Pascal's Coffee

Friday, September 22, 2006

Wild For Coffee

Here is a very basic summary of coffee literacy and although it is general I think that this is an excellent start to this blog, it is intended for the novice...

Hopefully after this article you will be prepared to face the wilds of the coffee bean culture around you and maybe make a better cup of coffee to boot. Now some of the following is what ‘they’ don’t want you to know (insert mysterious music here)…

To start there are two types of coffee, robusta and arabica. One is cheap and one is expensive…. Ok the differences really…




High Caffeine content

Woody flavour

Used in instant coffee and low quality espresso blends

Drunk by the public known as ‘strong’ coffee

Easy to grow

Grows like a weed virtually anywhere

Smaller rounder bean


Moderate caffeine content

Delicate Flavours

Used in espresso and higher quality blends

Drunk by aficionados know for ‘quality and taste’

Hard to grow

Only grows in certain climates

Larger oval bean

So when people ask for strong coffee… make sure it is strong by using a double shot or adding more coffee to a plunger, so when drinking for quality always use freshly roasted arabica beans.

Things that affect strength, taste:
Roast: dark is bitter and is the old fashion way of drinking coffee (1960’s), basically it was almost charcoal (burnt) where the oil rises to the surface of the beans. Generally a good (full city) roasted bean will have a matt chocolaty look (more dark than milk chocolate), it should not be glossy! We have come along way since then.
Water temperature: ideal brewing temp is from 88 to 96 degrees Celsius. Too hot burns the coffee producing bitter flavour, too cold produces sour tastes.
Rancid oils: regular cleaning of the group head and handle are very important in an espresso machine because you’ll get burn oils flavour which is acrid. Many experts will run the first shot as a dud to line the basket with fresh oils then make their first cup… Oh the trouble!

Coffee is grown in exotic locations all around the world, the best coffees are arabica beans grown in the “coffee belt”, around the equator and some rare high altitude like Jamaican Blue. Coffee beans are grown in Africa, South American, Indonesia to excellent PNG coffees and right here in Australia where beans can vary from the extremes of good and bad.

Expect to pay more for good coffee but relative cost to value, there are some bargains to be had.
Coffee stays fresh for about 2 weeks after roasting but generally not more than 3 weeks. Coffee is like wine, it has its own quirks. After roasting a period of time must elapse called the de-gasing stage where carbon dioxide is released as the bean settles. Generally I like to wait 3 to 4 days and then drink, although others have their own time periods. During this de-gassing stage the bean is volatile and need to age to release its true potential.

Coffee once roasted is sensitive to light (UV), heat, cold, oxygen, and the other enemy, time. It should be stored in a cool, darkish place, sealed. Never in the fridge or freezer. Thanks to technology little things like bags with one-way valves in them allows the carbon dioxide to escape, there are jars called vin-vacs, they use a pump to get air out to create a great storage environment, just like wine. If fresh coffee is vacuum-sealed for long periods the gas will build up and cause the package to explode….
What does that tell you about coffee in the supermarket? Yep…expired before it’s even packed! This is just one coffee-crime. Some supermarket coffee at over $70 a kilo…

Another myth is that Italian coffee is the best…. Hmmm think again…Australia produces wine and truffles of such good quality it’s got the Europeans in a twist, so that they now come in drove to study our methods… why?
Science. Rather than rely on the truffle, wine, coffee gods and guesswork we excel in agricultural and biological sciences. Many Italians coffees still use robusta in their blends and pass it off as fortification… huh? Me too. Basically it means more profits. The world buy it’s beans from all around the world and the Italians buy lower grades of beans and can pass them off as higher quality. And here’s why… Barista skill. The person making the coffee is always the biggest factor in the end product, just like a chef.

Here are a few tips:

  • Use freshly ground beans. In highest quality commercial circles coffee is stale in 20-30 mins. So buy a grinder if you haven’t got one and do it yourself. The precious coffee oils oxidize quicker when ground.
  • For a plunger, boil water and wait a minute or two… use this time to get cups warm, or portion the coffee into the plunger. This time cools the boiled water.
  • Clean your espresso machine and the group head regularly. Rancid = Yuk
  • Buy your freshly roasted coffee weekly or fortnightly and savour the flavour.
  • Never overheat milk. And mix portionally to your coffee… experiment.
  • Finally… water… fresh and clean if in the city, use a filter.

Congratulations on your perfect cup.