Gourmet Coffees

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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The real issue with gourmet coffees is that reverting to instant or generic grocery store varieties is either impossible or excruciating. My story is typical. I developed a taste for coffee only at exam time in college and shortly after graduation traipsed off to Europe for an indefinite period.

The flight landed in Vienna and I obediently disembarked, spending a week there, and moving on to Florence. The palate I developed during those three years has never recovered. At the moment it favors a blend of Indonesian beans and I contemplate a burr grinder.

Understanding Fine Coffee: The Critical Aspects

So what is gourmet coffee and what distinguishes it from the cans on the grocery store shelves? You'll find the answer in the next question. What's the difference between a Picasso, a Monet, or a Vermeer and the scribblings you made during the last staff meeting or the crayon drawing your neighbor's child proudly showed you on the sidewalk yesterday?

Gourmet coffee, good coffee, any coffee, begins in a climate where the average temperature year-round is about 75° F. The soil is rich and well drained, preferably volcanic. Rainfall totals about 50 inches per year, ideally with a wet season. Either regular afternoon cloud cover or forests provide ample shade. Elevation runs from 1,500 feet to 6,000 feet above sea level, though some varieties will grow in coastal areas.

Coffee trees take about five years to flower and produce their first good crops. The fruit of the coffee plant is called a cherry, appropriately red. The heart of the cherry is generally two beans (the peaberry is a single bean and a fluke of nature). Coffee cherries are picked by hand and pulped by hand (separating the bean from the fruit). The best coffees are air and sun dried. Hulling (separating the bean from its outer husk) is done, sometimes by hand and sometimes mechanically, only after the water content is down to 12 percent.

Processing Gourmet Coffee: The Keys to Quality

Green coffee beans have a shelf life of about two years. But nowadays we drink roasted coffee not green bean coffee. The apocryphal story on the discovery of coffee and its beginnings as a beverage for human consumption focuses on an observant Arab goatherd by the name of Kaldi. His flock, he noted, behaved rather strangely every time they ate the bright red fruit of the plant. He tried it. He liked it. Nowadays we roast the bean. There are two types--the Robustas and the Arabicas, with the Arabicas the most prevalent worldwide.

Rightly described as both art and science, the roasting process is what makes or breaks a coffee crop. Roast at too low of a temperature, and the bean is sour. Roast as too high of a temperature, and the bean is ... well ... burnt, as in charcoal (also not very tasty). The accepted temperature range is between 400° F and 480° F. Within that range, however, lies the art. The darker roasts yield the espressos, and the lighter roasts the mellower morning coffees.

After roasting, the shelf life of the fresh coffee bean runs from about three to five days. Once the coffee is ground, that drops to about 24 hours at best. Packaging is thus critical. The aroma and taste is best extended by storing the coffee in a cool, dry place in an airtight container. Grinding the coffee, another critical factor in preparing a fine brew, should be done at the last possible moment, just before brewing. Equipment should be clean and the water cold and untreated. A rule of thumb on proportions is a ratio of about one heavy tablespoon of appropriately ground coffee to every six ounces of water.


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