The World of Coffee
All About Coffee
Coffee is a global commodity that which plays an important role in the lives of millions of people every day. It has huge economic importance and cultural significance. A key player in the coffee industry is Italy, the cultural home of espresso, and this is reflected in the fact that Italy imports the third highest amount of coffee beans in the world. Italy is also the second largest exporter of roasted coffee beans, which are mostly distributed within the EU, with the USA and Australia following closely behind.
A Brief History of Coffee
The origins of coffee as a drink lie shrouded in the mists of time. It is believed that the cradle of the Arabica bean rests on the gentle hills of the Ethiopian highlands. From there it has rapidly grown to become one of the most loved beverages and is enjoyed in coffee shops and households across the world. Today, the Arabica bean is considered one of the finest coffee beans on offer.
One popular legend tells the story of a young Ethiopian shepherd boy who noticed that his goats became peculiarly alert and lively after eating the leaves and berries of a certain plant. He picked them and experimented with various methods of ingestion, toasting and infusing them. This led him to discover a new drink - the drink that we know and love as coffee.
By the Middle Ages, coffee was popular throughout Arabia and the Middle East and arrived in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Coffee shops in cities were the place to be for intellectuals, artists, members of high society and general 'movers and shakers' of the time. Since then, every country has developed their own unique ways of enjoying and celebrating coffee - but none with such gusto as Italy.
The Coffee Plant and the Different Types of Beans
The coffee plant is indigenous to hot, equatorial countries such as Brazil and Ghana. It is evergreen, growing throughout the year. The coffee plant thrives in hot and muggy conditions although it can grow at a wide range of heights from 200 to 2500 metres above sea level. A coffee plant can be recognised by its small white flowers which have a strong scent, similar to that of the jasmine plant. The berries are also small and similar in size to cherries.. They take approximately seven to nine months to ripen to a rich, red colour. The beans are wrapped in a protective outer skin and lie in the middle of each berry, encased in pulp.
The Two Main Varieties: Arabica and Robusta
There are thousands of botanical varieties of the coffee plant, the most commonly used ones in the coffee industry being the Robusta and the Arabica. Caffè Sardo only uses Arabica beans.
The Arabica variety accounts for nearly three-quarters of the world's production. It is native to Arabia but most Arabica coffee is grown in Brazil and other areas of Central and South America, including Colombia, the largest producer of washed coffee.
Arabica undoubtedly makes the best tasting coffee. In contrast to the robust Robusta, the sophisticated Arabica bean demands specific climate and soil conditions. It can only thrive in optimal positions between 600 m and 2100 m above sea level. The Arabica takes its own time to mature due to the high altitude whilst the noble coffee cherries mature at a much slower rate than the Robusta coffee bean.
The aromas of the Arabic bean are correspondingly intense and multifaceted. It contains lower levels of caffeine than Robusta and has a rich, round palate with many layers of aromatic flavour. Arabica is harder to grow, thriving in mountainous areas 600 metres above sea level. It is less pest resistant than Robusta and has a lower yield, but at Caffè Sardo, we firmly believe that its superiority is absolutely worth the extra trouble and expense.
The Harvesting of Coffee Beans
In most coffee producing countries, the harvesting process is still largely manually done following two predominant methods:
The “picking” method involves taking the cherry by hand, one at a time, carefully selecting only those that are perfectly ripe. This is considered the most effective harvesting technique but is very expensive because of the manpower required. The Arabica coffee beans that are used for Caffè Sardo are the fully mature beans which have been allowed to grow to shining bright red coffee cherries. This can only be done by hand picking and careful selection, as beans of different degrees of maturity are found on the same shrub.
The “stripping” method involves grabbing the whole branch and roughly stripping it of all the cherries in one movement when they are believed to have reached optimal ripeness. This method is speedy but results in a poorer quality harvest as the beans are indiscriminately selected.
How Coffee Beans are Processed
Once harvested, there are two ways of extracting the beans from the cherries.
The 'dry' method is used if the fruit has been 'stripped' and results in 'natural coffee'. The coffee cherries are left in the sun to dry for a couple of days. They are then placed in decorticators that allow the coarse peel and parchment to be pierced, thus freeing the green seeds. This technique is fast and inexpensive.
The 'wet' method is generally used for fruit that has been carefully harvested by the 'picking' method and results in 'washed coffee'. Specially designed machines crack each cherry's skin, releasing each precious seed. They are then instantly placed into fermentation tanks which separate the pulp from the parchment. This process results in perfectly clean seeds which are then dried. The 'wet' process is more time-consuming and expensive but produces high-quality coffee beans that can be easily distinguished by their flavour and aroma from the inferior 'natural' ones.
Gentle Roasting is Essential
Arabica beans also need to be roasted with care. The sensitive beans are only able to fully develop their whole range of flavours by careful drum roasting at a moderate temperature. The traditional process is significantly more time-intensive than the rapid industrial hot-air roasting at 550° Celsius. It is only in the drum that the beans roast slowly and uniformly to their core, thus losing a large portion of the gastric-irritating chlorogenic acids. This means that drum roasting not only protects the beans, but also the stomach. Coffee from Arabica beans is much more digestible and has less caffeine than that made by Robusta, resulting in a more pleasant drinking experience.