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Taste Characteristics of Coffee Growing Regions

As a coffee lover, you might want to know what a new variety would taste like – for example, maybe you’d like to try Papua New Guinea – but are worried you won’t like it. There are many taste profiles from the different coffee growing regions around the globe.  A broad description of these would be:

  • Africa: Bright and Fragrant
  • Central and South America: Mild and Smooth
  • Indonesia: Full Bodied and Bold

First, you’ll need to figure out if you want to try a medium roasted or a dark roasted coffee. I know that sounds elementary, but you’d be surprised how many people will ask for a variety that brews a robust cup of coffee when a lot of the time what they really want is a dark roasted coffee.

Each specialty coffee requires different degrees of heat and roasting time to achieve its optimum flavor. What this means is that a Sumatran will require more heat (and need to be darker roasted) than say, a Colombian would, to get the most flavor out of it. If a coffee is under-roasted it will tend to be a little bitter, but if it’s over-roasted, some of the flavor will be roasted out, and it will taste a bit flat (and probably burnt).

African coffees are usually acidic in flavor, and “winey” is a term often used for their dry, bright taste. Kenyan, Tanzanian and Zimbabwean are good examples of coffees with these characteristics. Ethiopian coffees from Harrar can have floral, fruity tastes, while those from Yrgacheffe are known for their chocolaty tones.

The coffees from the Americas are usually smooth, crisp and clean with bright aftertastes. Examples of these are Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Mexican and Colombian. Personally, I feel that Colombian coffees are some of the most consistent tasting from year to year. Some of these coffees, like those from Brazil & Nicaragua, have a nutty, or buttery smooth taste. And Hawaiian Kona has a sweetness to it that makes it a truly special cup of coffee, indeed.

Indonesian coffees have good body, similar to a bold red in the wine world. Some people mistakenly call this taste “strong”, but strong coffee is just brewed strongly – with extra coffee. Coffees from this region include Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi and Indian among others.

Another useful tip to consider when tasting coffees is they should be sampled hot, warm and at room temperature. Coffees that are just brewed can have their tastes masked by the high heat. These flavors will become more pronounced as the cup cools. You should enjoy the flavor of a cooler cup as much as you did when it was hot. Be aware though that, conversely, taste and aroma characteristics can appear fleetingly just after brewing.

The Current State of Specialty Coffee

We are now roasting new crop Central American coffees, and they taste fantastic. Some of these are used in our House and House Full City blends, which translates to a lot of of fabulous flavors for you to try. Scott is partial to the milder coffees, so new crop Costa Rican or House Blend is what he’d brew if given a choice. Walt is enjoying the fresh crop Centrals, and organic French Roast (for his espressos) – which also has new crop in it.

We always brew the coffees right after roasting and again the next day, but the flavors continue to develop three or four more days. Roasting changes the chemical makeup of the beans. The heat burns the sugars that are inside, and brings the oils that carry much of the flavor to the surface. On close inspection of a roasted bean, you will notice – especially in a dark roast – a speck of oil emerging. That speck will continue to spread, covering the whole bean, and subtly changing the flavor as it goes.

How do cantaloup, hibiscus, or soy sauce grab you as tasting notes in coffee? There is an updated coffee tasting flavor wheel that has some interesting descriptive terms. Though some of the identifiers are a bit outside the pale, we at Coffee Express have picked up and recognized many of these taste notes. See what you think for yourself Coffee Tasters Flavor Wheel.

We hope you enjoy these excellent new crop coffees, and that you’ll have some fun picking up some of the flavors from the wheel!

When to Replace Your Old Machine

Anytime you want to stop in and buy a new machine is a good time for me! Seriously though, there comes a time when repairing a well-used machine is going to cost more than it’s worth.

Our records show that most commercial espresso machines will be replaced after six to eight years, although a few will last for well over a decade with proper care. Heavy use can wear moving parts and perishable gaskets more quickly. Poor maintenance procedures can also shorten the life of your equipment.

As with any restaurant equipment that uses water, softening the water will give your machine the opportunity to last as long as it should. Hard, untreated, water will plug up the boiler and pipes. This will cause brew head temperature to drop below 190 Fahrenheit, and will prevent your machine from pouring a good tasting shot.

Cleaning out the boiler and pipes can easily cost $1,000 or more. A computer replacement can also cost over $1,000. These high dollar repairs can exceed the resale value of a 6 year old machine, and may tip the scales in favor of new equipment.

If you’ve been wondering if your espresso machine is ready to be retired, give us a call and we can help you make an informed decision.

Microlots

The standard lot of coffee is around 250 bags, or 37,500 lbs. This is also a truckload, or an ocean container full. There are partial lots of more exotic types, but let’s zero in on what are known as microlots. 

You might ask, “What is your favorite coffee?” or, “Which country has the best coffee?” Tough questions with a simple answer. All coffee producing countries can have exquisite growths.

We’ve mentioned in previous posts that using the language of estates and farms is fuzzy business when talking coffee origins. Generally though, a microlot implies a very limited coffee from a single farm. Perhaps they have produced a few thousand pounds -25 bags let’s say- of a coffee they know produces a luxurious cup. On the other hand, maybe it’s from a larger farm, but they have singled out a particularly great bean. Either way, voila , a microlot!

While Coffee Express has always brought in coffees such as Wallenford Estate Jamaican, small-farm Hawaiian Konas, and microlot Cup of Excellence® winners, we have recently decided to expand our offerings. Besides our standard coffees, we keep on hand three to four additional choices. They can represent just about every producing region of the world. Prices vary based on availability, reputation, and other arbitrary influences. We will provide details about the production of the coffee, the farm, farmer, and cup qualities.

What we have on hand changes. If you fall in love with one, you will eventually have to go on to the next! Rest assured though, these are the most special coffees of the specialty coffee industry, and there will always be an exceptional selection from which to choose.

How We Choose Our Coffees

Folks who make coffee their profession understand – there are many steps to a great cup. It starts with green beans, and involves roasting, brewing and serving. The green beans alone require a certain depth of knowledge, including genetics, growing regions, processing techniques, sorting, and shipping. Let’s take a look at how we choose our coffees.

Some of the criteria we use to purchase green coffees are cup quality, seasonal growing cycle, price, and availability. Since we began roasting in 1982, we’ve looked the world over for the best beans each producing country offers. We’ve always maintained a large variety of types from the majority of coffee growers.

It’s important to represent many specialty coffees. When you are asked what the best coffee is, the answer is not set in stone, but comes when you’re able to choose from among the many terrific growths available at any given time.

Each roaster uses various, personalized criteria to buy and evaluate their green purchases. At Coffee Express, we use a number of trusted importers, based on both the east and west coast. We look for a combination of coffees we need, and those that are available for a limited time.

Cup quality is never always 10, on a scale of 1-10. After all, if everything were a 10, you wouldn’t need a scale! So, you try to shoot for that elusive 10 at all times, but you choose from what’s available. I believe everyone has a slightly different bar, and we’ve kept ours very high for going on thirty years. We reject coffee below that bar, no matter how much it’s needed.

Today, our process for choosing coffees has led to nearly three decades of – we hope – some of the best tasting coffee you can find.

We hope you enjoy drinking our coffee as much as we enjoy roasting it for you!

Two Important Influences on Coffee’s Taste

Two important influences on coffee’s taste are geography and price. I’d like to take just a moment to discuss each of these a bit.

The wine industry has used the term terrior to describe the effects of soil, sun, rain, and elevation on grapes and the resulting wine. While the attempts to link aspects of coffee and wine often go too far, this similarity has merit. In large part terrior is what makes bright the notes of a Costa Rican differ from earthy Indonesian coffees, half a world away.

Two Costa Ricans can taste much different as well, the distance here measured in a few miles. Weather and soil vary even at close range. Of course other factors influence taste, and will provide future topics of conversation for us.

The old adage says that price and quality go hand-in-hand. Coffee is no exception. For starters, let’s break the bean into two categories “commercial” and “specialty”. While the line between these two general types can blur, fancy – or specialty – brings with it the understanding that the additional care goes into the cultivar, elevation, the position on a hillside; the picking, processing, roasting, and ultimately, the brewing. Understandably, this extra attention costs more.

A price variance that is harder to nail down is what can be made of the difference between, for example, an $8.00 a pound Panama and one that is $16.00. You may even see ratings on coffees: numbers on a scale given for taste qualities: nose, brightness, body, balance, etc. Because taste is subjective, the more “cuppers” participating will generally give a more accurate assessment. So, two Panamanians can have vastly different scores.

Packaging and marketing also influence the $16.00 coffee. Consumers appreciate a story that personalizes where the coffee comes from. If the name of a town or farm or family can be linked to the coffee, all the better. Possibly the farm uses methods that are more kind to the environment, or is circumspect in how it makes economic decisions. The promotion of these features is another factor that helps drive up the price.

Taste, which should be what the coffee drinker really enjoys, sometimes gets lost in the promotion. Coffee Express Co. works to procure the highest grades and the best-tasting lots from all over every country whose coffees we carry, including organics, Fair Trade, and decafs. We’ve kept our eye on the ball for quality over the years, fashioning our production, packaging, and delivery methods to ensure that we supply our retailers with the best coffee available, delivered fresh from the roaster, at affordable prices. You don’t have to overpay for taste.

Choosing the Right Drop Coffee Brewer

There are several common choices for making drip coffee. Restaurants with staff carrying coffee to tables to serve generally choose to brew directly into 1-2 gal., 64 oz – or 1.9 liter glass or stainless carafes. These will have a short holding time: well under 30 minutes for glass pots on burners, and somewhat longer hold times for stainless, insulated carafes.

Coffee houses will choose to brew into larger air-pots, or 1 to 1.5 gallon stainless insulated servers. These containers will have hold times up to 2 hours or so. Coffee in a thermal container will keep its temperature longer if you preheat the container by warming it with hot water before brewing. Hold times will decrease as you pour cups of coffee from it. A container that is nearly empty will lose temperature rapidly; a full container will stay hot longer.

Machines from all the major manufacturers are available in any of the popular formats. Brewers can be either analog, with simple push buttons and only a simple volume control, or digital, with computer programmed recipes. Most equipment we sell is digital, and we will typically configure your coffee house brewers with extra deep brew baskets to insure you can use as much coffee as needed without having grounds overflow the filter.

Whatever brewer you use, consider filtering your water with a cartridge system to remove bad tastes from your tap water and reduce scale build up.

The final steps to a great drip coffee come in choosing your coffee variety and brew strength. And of course remember to keep your servers and brew baskets clean. If you use flavored coffee, keep separate brew baskets, air-pots and grinders. If you’d like to know more about new brewers give us a call. You can arrange to stop by and try out our favorite machine in the demo room, and we’ll help you choose the brewer and coffee that best suits your needs.

Origins, Classifications, Estates

The names given to specialty coffees do not follow a universal format. There are no international standards available when we see something like “Colombian Supremo” or “Sumatra Mandheling”, so common usage prevails.

“Single Origin” generally means coffee the coffee was grown in a particular country. Breakfast Blend and French Roast wouldn’t be Single Origin because in the one case (as the name states) it’s a blend, and in the other, the name simply denotes the color of the roast not the type of bean used.

Within each country, either a region or grade comes next. Kenya AA is a grade, while Costa Rican Tarrazu is a region. Costa Rican SHB Strictly Hard Bean is a grade, but in this case, because Tarrazu is a top growing region, the highest classification of SHB is understood. The same could be said of a Kenya Kirinyaga: the AA is implied. Sometimes, the coffee industry will also use the term “Estate” or give the name of the city where the farm is located to help further distinguish the growing area. Jamaican Blue Mountain Wallenford Estate means coffee processed within the Wallenford network of pulpuries and finishing works. Costa Rican Dota is a town in the Central Valley region, and signifies a coffee with a better defined area than simply Tarrazu.

Next, let’s decipher Hawaiian Kona. In some cases, sellers simply use the name and reputation of Kona to describe a blend that is mellow. The State of Hawaii has a law on its books that prescribes a minimum of 10% Kona in a “Kona blend”. However this only applies to coffee sold in Hawaii, not elsewhere. Names on coffee can therefore be misleading.

A true Hawaiian Kona is (of course) 100% Kona – grown in a strictly defined area on the Big Island’s west coast. It can also then carry the name of an estate, such as Pomaika’i Farm. And don’t forget the grade: Extra Fancy, Fancy, and #1, in that order. Other countries have their own particular methods of names, regions and grades.

Coffee Express has procured a few Cup of Excellence® coffees in the past couple of years. This U.S-based, international program sets the highest bar for quality. In this case, not only is the country, grade, and farm known, but also the type of coffee plant (typica, catura, etc.), altitude grown, and other qualifiers that can determine taste. We are happy to direct you to one of our customers, should you have an interest in trying any of these distinct and wonderful coffees.

Required Reading

It was a couple of years ago, on a visit to Harney and Sons Tea headquarters in Millerton, N.Y. A good part of the floor in the middle of a fairly large room was covered with cloth and bamboo mats. Spread out and stacked up on the coverings were hundreds of objects. There were tea chests, boxes, tins, tea pots and kettles, preparation and serving wares, related implements, books, documents, photographs, and miscellaneous artifacts of Asian origin. Anticipating the question, Paul Harney answered, “That’s Michael’s book”.

A couple of years later, we have The Harney & Sons Guide To Tea, by Michael Harney, Master Tea Blender. The stated purpose of the 272 page, hardcover volume is “…to transform tea drinkers into tea experts.” It is, in fact, a clearly written, well-organized presentation of Michael’s own expertise developed over years of tasting, travel and trade in the world of tea. If it doesn’t make you an expert, it will provide a solid foundation toward that goal, and be a valued reference for years to come.

At Coffee Express Co., when we instruct in coffee or tea basics we seek to provide foundational knowledge that can be built on over a lifetime. As with coffee, tea is a vast subject with a long history and many varied regional traditions and styles.

The Harney & Sons Guide is a first-person exploration of tea history, geography, cultivation, processing, and culture. It classifies the diversity of tea styles, and offers practices for proper brewing and serving. A unique and useful aspect of the book is Michael’s refined method for evaluating tea by aspects of aroma, flavor, and appearance.

Lively, informative, entertaining, and unpretentious, this book is highly recommended. Available from Border’s, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or Harney & Sons.

Tea

Tea is hot . . . or cold. Your choice. Either way, this first cousin to coffee is one of the fastest growing and most important categories in the beverage industry. Coffee house operators, restaurateurs, and food retailers better pay attention. Update your selection, educate your staff, and inform your customers to establish your position and boost your sales.

Until recently, tea sales in the U.S. were incidental, lagging behind the specialty coffee boom. But it’s been a couple of centuries since we threw tea into the Boston Harbor, and tea is back with a vengeance.

To some degree, this surge of interest is driven by significant – and attendant publicity of – health benefits, which include cancer prevention, weight loss, and more. Lower caffeine content per ounce is said to be another contributing factor, given the aging population. Additionally, of course, the growing interest in all things culinary, sensory, and gustatory is the perfect driver for the fabulous array of flavors and aromas in the tea world.

As with coffee, there is a lot of information to absorb from thousands of years of Eastern tradition, and hundreds in the West. Categories include a stunning number of varieties: true leaf teas include greens, oolongs, blacks, and more; straight teas from China, Japan, India, Africa, and Indonesia as well as blends, flavors, and decafs. Dozens of herbal infusion, also known as tisanes, have their own history, lore, traditional uses, and methods of brewing.

In the future, I’ll talk about understanding and classifying different tea types & styles within this framework, as well as topics on brewing, marketing and merchandising in your establishment.