Coffee Science

All About the Coffee

Where does coffee come from?

Around the world, coffee grows in the tropical zones. It is grown in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Hawaii. The best quality coffee, grown in much smaller quantities, grows at higher altitudes, generally between 1000 and 2000 meters (3300-6600 feet). Coffee grows on bushes that never shed their leaves. It takes approximately three years from the time the tree is planted until it starts producing coffee. Coffee plants start out in nurseries and then are transferred to the ground after the first 6 months. Once at full maturity, each tree can produce between 12-16 oz. of coffee a year. The coffee bean is the center or pit of a fruit that looks like a cherry. The beans are picked when the berry is a ripe red or burgundy color, and then once harvested, the fruits must be processed to get at the green beans inside. The best quality coffee is handpicked, so that each berry is collected at the height of ripeness, rather than mass stripping collection where beans are indiscriminately harvested all at the same time. This painstaking harvesting and processing of quality coffee means that it is only produced in very small quantities and sells for much more than a standard brew.  In coffee growing regions such as Bolivia, many people make a tea out of the fruit pulp after the bean has been removed, rather than drinking coffee since they sell the beans to make a living.                                                                                                            

Processing: Wet vs. Dry

Once the berries are harvested, they must be processed. There are three different processes, wet or water, dry, and hybrid. The process type generally varies by region, but is also dependent on the type of bean, access to water, and the coffee infrastructure. 

Wet processing means that the beans go into vats of water and are then left to ferment for between 12-36 hours before the beans are removed from the fruit. After the fermentation, the berries are pushed through a press that extracts them from the pulp and then washed. After washing, the beans are placed out on vast drying sheets and raked periodically to help the beans dry evenly. This technique adds another layer of complexity to the beans and creates a more acidic flavor profile.

Dry processing means that the beans are immediately set out to dry without removing the berries, on vast drying tables, and then the berries are shucked once dry. This process takes longer, often around a month to dry fully, but does not require electricity, so it is the oldest processing method, and is still used in areas lacking other options. This process generally leads to a more earthy flavor profile.

Hybrid, semi-washed, or semi-dried processing is a combination of the two techniques, where some of the berry is removed mechanically through the press, but then it is dried with the remainder of the fruit still attached, and then later removed.

Roasting and Cupping: Making the Most of Each Bean

Coffee beans, after processing, on drying tables prior to roasting.

After the beans have been harvested and processed, they are usually stored for a few months—aged—before roasting.

When roasting, the key is to get an even coloring on all the beans, and to roast them long enough to cook them, but not so long that all the goodness is roasted out of them. This means that you want all of the beans in each batch to be uniform in size and density. Most roasting machines roast coffee at a high temperature using constant airflow to help disperse the heat, and beans are roasted until they make a popping sound, like popcorn, which is called a crack. The first crack indicates a release of the water trapped in the beans, and you want to roast at least to this point because otherwise the beans have moisture in them, which is no good for storage or brewing. There is a second crack which happens with the release of the carbon dioxide from the beans, but it depends on the type of bean and its flavor profile whether to roast it that far, because that makes for a pretty dark bean. Beans lose approximately 19% of their weight during the roasting process.

To decide how far to roast each type of coffee, roasters and professional cuppers (expert coffee tasters), roast a certain coffee to several different levels of darkness and then taste the coffee at each level, seeing which one maximizes the flavor profile for that coffee.

Cuppers taste coffee using a very special technique to taste the coffee. They take samples of all of the various roasting levels of the beans and place the grounds in cups of nearly boiling hot water side by side, with no filters, or brewing equipment. Then, after letting the coffee steep for a bit, they use a silver spoon to break through the coffee surface and take a spoonful of the liquid to taste. See the Coffee Talk section below to learn more about tasting.


And what about the caffeine?

Caffeine roasts out of coffee as it roasts, so the darker the roast, the less caffeine. This is a common misconception, because people assume that the darker the bean the stronger the taste, must mean more caffeine, but in fact, the reverse is true.

French Press , Espresso, Drip? How Best to Prepare It

So many choices! Where to start? There is no such thing as the “perfect” brewing method. It all depends on the coffee profile, and how you think it tastes best.  You have probably seen espresso roast, but you don’t have to use espresso roast for espresso, and you can brew other coffees in an espresso machine.

However, it is important to get the right grind to go with the right brewing method.

Espresso Machine- you want a pretty fine grind for espresso because this brewing method relies on a fast brew at high pressure. If the beans are too coarse then the water will pass right through. You need the grind to be muddier so the water has to works its way through pulling all that deliciousness out.

Drip Coffee Machine- for these machines, you want a coarser grind than for espresso, and it depends on whether it has a flat bottom filter or a cone shaped filter. If it is cone shaped then you want it to be finer than if it is flat bottomed, but still they should both be coarser than espresso. Rule of thumb for drip coffee is usually 2 Tbsps per 6 oz of water, but this is a matter of preference.

French Press or Percolator- for either of these, you want quite a coarse grind, because both of these rely on longer brew times with no pressure involved. For a French press you want to let the coffee steep for around 4 minutes to extract the best flavor, longer than this and it will be over saturated and bitter tasting; less time and the coffee will taste weak.

K-Cups or Nespresso- no problem. The companies just came out with empty cups, so you can buy the empty cups and load our coffee into them so that you can make our coffee on your machine, you just need a grinder. The empty cups are now being sold on Amazon

Storage—maximizing flavor

Don’t you go near that refrigerator! Somewhere along the line, a myth became popularized that coffee was best stored in the fridge. Not true. Although a place that is cool and dark is best, the fridge exposes coffee to a whole bunch of moisture that ruins the flavor. The best plan after opening a bag is to store it in an airtight, lightproof container at room temperature.

It is not recommended to keep beans, even unopened, for more than a few weeks as they start to lose their flavor after roasting, but if you really need to keep them for longer than that, some people say that the freezer isn’t a bad option for up to 6 months. However, they should be removed from the freezer and given a chance to thaw for a couple of days before using them, and they should never be put back in the freezer after the bag has been opened.

It is also best to store the beans whole, and grind them fresh before each use.

Coffee Talk—how to be a true coffee snob

Coffee, like wine or beer or anything else people like to savor has a lingo for describing it. Here’s a cheat-sheet for what these words mean, but feel free to come up with your own creative descriptions.

Was it?

Acidic- when people say this, they are talking about that tang, not actual acid in the coffee. Did you get a bit of a metallic taste, or feel it along the sides of your tongue when you slurped? If so, it is acidic. This often depends on the processing. Coffees that are wet processed tend to have more acidity to them than those that are dry processed.

Bright- this is often used synonymously with acidity, but really it goes beyond just the tang to the weight and feel of the coffee. Would you taste the coffee and say that it was perky? Or, was it more heavy? If perky, then bright is a safe bet.

Full bodied- this term usually describes coffee that has some punch to it. Coffee that stays around in your mouth after you swallow, leaving some nice rich flavor behind is full bodied.

Balanced- when people say coffee is balanced they are referring to the balance of how the flavors complement each other and how the coffee hits your tongue. When slurping the coffee, do you only feel it on one part of your tongue, like the sides? Or, do you feel it on the sides and the front? If it is in more than one place, and you get more than one flavor, then it is probably balanced.

Earthy- honestly, this one is often used as a nice description when people don’t want to say that a coffee tastes like dirt. I don’t mean dirt in a bad way, but some coffee tastes like dirt. This is often also due to processing. Coffees that are dry processed tend to have more earthy profiles than those that are water processed, such as Sumatran coffees.

Flowery- this is often more in the aroma than the actual taste. Some coffees smell more like flowers than fruits or other edibles, so people will often say that bouquet is flowery.

Did it have hints of:

Chocolate, Caramel, Cherries, Blueberries, Lemon, Grapefruit, Grapes, Nuts, Smoke, Spice, Salt, Butter, Grains?

For additional flavor descriptions check out this tasting wheel 

Cuppers and connoisseurs use the following tasting steps, and you can too if you really want to practice your profiling chops.

Like the cuppers do (tasting several different roasts simultaneously), it is often helpful to taste 2 different coffees at the same time, because it will help you to identify similarities and differences, and notice subtle flavor differences. If you are a beginner, try doing coffees from different parts of the world, because they will probably have very different profiles, making it easier to distinguish the differences. 

When tasting coffee, the “proper” technique goes as follows:

(Double each step if you are tasting 2 coffees together)

Step 1: Smell it and describe the aroma

Step 2: (BE CAREFUL it isn’t TOO HOT!!) Slurp it, letting the flavor molecules disperse across your entire tongue

Step 3: Identify where on your tongue you tasted it, was it on the front, sides, back?  Identify the weight of the coffee, did it seem to be gone as soon as you swallowed, or did the flavor linger? Did it have a tang to it? Did it feel kind of syrupy?

Step 4: (Optional) pair it with a complimentary food to extract other flavors that might be hidden in the coffee otherwise.

Step 5: Enjoy!

What do all the terms mean?

There are several different types and qualities of coffee and terms you may have heard thrown around such as Arabica and Robusta, high altitude, organic, or shade grown.

Arabica vs. Robusta: Arabica and Robusta are the two types of coffee around the world, each of which has a multitude of sub varieties. Arabica beans are higher quality beans. They only grow at high altitude, they are denser, they have less caffeine per bean, which makes them taste less bitter, and they require more attention to grow. Robusta beans contain much more caffeine, giving them a more bitter taste, they are hardier, and can grow at sea level with much less care. 

High Altitude: as mentioned above, the best coffees in the world are grown at high altitude along steep terraced hillsides in cloud forests. These are the Arabica beans, that are bigger, denser beans which are more uniform and hold up better during the roasting process. The altitude means that the beans ripen more slowly in a climate with cooler nights, creating sweeter more balanced flavor profiles.

Shade grown: coffee can be grown in three ways.  It can be grown on a monocultural, large open plantation where it is the only crop; it can be grown on a polycultural farm where it creates a symbiotic relationship with a variety of other plants and crops (such as bananas, oranges, papayas) benefiting from the shade provided by the other plans; or it can be grown on small monocultural farms under the giant shade trees, which the locals in Bolivia call the Sikili trees. Only certain varieties of coffee can be grown in the shade, and it is generally considered a good thing because it is the higher quality varieties that do well in shade. It is also considered a good thing because the shade grown farms, whether polycultural or not, do less damage to the environment since the coffee bushes are grown in and around other plants, rather than clear cutting forest land. This helps to protect animal habitats and preserve natural ecosystems.

Organic: this is somewhat counterintuitive for some people, because obviously everything we eat is “organic” in that it comes from organic materials. However, in order for a product to be certified organic, the plant and the farm must go through a rigorous and expensive certification process. This involves cleaning the land of the pesticides, meaning that no pesticides can be used on that land for at least 3 years prior to certification, and no pesticides or other chemicals can be used on the coffee plants or the coffee beans during any stage of the growing, harvest, processing, or preparing.  Farmers who do not have the money to pay for the certification process can advertise that their products are pesticide free, or explain it as natural, but cannot say they are “organic”.

Bird-Friendly: like organic, this term refers to a certain certification that confirms that a farm is both organic and shade grown and therefore an appropriate sanctuary for birds. Again, there is a lengthy process and cost involved, and there are many farms that practice bird-friendly farming techniques that are not certified, but still care about the birds and protecting the ecosystem.

Fair trade: similar to the others, this is a certification that confirms that a product was ethically sourced. It also requires a rigorous inspection process and a licensing fee to maintain certification. There are many coffee farms that work hard to provide fair labor standards to their workers without being certified fair trade.

Apasionado Coffee: What are you drinking?

After reading all of this, now you’re the expert. You tell us- what are you drinking? Can you describe it? Please send us your best description, we would love to know what you think! 

Independent Q-certified cuppers at the Coffee Review have rated our coffee  from the 2014 harvest 92 (out of 100). Coffee in this point range can easily sell  for approximately $40-50 a pound on the retail market.

Coffee Review described our coffee, which comes from the Las Tacanas Finca as: Deeply pungent, original, complex. Pecan, pomegranate, melon, lily-like flowers in aroma and cup. Rich, balanced acidity; lightly syrupy mouthfeel. The fruit notes in particular carry into a long, cleanly resonant finish.

Another group of cuppers said  it was: “Very special, distinguished by, both sweetness and acidity, bringing up the fruity flavors of citrus, grapes, berries and melon.”

Our coffee is roasted lighter than many coffees because its cupping profile reached a max point at a light roast that really allows all of the delicate subtle flavors to shine through. Our coffee goes through a rigorous selection process to remove any imperfect beans, and is cupped throughout the harvest to ensure optimal production practices are followed at every step.

We recommend drinking your coffee from our farm as soon as you get it, rather than saving it for a special occasion because it coffees begin to lose their flavor the longer they sit after roasting. We suggest drinking our coffee within 2 months of its roast date for best flavor.

For best brewing, our coffee tastes excellent if prepared in a Chemex, following their brewing instructions. 

It is also good in a French press, such as a Bodum. 

But, you can also make it in a regular drip coffee maker or an espresso machine and it will be tasty too.

Generally,  a good rule of thumb is 2 tablespoons of ground coffee for every 6 ounces of water depending on how strong you like it, and remember to grind your beans fresh for each use.

Want to learn more?

Have a question that wasn’t answered here?

Please send us your questions.  

Our coffee expert, Yehuda Lilo, will answer them for you.

Check out some other coffee sites to learn more: