Waking up is a grueling and discouraging process for a lot of people, especially, I would argue, college students. The warmth and safety of a bed are powerful when faced by the opposing force of academic responsibilities. Why get out of bed and sit through another lecture when you can just lay under the covers watching Kitchen Nightmares all day?
As soon as you can recover from the “just-woke-up” depressive episode and remember you are going into years of debt just to sleep in an XL twin, the day really begins. Then you have to deal with your next crisis: sustenance. Walking to Phelps Hall for breakfast is an option, but powdered eggs aren’t sounding super appetizing this morning. It’s also 30 degrees outside and there’s a foot of snow on the ground. Phelps is not the right call. You’re not leaving your dorm until you absolutely have to.
Sitting in fatigue, slowly all hope seems to be lost. You ate your last granola bar yesterday and haven’t gone grocery shopping in a month. Like Good Times after three Dykstra clusters go on a donut run, your dorm is desolate and barren. But then you remember.
You have coffee.
There is no safer drug, no better tasting addiction than caffeine in the form of coffee. And no, I don’t mean your iced latte from Starbucks or Biggby, which is one-eighth coffee, seven-eighths sugar, designed to give you a crash so you have to come back and buy another overpriced drink. I’m talking about high-quality coffee beans, roasted to perfection, freshly ground, with minimal cream and sugar.
According to a TED talk by Chandler Graf, a biochemistry major and barista, a billion people around the world drink coffee every single day while the technicalities of coffee production go widely unknown. As coffee enthusiasts (and sometimes snobs), the Anchor wanted to spread the good word about how the different treatment of coffee beans can greatly impact your morning brew. In order to do this, we had an in-depth conversation with biology and science of coffee professor Dr. Thomas Bultman about coffee processing and coffee roasting.
For starters, coffee, contrary to the way it’s typically described, is more of a fruit than an actual bean. Coffee trees grow cherries containing pits that later become the grindable coffee “beans” we know and love. Beans, depending on where they have grown and the altitude at which they have grown, have vastly different characteristics. Beans from a high-altitude country like Ethiopia, for example, can have hints of dark chocolate and blueberry, whereas beans from a low-altitude country like Costa Rica will typically be smoother and fruitier. Beans at higher elevations are also harder than low altitude beans.
The Anchor focused its conversation with Bultman on only two of the main methods in which coffee beans are processed, the first of these being the wash process. Wash processing makes smoother, more reserved cups of coffee. In the wash process, the cherries are picked and pulped, resulting in two beans. The beans are then, as the name would suggest, washed, while a thin film called the parchment remains on the bean. After that, green beans are moved into a fermentation stage, where beans sit in a large tank of water for several hours. When beans reach around a 12 percent moisture content, they are taken to a dry mill where their parchment is removed, resulting in an unroasted green bean.
The second method of processing is called natural processing, which Bultman prefers. Natural processing allows for bolder, fruiter flavors from the bean, since it spends more time fermenting inside the cherry. In natural processing, cherries are picked and left intact on raised beds. As the cherries sit in the sun (and are turned regularly) the moisture in the cherries begins their own natural fermentation process, giving beans a brighter, more vibrant flavor. This fermentation process takes days to weeks to complete, and upon completion, beans are taken to a dry mill to remove their parchments.
After beans are processed, they’re moved to a roastery. Coffee roasting, Bultman said, is more of an art than a science. Roasting can make or break the flavor of your bean. The spectrum of coffee roasting ranges from City to French, being light and dark respectively. As roasts get darker, the more flavor from the bean is lost, as more components of the bean break down. Lighter roasts have more fruity, bright and light-bodied characteristics, whereas dark roasts are smoky, bitter and can be more chocolaty or nutty. In Bultman’s mind, dark roasts seem pretty pointless, unless you want your coffee to be incredibly bitter. Light to medium roasting can bring out the best flavors in any bean, whereas darker roasts can make it impossible to distinguish between high and low-quality beans.
As beans get hotter inside the roaster, the moisture inside starts to turn into steam, creating pressure and eventually creating what is called “first crack,” an audible crack in the bean. Everything that happens after the first crack is called development. However, the duration of roasting and end temperature of the bean is not the only important aspect of roasting. Roast profile, or how quickly the beans reach a certain temperature, is the key to good roasting. This is where the art comes in, according to Bultman. If beans get too hot too fast, they can be scorched, and if the temperature of the bean evens out before they’re removed from the roaster, it’s called stalling. Both of these will greatly affect the taste of your brew.
With all of this information, you now have the necessary knowledge to make an educated decision the next time you need to buy coffee beans. Bags of beans will typically say where the beans are from, how they were processed, and what flavors can be found in your cup at home. Personally, I prefer naturally processed beans from a high elevation country (typically Ethiopia), but it’s all a matter of taste (no pun intended).
If you would like to know more about coffee or even hear about a May term abroad in Costa Rica on a coffee roastery, you can contact Bultman at firstname.lastname@example.org.