Coffee Dictionary, Part 1: Bean there, done that.
Have you ever walked into a coffee shop and been bombarded by the all the complicated terms they use in their menus? Have you ever looked at words like “chicory” “robusta” “dark roast” and wondered – why there are so many different ways to make and enjoy something as easy as coffee?
Of course, we all do as well. Something as natural as our coffee routine can be pinned down to an art – most of us do it out of pure muscle memory. But like most things – the more you know, the better. Narrowing down on coffee literature can be a task – and it’s absolutely an unnecessary one. But –
It will make your shopping soooo much easier. No more speed-reading through product descriptions (notes of elderflower? Why), no more hoping some random coffee grounds suit your tastes only to throw have of it into your plants when you can’t stand the taste anymore. You’d be one step closer to a perfect cup of coffee, and then a step closer to a perfect morning and finally, finally close enough to making your life 5% better.
And believe us when we say it – that 5% makes a difference.
So, we’re here to help you make that difference. This coffee dictionary, so to speak, is now your go-to guide for everything coffee – starting, quite literally, from scratch.
Most of us out there know that coffee comes from a plant. The Coffea plant, with more than 150 varieties! (don’t exit the article, we’re only gonna talk about three). For your average pre-coffee connoisseur, here’s what you need to know.
Made from the Coffea Arabica plant, Arabica is the most commonly used and widely found coffee bean. It has a smooth and complex taste profile that makes it very popular with its users (like us – all Cocobroma coffees use Arabica beans!). Despite its popularity, Arabica is actually quite delicate and finnicky to grow. Arabica is full of juicy, sweet and fruity flavour notes, making it very easy for people to enjoy it.
The second most popular, and what makes up about 30% of coffee production, is Robusta. Robusta beans have a deep, earthy flavour, and contain more caffeine that Arabica beans. They get their name from how they withstand in growth– they are far sturdier than their Arabica counterpart. Some people seem to consider Robusta ‘low brow’ compared to Arabica – but we can say with full confidence that this is not the case! Robusta is delicious, if sometimes bitter and strong, and is also often cheaper than Arabica!
First discovered in Liberia, it’s easy enough to understand from where it got its name. It’s grown predominantly in South East Asia and definitely harder to find in other places. It’s far more similar to Robusta than Arabica, with a smokey taste and burnt flavours. It tends to have an inconsistent and surprising flavour, very different from your regular cup of coffee. It’s often used in blends to supplement a woody flavour profile.
There are three main types of coffee roasts. While you may see different labels – Espresso Roasts, Filter Roasts or French Roast Coffee, they are only indicative of the roasting time and colour – they are, in the end, likely to fall into one of these three.
Light roast coffee, contrary to popular opinion – actually contains the most caffeine. They’re roasted for the least amount of time – usually until they crack. They retain most of their oils because of the low temperature at with which they roast, and this helps seal in the original flavours of the bean. Light roast coffee is often fruity and acidic, with underlying citric undertones. If you love bright, juicy flavours and little bitterness – especially in the morning, light roast coffee is perfect for you.
Medium roast coffee, as the name suggests, is somewhere between a light and dark roast. It’s often divided into two categories, Medium-Light and Medium-Dark, each one closer to the roasting process. Medium roasts still don’t release all their oils – but dissolves some of the acidity that remains in a light roast. The medium roast stops just before the second crack of the bean. Since it’s heated for longer, it burns off some of the caffeine – but ends up with a richer, full-bodied taste with further release of the oils trapped in the beans. The balance this coffee provides is perfect since you can enjoy the rich flavours of a dark roast without the lack of caffeine or bitterness – but also the brightness and sweetness of the fruit in light roasts, without the high pH.
With colours and flavour notes reminiscent of chocolate, dark roast coffee is one of the most popular roasts out there. Contrary to popular opinion – dark roasts actually contain the least caffeine out of the three types. The roasting time is increased until they hear the second crack – leaving both deeper flavour and the aromas from the oil – no longer trapped in the bean. This leaves you with a rich, delicious cup of coffee – perfect for someone who loves the slightly bitter undertones. They also contain much more texture – leaving you with a full-bodied, slight chewy (yes, coffee can be chewy, and it’s not nearly as gross as it sounds) cup. Depending on roasting times, you can create a variety of roasts perfect for any brewing method. Dark roasts are ideal for espresso and espresso-based drinks, because of the bold, woody and caramel-like flavours. It’s not like fruit and smokey flavours don’t come through in dark roast coffee though – the lower acidity often lets you taste underlying notes of stone fruit and cinnamon.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed already – don’t worry! Not everyone likes only one type of coffee. The taste of these three different greatly because of so many factors – from the roasting temperature down to the quality of the soil. Plus – not all commercial coffee is even roasted the same way. Not all of them are meant for brewing methods (example: you wouldn’t ideally use a super light roast for espresso), and not all of them are even from the same farm!
Coffee blends line the shelves of your average supermarket, and they often provide even more flavour and complexity than a single origin coffee. Coffees can also have additives like chicory root to increase their flavours or health benefits (like our Filter Coffee). Different flavours, places of origin, roasts and different forms of processing can mix to make your coffee even more delicious and interesting, so be open to trying new things! Eventually, you will find something you love, so trial-and-error is the way to go about it. Worst comes to worse – you’ll still have a tasty cup of coffee to drink, and another thing to avoid while shopping.
A lot happens between harvesting the coffee plant and drinking your coffee. Even before your technique and brewing method can improve (or ruin) your coffee, the process can drastically affect the taste, body and texture. So we’re going to outline the basics.
With the berries of the Coffea plant and its many variations, there are 4 barriers between you and the green coffee bean. The deep red outer skin, the pulp of the fruit, the parchment and the silver skin. The point of processing is to get those layers off to get the most out of a coffee cherry. There are two main kinds of coffee processes – dry and wet. Each involve a variety of steps and variations, and can be done via machine, or often by hand.
Dry processing is exactly as it sounds – the coffee cherries are sorted, cleaned of dirt, and left out, mostly in the sun, to dry. These fruits are dried until the red skin turns to brown, and the green bean of the coffee can be hulled out. Drying in the sun is usually done by hand, where the coffee is left in a large space to dry until it goes from a signature red to a brown, to almost near-black. Mid-way through the process, the cherries are turned to ensure the fruit is completely dry. However, this can be time consuming and unreliable, so many coffee producers leave this to machines.
Depending on the method used, this could take anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks. If sun drying, the flat surfaces of coffee are often raised to prevent uneven drying, allowing for proper air circulation. Once the coffee is properly dried, it is entered in a hulling machine, which retrieves the coffee bean from the dry outer shells. It takes about 6,000+ coffee beans to make up one kg of coffee – which is why the hulling machines are recommended for even small farms. The rejects are sorted out (including undried cherries, broken beans, etc) and the bean can be sent for roasting.
Dry, or often called the ‘Natural’ form of coffee processing, is an extremely easy and cost-effective way to process coffee. It’s simple enough for small producers to carry out, even without any bulky and expensive equipment. Its simplicity does come at a cost, though, since it can very easily go wrong. That’s not to say that dry processed coffee isn’t delicious – it just requires the right balance and caution to avoid any dirty, overdried or overly earthy flavours in the final coffee. It’s perfect for regions with little rainfall, and can give you a sweet and complex, full bodied cup of coffee. It can often have vivid notes of fruit and wine – which are harder to find in wet processed coffee.
Wet processed coffee or washed coffee gets its name from the most important ingredient in its process – water. Just like the dry process, wet coffee processes have several different variations that provide a different taste and process. The coffee plant is essentially poured into a huge tank with water, with the purpose of separating and cleaning the coffee. Small berries are better for the process – so they are usually used for higher-quality coffees.
The cleaned fruit then goes to be de-pulped – processed until the flesh of the fruit is removed, leaving the coffee in its parchment. These cherries must be ripe for this process to go on (a ripe red colour). If not, the de-pulping machine cannot remove the skin, and the unripe fruit must be sorted from the rest to move on. The next process, essential to the coffee processing, involves fermenting.
The coffee is moved to large tanks with clean water, where they are fermented for 24-36 hours. This allows wet-processed coffee to enhance the natural flavours of the bean, unlocking its hidden notes and acidity. After the fermentation period is over, the leftover layers of the coffee can be washed off – leaving the green bean underneath. Some even use special washing machines to remove the soft layer around the coffee – since the fermentation process allows the hardened layer to break down. Only the beans are left to dry.
Of course, any way of producing coffee is bound to produce a few duds, so constant vigilance and sorting is important every step of the way. Wet-processed coffee uses specialty equipment and provides a more balanced, homogenous flavour – so is often priced higher and deemed higher quality than the dry roasted bean. It is expensive and difficult to produce without the equipment, so it’s usually used in larger farms.
Both of these processes have their benefits and their pitfalls. There are many more (and many to come) processes of coffee which use elements from both or either – and we’re going to make sure you know the most common ones.
A relatively recent form of processing, the honey process combines the best of wet and dry processing. Getting its name from the sweet and sticky outer layer of the bean, honey processing allows the coffee bean to dry alongside the outer layer. While most of it is washed using a tank, the mucilage (or honey) is allowed to remain in the drying process, instead of being fermented in large tanks. Depending on the desired colour and result, the beans can take several weeks to dry. Honey processing leaves room for little fermentation, leaving behind a sweet, low-acidity coffee with more body than an average washed coffee.
Pulped natural coffee differs very slightly to honey processing, since water pressure is responsible instead for removing the outer layer, leaving the bean to dry whole. This leads to a very clean cup of coffee. However, the lack of fermentation can lead to barely any complexity of flavour, favouring consistency over blandness. It is very similar to Semi-washed coffee, where the coffee is de-pulped and then left to dry.
Popular mostly in Indonesia, Wet-hulled processes is one of the fastest ways to process coffee. It follows the same process as washed or wet-processed coffee, but it diverges at one point. Unlike the drying process of washed coffee, which could take several weeks – wet-hulled coffee only dries for a handful of hours. The coffee exchanges hands from farmers to local middlemen – and the coffee often dries in transit. The coffee remains inside its parchment layer until it’s finally machine-dried in the mill, and the parchment is removed. Wet-hulled coffee can be unpredictable in flavour and in process but is a great solution to Indonesia’s equally unpredictable climate. Their single-origin coffee has a rich, earthy flavour, with minimalised sweetness and acidity compared to its purely-washed counterpart.
While these only cover the basics, the world of coffee production is wonderous and unending – and we highly recommend you experiment your way to the perfect cup, trying out different blends, processes, and roasts. And even if you don’t, you could always just have a cup of our own delicious coffee.
Stay tuned for the next part of this coffee dictionary, where we learn about equipment, tools and everything you need to change the course of your coffee.