Superior Coffees

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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What makes for a superior coffee? There isn't an easy or quick simple answer that tells the whole story. Obviously good growing conditions--atmospheric, climatic, and geographic--are critical for the crop. It is fair to say, however, that how that crop of coffee beans are roasted is perhaps the single most significant determinant. Also critical is how and when the roasted beans are ground.

Identifying Superior Coffees

If beans are roasted at too low a temperature, the coffee is either sour or flat. If they're roasted at too high a temperature, the coffee is charred. Neither is redeemable. The oil within a coffee bean is the secret to its flavor, taste, and aroma. Controlling the chemistry of that oil is what roasting seeks to do. The roasting process is meant to nurture that oil, bring it to maturity, and release it. The acceptable range of roasting temperatures--whether done commercially or at home--is between 400° and 470° F.

Between taking the coffee beans and making your coffee, of course, comes the grinding. You don't want to grind the beans until the last possible moment. Remember that green coffee beans stay fresh for two years, roasted coffee beans for three to five days, and ground coffee for a day. Chemistry is at work again here. The more of the coffee bean exposed to air, the more carbon dioxide is released from the bean, and the flatter the taste and staler the aroma. There's a lot more coffee bean exposed once it's ground, no?

Superior coffees--beyond these three factors of growing, roasting, and grinding--is a matter of taste. Where I favor the heavy mellow body of Sumatra and its low acidity, for example, you might be inclined toward the lighter and sharper Central American coffees. Where a purist might disdain any flavored coffee, a bean either roasted with a hint of vanilla or several drops of vanilla added to your brew might be just the thing for you. There is no right or wrong. There is only the enjoyment of a good roast and fine brew.

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