By Jochen Beheydt
Coffee is just coffee. Right? Hot bean water that delivers caffeine, dress it up with sugar, dairy and flavoring if you want it to taste like something. Cheap and omnipresent, taken for granted, its exotic origins overlooked: coffee is the banana of craft beverages.
Coffee as a crop, however, is as varied as any other fruit or vegetable. Living in wine country, it is easy enough to make the comparison with grapes: red wine is red wine, but baco noir is not merlot. Different coffee varietals, such as Bourbon, Caturra or Geisha, will dictate the flavor, body, and sweetness of your favorite morning brew.
Varietals are the result of natural mutation or hybridization, and most can be traced back to the original varietal known as “Typica,” which still grows wild in Ethiopia along with other heirloom varieties. Terroir or origin, growing conditions, weather patterns, (micro-)climate, farming practices, and processing of the berries will likewise determine the qualities of the fruit and ultimately also of the seeds that will be roasted, ground, and steeped in hot water.
There is a popular misconception that coffee should be strong and bitter, the kind of stuff that burns going down and grows hair on your chest. Unfortunately, a lot of coffee does fit that description, which is often the result of bad quality beans, faulty roasting, incorrect grind, or improper brewing. As a fruit, coffee cherries are sweet and acidic. These flavor profiles are also present in the seeds—or coffee beans—even after they are roasted. Flavor profiles for roasted coffee have a wide range that runs from sweet, fruity, and floral to darker notes such as cocoa, dark chocolate, burnt sugar and spices. Good quality arabica coffee beans that have been properly roasted, stored, and brewed will also be mildly bitter due to the presence of certain naturally occurring compounds, such as chlorogenic acid, but bitterness should never dominate. As with wine, palates and noses can be trained to distinguish the various notes, aromas and profiles of coffee.
Join me in future articles as we explore the different aspects of this multi-faceted drink from cherry to sprudge.
Jochen Beheydt is the co-owner of Seneca Sunrise Coffee in Watkins Glen.