, exceedingly oily surface. "Overdone" beans have charred tips, a jet-black hue without brown undertones, and a surface that does not seem that oily. Dark roasts are particularly susceptible to staleness and should be purchased in small quantities; it's advised-as with all coffees-to keep the beans in an air-tight, cool environment.

The aforementioned categories, admittedly, are very general. They only hint at the immense variety within each type of roast. A dark brown roast of Kona beans tastes rich and sweet while impeccably smooth, while a similar roast of Sumatra Mandheling coffee is potent and heavy-bodied, with an almost syrupy consistency. In contrast, dark brown Jamaica Blue Mountain beans (the most expensive in the world) combine complexity with delicate subtlety. Colors and surfaces in a given roast may be identical, but aromas and flavors-if the coffees have been properly prepared-will reflect the coffee's unique personality.

The consumer, to do justice to his palate-not to mention coffee growers, distributors and roasters who have performed their responsibilities with consummate skill-must handle those bewitching beans with care. Overheated, unpalatable water, unsound brewing techniques, and exposure to oxygen and foul food odors can sabotage even the finest brew.

Although coffee does not spoil like meat or dairy products, it is hardly a processed food with a shelf life of several decades. In The Book Of Coffee & Tea, Joel David & Karl Schapirfa observe, "Mere carelessness in storing and protecting the beans will, in a relatively short time, leave you with beans devoid of life." Being particularly vulnerable to oxidation, coffee should be stored in an air-tight container and consumed promptly. From the time it is roasted, ground coffees will last roughly a week to ten days. Since whole beans take almost three weeks to get stale, a grinder proves a most worthwhile investment. Buy coffee in manageable quantities: a half-pound as opposed to bargain-priced three pound cans (unless, of course, your family polishes off three pounds of coffee a week). If you can find out the date the coffee was roasted, all the better.

Believe it or not, routine coffee brewing holds its share of "do's and don'ts." Start with a clean coffee pot and cold, pure water. If the water in your area is naturally hard or chemically softened, use bottled water. The less time brewing takes, the finer the grind should be. For medium strength coffee, use one Approved Coffee Measure (two level tablespoons) for every six ounces of water. This should go without saying, but we've all seen too many instances when revolting coffee was the direct result of straying too far from this standard. Distribute grounds evenly in the filter, but do not pack them down (this causes watery coffee). Use a brewer's full capacity whenever possible; if you brew four cups in an electric coffee pot designed to make 10 cups, mediocre coffee is virtually guaranteed. Water should be heated to 200 F: the temperature when, after boiling, it has spent a minute or two off the heat. Never reheat, perk coffee, or leave it on the heat for more than ten minutes. This boils away the beans' elegant liquor while extracting rank, bitter flavors.

Choosing the right coffee remains a personal matter, best resolved through lots of trial and error. Guatemala Antigua is highly recommended for devotees of the spicy and smoky. Those who like their coffee thick, flavorful and rich will savor Sumatra Mandheling or Kenya's slightly milder, more winey approach to this style. Colombian Supremo will delight taste buds which crave a combination of lush, full body and mild acidity. Ethiopian Harrar presents a sharp, acidic, vinous palate. If your pleasure is tart, snappy dryness, try Costa Rican coffees. For sheer finesse, Kona 1 and Jamaica Blue Mountain are unbeatable. The world's coffees present a stylistic range that will satisfy the limitless quirks of just about any individual taste.

Coffee bins

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