An Ancient Bean and a Daily Tradition: Lessons “From Plant to Cup”
By Katrina Herzog
On an unseasonably bright Sunday afternoon at the end of January, coffee pro Scott Richardson, owner of the wholesale roaster Herkimer Coffee, joined botanist/molecular biologist Sara Patterson to lead a workshop about the history and cultivation of coffee plants and beans. After the lecture, Richardson offered a tasting of Herkimer roasts.
Origin and History
Of the more than 120 species of the coffea plant, the two main species that humans use to produce coffee are Coffea arabica, which is originally from Ethiopia and accounts for 60-80% of the world’s coffee production, and Coffea caniphora (robusta), originally from West Africa. Robusta accounts for 20-40% or the world’s coffee production.
The earliest documentation of coffee dates back to the 9th century. Coffee became commonly used as a beverage in Ethiopia and East Africa in the 1300s, and in Yemen it was known for its ability to stave off hunger. In Cameroon, it has been utilized for its antimalarial properties. Coffee continues to be recognized for many health benefits today, as an antioxidant, a neurological stimulant, and of course, for the joy many of us get from our daily cup of coffee.
Thanks to Western European migration to Persia, Turkey, and Northern Africa, coffee became hugely popular throughout Europe, with the first coffee house in Rome dating back to 1645.
Crops began to be introduced to Indonesia and the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Cultivation became prevalent in Brazil following their independence in 1822, and Brazil is now the country that exports the most beans throughout the world.
Coffea grows in the tropics or semitropics as an understory crop, meaning that it grows beneath the forest canopy but above the forest floor, and is highly shade tolerant. It grows typically at an altitude of 1500-5500 feet. The higher altitudes produce a finer flavor due to the diurnal shift (hot days, cool nights) that allow coffee beans to grow dense, making for more particular flavors. Arabica bushes, typically 10 to 20 feet in height, tend to grow stronger and healthier in cultivation than Robusta, which are up to 60 feet and can grow at lower altitudes.
The flowers of coffee plants produce cherries that start as green, and shift to bright red when ripe. With such a wide variety of species, some harvestable cherries can look like jelly bellies (yellow, orange, deeper red, purple), which take an expert to understand.
Once the cherries are picked, they get laid out in the sun to dry for 2-4 days through the organic or natural dry process. If dry processed through mechanization, cherries are pushed through a machine that takes less than 24 hours to dry but decreases the quality of the yielded beans. After the cherries are dried, the outer layers, including a parchment-like layer, are removed to reveal green coffee beans.
Scott Richardson works with small farms, specifically those who operate natural production. Buyers like Richardson are encouraging farmers to slow or stop mechanization because the quality is better through handmade production. This can be challenging for farmers who don’t have access to the processing equipment and are reliant on mills to process beans from the cherries. In countries like El Salvador, they must bring their coffee to a beneficio, who sets the price based on market price, which can fluctuate significantly based on the political situation in each country.
Beyond the impact of political unrest, climate change is also threatening coffee production. Production may decrease 39-59% in Ethiopia alone, based on sporadic water delivery; if it doesn’t rain during flowering season, the harvest is not going to be as high quality or as plentiful.
Richardson explained, “Coffee is a quantity crop, because there’s a threshold for what you’re willing to pay for your coffee in the morning. Whereas wine is a quality crop -- you’re gonna be more willing to pay more for your wine at night.”
The United States imports mostly Arabica, but corporations sometimes get Robusta (dark roasts), as its production is cheaper. Homogenization of the production and roasting processes can counteract high costs. Businesses like Starbucks use dark roasted beans, making all their coffee taste the same, therefore removing the nuanced flavors that can be created through organic growing, natural drying, and lighter roasting. Combining our morning coffee with milk softens the homogenized experience and makes burnt or quality-sacrificed beans more palatable.
Scott Richardson offered a tasting, or cupping, of a variety of Herkimer Coffee beans. The process included smelling the beans at multiple steps and then using a spoon to dip into the coffees for a taste. Richardson then prepared pour-over tasters of two different beans from his roastery, asking people if they could pick out particular notes of each roast.
In the roasting process, beans expand due to an increase in carbohydrates, making more room for the sugars and caramels, which overpower the acids of the beans. The darker the roast, the less nuance there is to the flavor.
Once coffee beans are ground, the shelf life is 5-10 minutes, because grinding releases the gases. At sea level, Richardson says, “Beans are good for only about two weeks. Medium roast has a shelf life of about 12-14 days post-roast, and light roast about 15-23.” Beans expand and gases can get trapped in the coffee bag or container, making it less fresh. The more the gases start to escape their beans, the more oils come out. “If the beans are oily, they’re done.”
For many Americans who drink a large latte in the morning, the milk (difficult for the human body to digest) acts as a slow release capsule, gradually offering caffeine throughout the day. Instead, Richardson suggests drinking quality roasted coffee that doesn’t need to be modified to enjoy, more like the Italian tradition of drinking a black espresso shot two to four times a day. His biggest rule? “Don’t drink dark roast.” He insists.
January 26, 2020