When you first start to taste coffee it can be an eye opening experience. It’s amazing that a single drink can have such varied and complex flavour, but it really does.
It’s a useful, if broad and imperfect, analogy that red wine presents around 400 individual flavours to identify on the palate, while coffee beans offer something in the region of 800. The change from drinking a light fruity Ethiopian to a full bodied Indonesian is night and day, as can be the intensity of one Colombian bean compared to its fellow countryman. So just how does one plant display such an enormous variety of tastes.
The answer is a complex one, coffee is an interesting crop. The coffee plant takes on new aspects and dimensions to its flavour from almost anything that it encounters along its journey to our cup. To use an analogy, coffee is like a seasoned traveller, immersing itself in the culture of each place it visits and adding to its ever growing personality. Every coffee has a different journey and as such coffee can have wildly different tastes from one bean to another. I spent a little time discussing coffee tasting here this series of articles though will focus on how coffee gets its flavour.
Over four articles I will take you through the growing, processing, roasting and brewing of our favourite bean, discussing the way each stage adds to the flavour of the cup we all enjoy. This time we are right at the beginning, taking a look at Coffee Farming.
First Steps of the Flavour Journey: Growing Coffee
When someone sets out to grow coffee they face a mind boggling number of important questions, but perhaps the two key ones are what plant to grow? and where to grow it? These fundamental choices will combine with years of hard work and persistence to realise a crop which the farmer hopes will provide and interesting and consistent flavour profile, and as a result, a commodity that has value in the coffee market.
Varietal: What Plant to Grow
Before any real discussion of farming practice it’s worth noting that coffee isn’t really one plant, the coffee we consume is grown mainly from two distinct varieties of coffee plant, called Arabica (more properly Coffea Arabica) and Robusta (ditto Coffea Canephora). Ok so honestly it’s more complicated, actually a lot more complicated than this. There are a sizeable variety of Coffea plants to consider, but for our purposes, and your sanity, I will avoid a painfully long lecture on coffee agriculture, and stick to the coffee you are most likely to encounter. In the modern world the two species above are the providers of the vast majority of our coffee beans (with Arabica accounting for about 80% and Robusta around 20%). Arabica is a word you will see proudly displayed on many a coffee and in lots of coffee marketing, but what does it actually mean and why is it better than Robusta, indeed is it better at all?
Put simply, arguably too simply, but any experts reading will hopefully forgive my using broad strokes in the interests of not boring people to death. Coffea Arabica is the more delicate sibling, requiring careful farming and Coffea Canephora (Robusta) is hardy and disease resistant, with a generally higher crop yield. As a result of these properties, Robusta is grown for and used in many commercial and instant coffees. Meanwhile the more farming intensive Arabica finds its place as a specialty crop, and will be found in the range of coffee produced for that market. Now one point that I am often at pains to make is that this in no way means that Robusta is completely inferior to Arabica, it does produce a lesser flavour to the trained palate, and as a result is considered less desirable in roasting as a rule, however it is easier to grow in quantity and with consistency. The two plants both have value, and the cultivation of each is an important part of the global coffee industry.
In addition to the distinction between Arabica and Robusta coffee plants are also divided by Varietal (sub-species of plant). The list of these is large and often changing, I could spend an entire article on this distinction and its impact on the flavours of coffee, indeed I most likely will at some point, but for now it will suffice to say that the differences are important. Each individual Varietal of Coffea Arabica will produce a different base of flavour. The choice of plant to grow is the foundation of the art of coffee farming, and the first step in developing the flavour of your cup of coffee.
Terroir: Where to Farm
Growing coffee for commercial use isn’t easy, the coffee plant like many crops, comes with a number of natural restrictions and in addition can be affected by many environmental factors. The very first challenge in choosing where to farm is a simple one, coffee is rather picky about where it will grow. The origins of coffee are in the highlands and plateaus of Africa, where the original coffee plants were found, particularly in Ethiopia and the regions of Yirgacheffe, Harar, and Limu, this is the beating heart of the coffee world. Over the years, coffee growing has spread throughout the world giving birth to the wonderfully named Coffee Belt. By the Coffee Belt I mean the area in which good coffee can be grown consistently, specifically a band around the equator, between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This band of coffee friendly regions wraps around our planet in a sort of coffee growing hug, hence the phrase “Coffee Belt”.
Coffee is also a very diverse and environmentally responsive crop, by this I mean it will be strongly affected by environmental factors where it is grown. Many factors are considered in the farming of coffee, altitude, soil type, weather patterns, and a great deal more besides. I would struggle to properly articulate the complexity of this, and there are plenty of excellent works that do so much more effectively than I ever could, so I am not going to try. Suffice to say that in choosing to grow coffee as a crop a farmer is undertaking a real challenge, one which will require a lot of learning and years, even generations of experience to overcome.
The flavour of your cup is altered by these growing factors in a staggering quantity of ways, some subtle and some more easily noticed. The intense and earthy quality of coffee grown in the volcanic soils of Indonesia, makes a lot of sense on reflection. While some crops from India grown in the same soils as those fabulous aromatics that flavour amazing foods, can also carry a subtle spicy flavour. This osmosis of flavour can have a really remarkable impact on the final taste of the beans, and once more the farmer is making a conscious and considered decision in choosing where to grow their plants, with an eye to the final taste of the beans.
The Reality of Coffee Farming
Coffee farming also takes time, it takes four years to mature a crop, and then a farmer must carefully maintain the plants as well as properly time the harvesting of the coffee cherries. A delicate hand and attention to detail are the hallmarks of a good harvest, with care taken in choosing when to begin and which cherries to pick. While modern machines can aid the process, most crops are still picked by hand, due in part to the higher altitude and naturally more difficult terrain in which coffee plants grow best, getting an automated harvester up the mountains of Colombia is no joke. Then the ripe cherries will need to be sorted from those not ready, once more this is often done by hand due to the restrictions of the area where you are farming.
Choosing to farm coffee is accepting a huge amount of risk, the delicate nature of the plant, a four year crop maturation period, and the many factors that can and will impact farming mean that hard work and exceptional planning are required at all times. Despite the many advances we have made in understanding coffee agriculture many of the most successful farms are based on knowledge passed from generation to generation. Growing coffee is as much a combination of art and experience, as it is a science.
Join me next time to explore the processing of the coffee cherries after the harvest.
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