Why Roasting For the Masses Masks All The Flavor
Coffee is the second most traded commodity worldwide after oil.
Yes, that many people in the world drink coffee.
400 million cups of coffee are consumed on a daily basis in the United States alone!
With such a high demand for coffee, producers have found the fastest, most efficient methods of getting coffee beans from farm to final cup.
But in our effort for the cheapest, fastest, most efficient methods of cultivating coffee a little quality and a lot of flavors has been sacrificed in the process.
Now, some of us may be scratching our heads by this statement. After all, travel mugs full of hot, satisfying coffee are brewed up in kitchens daily all across America.
We may not know that we’re missing out on an intense spectrum of flavor when brewing our favorite cup. Most of us drink coffee that’s been mass produced and over roasted.
To answer that question, let’s take a look at coffee cultivation.
Last year Brazil produced 2,595,000 metric tons of coffee beans, continuing the country’s tradition as the number one grower of coffee in the world.
This coffee producing powerhouse has cornered the market for almost two centuries, with no sign of letting up anytime soon.
How does Brazil produce such immense quantities of coffee year after year? The answer can be found in strip coffee harvesting.
Like other large coffee producing nations such as Vietnam, a majority of Brazil’s coffee plantations employ strip farming methods. Two primary methods of coffee harvesting are used by coffee growing countries: selective harvesting and strip harvesting.
Two primary methods of coffee harvesting are used by coffee growing countries: selective harvesting and strip harvesting.
The method a particular coffee growing region uses depends on several factors such as desired quality level of the final product, availability of low-cost labor, and topography of the land. While selective harvesting is reserved for specialty coffee where hand picking is required to harvest only the best beans, mechanical strip harvesting is used on flat topography with lower quality beans, or when quality is not an issue, and where labor costs are higher.
Coffee beans, which are actually the seeds of the coffee cherry, grow on short, bushy shrubs. Two species of coffee plants have become the most popular for consumer consumption: Arabica and Robusta. Of the two, Arabica is the finer quality; but Robusta is easier to grow and contains more caffeine. Arabica counts for around 70% of coffee growing worldwide. All specialty coffee consists of Arabica beans.
Larger producers like the major ground brands commonly found in tubs in your local supermarket may use a percentage of Robusta to help keep costs low.
A good portion of Robusta coffee shrubs and some more tolerant varieties of Arabica are grown at lower elevations with flatter terrain that are ideal for strip farming. These plants can withstand more exposure to the sun, more variation in temperature, and less than ideal growing conditions.
Strip farming employs the use of mechanical harvesting machines that automate the process of removing the ripe cherries from the coffee shrub. However, it also pulls a small portion of unripe, defective, and overripe cherries off the branches.
With smaller farms, strip harvesting is accomplished using handheld rakers that pull the cherries from the branches in large clumps, dumping them onto narrow sheets that have been laid out in between the long rows of coffee shrubs.
With larger farms, strip harvesting is accomplished using driver operated machines that pull the cherries off the shrubs and dump them into a holding container.
Again, while it’s a very efficient method of pulling cherries from the coffee shrubs, it also pulls with it unripe, overripe, and defective cherries.
Beans are washed, dried, and weeded out in large batches.
While efforts employing specific sorting technology are made to separate the good beans from the bad, the process is not the most accurate due to the large scale of the operation.
Roasting Strip Harvested Beans
Most strips harvested Brazilian coffee is lower in quality and milder in flavor.
For this reason, this type of coffee is sold to mass roasters that roast huge lots of coffee all at once.
The coffee is over-roasted in order to mask flavors attributed to under-ripe, overripe, and defective beans. It’s then ground and packaged immediately to be shipped off to grocers nationwide.
Though this type of roasting guarantees the best prices for consumers, the quality and flavor of the beans are significantly lower than the full potential.
Grinding the beans long before the coffee is to be consumed is just another downfall in the flavor potential of the coffee.
What’s the alternative to strip harvested beans?
While you’ll have to pay a few dollars more, you would be sure to find a cup of coffee that’s not strip harvested much more enjoyable.
Selective harvesting is the alternative, and it results in a higher quality, more flavorful cup.
Selective harvesting is the preferred method of cultivation for almost all specialty coffee.
Specialty coffee is any coffee that scores an 80 or above out of a scale up to 100 during the coffee lot evaluation process when it goes to market. Coffee is measured on its appearance, aroma, roast profile, and a range of taste categories.
Selective harvesting is a process whereby ripe coffee cherries are handpicked from the coffee shrub on small farms and estates. Harvesters pick only ripe coffee cherries, leaving unripe ones more time to ripen, and avoiding overripe or defective beans. The result is baskets full of a much higher percentage of perfectly ripened cherries compared to strip harvesting.
Selective harvesting is necessary for most specialty coffee due to the geographical environment in which it grows. Because specialty coffee grows best in high altitude volcanic soil, most farms are found in tropical rugged, mountainous regions, such as the mountains of Guatemala that are not conducive to strip cultivation.
Selective harvesting is usually done by small farmers who then pool their harvest with a cooperative or sell their lot directly to a trader. Processing of the coffee is done on a smaller scale, often using rudimentary methods due to the lack of high tech equipment.
Smaller batches though, also mean more care in the method. Harvested beans are hand sorted so that almost all defective or under-ripe beans that were accidentally picked are removed. The resulting beans are high quality, well processed, and largely defect-free. These selectively harvested beans vary highly in flavor depending on their growing environment (with differences even detected from farm to farm within the same growing region).
Selectively harvested beans are graded on quality and sold to small roasters who, because they’ve paid more for the quality, roast the beans in a way that accentuates the natural flavor they’ve paid a higher price for.
It may not be the case that all bags of whole bean coffee are the highest quality. Perhaps the roast is too light or dark.
And, there is a lot of coffee that is highly dependent on drinker preference.
But, if you want to taste the real coffee flavor, look for high quality, small batch, and whole bean “specialty coffee” during your next coffee run.