MARTINSVILLE Coffee is a hot topic in America as evidenced by the crowded meeting room of the Martinsville Library, where a large audience came to hear Danny Heiss talk about it recently.
Heiss is an owner/operator of the Daily Grind coffee shop, just across the street from the library.
The United States consumes a quarter of the world’s coffee. Coffee is the second largest import, Heiss said, only behind oil. By some estimates, 10 percent of the world’s population get all or part of their pay from coffee.
What people refer to as the coffee bean actually is a fruit, Heiss said. It’s a sort of a cherry, and the pit or seed is the coffee bean.
Coffee only grows in tropical climates. The caffeine in coffee has a purpose for the plant: It’s a natural pesticide, he said. In its raw form, caffeine tastes like aspirin.
There are two types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is smaller and harder to grow, but tastes better. Robusta, which has much more caffeine, is larger and easier to grow. “Bad coffee from the grocery store probably is made with a lot of Robusta,” Heiss said. “One hundred percent Arabica beans can make a good coffee.”
Coffee production “is a very family-oriented industry,” Heiss said, involving about 125 million families. “They don’t make much money, barely enough to get by,” he added.
Heiss said he prefers direct trade purchasing over fair trade. With direct trade, “you get to know the people” involved, “have access to rarer coffees, limited lot sizes. It’s a direct money exchange. You pay the farmer directly, so a larger percentage goes to the farmer.”
He added, “the direct purchaser needs to be more passionate and involved” than with fair trade. “Fair trade isn’t fair,” he said, explaining that the designation means farmers are paid a flat rate for coffee which does not necessarily reflect the actual value of the coffee.
Before processing, the cherries dry in the sun on a mesh, allowing airflow underneath as well as above them to dry them; then the husk is removed.
The coffee fruits are processed in one of three ways, he said.
The processes are called Ethiopian, honey process and washed. With the Ethiopian method, the fruit is left on the bean while beans are dried on drying beds, concrete pads or raised beds. It produces the deepest flavors of berry and chocolate. That method is being used now also in Brazil.
Through the honey process, the skin and pulp are removed, leaving the mucilage (the “honey”) intact. It gives flavors of apples and stone fruits such as pears. Costa Rican coffees tend to be processed that way.
The washed process, the most common, “is very wasteful of water,” Heiss said. The cherry is passed through a depulper, which removes the fruit, then ferments in a tank until the mucilage is no longer sticky. This coffee has higher levels of acidity and citrus flavors.
Coffee beans can go through one of two main methods of roasting, Heiss said: on a flow bed, which uses a drum, and fire-roasting, the original type.
“If you like data, roasting is the job for you,” he laughed. “It’s very, very detail oriented. They consider it an art form, but I consider it a science.”
Patrick Wright, who was in the audience, raised his hand to comment, making a pun on coffee roasters: “They would be coffee boasters, wouldn’t they,” he said, to the chuckles of the rest of the audience.
Brokers buy the coffee from the families who grow it and then sell the coffee to mills.
Once it is milled, an exporter comes into the picture, “in charge of regulatory paperwork, insurance and trading.” Though the broker “is not a critical role,” the exporter “is essential to the trade. With it, coffee can’t leave the shipyards.”
The coffee next is handled by an importer, who “allows coffee to enter the country.
The difference in light and dark coffees comes from the roasting, Heiss said. Lighter-colored coffee has more of the “flavors of origin and process,” whereas the flavor of darker coffee are more the “roasted and burnt flavors, like burnt marshmallow and charcoal which Starbucks has indoctrinated Italian roast is a great way to take cheaper coffee” and disguise it, he said.
After coffee has been roasted, it is degassed. Fresh roasted beans let off carbon dioxide, he said, so the coffee “goes into degassing until it has no more gasses to give. Then it begins to absorb gas.” It should be degassed within one to three days before it is ground and consumed, he added.
Coffee absorbs unsavory aromas, he said, so it should be brewed within 90 seconds of the time it was ground.
Heiss talked about the several brewing methods, saying that the French press produces the best coffee. However, “it takes longer than advertised,” he said: Coffee grounds should steep for 12 to 15 minutes, as opposed to the three or four minutes most people think.
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