The beautiful cup of coffee that greets you in the morning has become synonymous with simple pleasure, but how simple is it exactly?
Well... not very.
To create this nectar of the Gods, many steps and checks have to take place throughout the growing, processing, and roasting stages of the coffee, before it even has a chance to be transformed into the magical liquid most of us can't live without.
So, we'd like to take a moment to explore what is coffee is and how it goes from being a humble fruit in a faraway farm to being a shiny dark aromatic coffee bean. Understanding coffee is one step closer to understanding what makes coffee good, and that is one step closer to being able to make good coffee at home.
Coffee beans begin their journey as the seeds of a small berry that grows on an evergreen shrub. These shrubs grow best in cool-to-warm tropical climates across the equator. They ripen from green to yellow, then to red, and to black once dry.
Once picked, the berries are sorted and the flesh removed from them, often this process is done by hand, on a small farm. Similar to cocoa beans, the coffee seeds are left to ferment, and are either washed and left to dry or left to dry with the pulpy fermented residue on them. The dried seeds are sold to roasters to be roasted and then sold either wholesale or to individuals.
The quality of the beans is carefully assessed by roasters before purchasing, and often the highest quality beans have been meticulously picked through by hand, at least once.
When we approach coffee with the understanding that, some coffee was picked by hand, carefully sorted by ripeness, fermented, washed, and dried, then chosen by a specialty roaster, carefully picked through by hand (again) to remove any bad beans, roasted in small batches to ensure uniform flavour, and then sold at its peak level of oxidisation to bring out the complexity of its flavour....
While other coffee was mass picked by a machine, regardless of berry ripeness, mass fermented, washed, and dried, chosen by a larger producer, bulk roasted to a semi-burned stage (to cover any bad beans that made it into the mix)...
THEN it's easy to see why a 1kg bag of specialty coffee can cost around 50AUD, while a 1kg bag of coffee beans from the supermarket is closer to 20AUD. The manpower and time differences between making the two are drastically different, therefore, so is the quality.
This brings us to the next stage of coffee's journey... extraction. Now that we understand what coffee is, its complexities, and the chasm that exists between high quality and poor quality coffee, we can approach the topic of extracting coffee at home.
Essentially, the word extraction refers to the process of extracting compounds from the ground coffee such as oils, flavours and aromas, caffeine, carbohydrates, and acids. These compounds are taken from the beans and dissolved in water via several methods. From pour-over to french press, from espresso to an old-fashioned percolator, there are a number of ways to make coffee at home.
Espresso is technically a pour-over method of coffee extraction, and yet, it's also in a class of its own. Unique in its delivery of water, espresso machines utilise pressure to push water through compressed coffee at a force that extracts more of the oils (in particular) and flavours than a typical pour-over extraction method. This is why Crema (the creamy substance that sits on top of espresso) exists. No other method of Coffee extraction can produce Crema as an espresso machine can.
Then why do so many people prefer a Cappuccino from the shop to a coffee they can make at home, for a fraction of the cost? A lot of this has to do with the quality chasm we mentioned earlier. Often, people who want to make coffee at home will choose either A: an instant coffee. or B: a ground coffee from a supermarket. In both cases, the quality and freshness of the coffee is often questionable.
If you plan to make coffee at home, either via an espresso machine, a pour-over method, or an immersion method, you may be interested in visiting a local specialty coffee roaster, tasting their blends, and sourcing your coffee from them. Often, a specialty roaster will have different roasts for different extraction methods, which will ensure you get the best flavour that you can from your coffee.
There you have it, a brief overview of coffee's long journey from farm to cup. We hope you enjoy your daily cup of coffee with a little extra appreciation for the many hands that carefully laboured to bring this simple pleasure to you.