Saturday, September 26, 2009

The wine of the bean. Bunna...Qahweh...Coffee.

Not sure what other culinary product is more interesting than before I get in to my own personal affair with coffee, let's discover some of the intriguing history surrounding the plant(s) of the Coffea genus.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word coffee comes to us (1598) from Turkish kahveh, from Arabic qahwah "coffee," said originally to have meant "wine," but perhaps rather from Kaffa region of Ethiopia, a home of the plant (coffee in Kaffa is called buno). I'm partial to the apparently less-likely etymology, from a truncation of the Arabic qahwat al-būnn, meaning "wine of the bean." Ooohhh. Sexy. I think I'm even going take it one step further and call it qahwat al-būnn min Kaffa, wine of the bean from Kaffa (not sure if that's how you would really say it...I've only gotten to Lesson 2 in my Living Language Arabic Coursebook).

I also prefer the apparently less-likely story of the origin of coffee: Kaldi, the 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herder (or was he really a prince??? ...nod to Akeem Joffer) who discovered coffee by chewing on the red beans of Coffea arabica after noticing the gleeful dancing of his goats after they had done the same. In my mind, this is how coffee came to be, but the more credible story is perhaps even more beautiful. Sufis were probably the first coffee drinkers, using it as a stimulus to stay awake during late night Dhikr (remembrance of God). Each Sufi order or lineage within an order has one or more forms for group dhikr, the liturgy of which may include recitation, singing, instrumental music, dance, costumes, incense, meditation, ecstasy, and trance. (Touma 1996, p.162). No alcohol allowed? No problemo! Power a pot of coffee or three and spin around for a while like the Mevlevi....

(photo by Elainne Dickinson)
O.K., enough history (although there is so much more to be said), let's move on to the harvest and roast. The two most cultivated species are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. Arabica is considered to be the better bean, with more flavor and acidity than robusta (Coffea canephora). As you might suspect, Arabica counts for about 3/4 of worldwide cultivation.

The best (and most expensive) coffee results from manually, individually picked fruits because it provides uniformity to the coffee crop and does not allow leaves, twigs or other litters to interfere with coffee fruits. Usually you find twin-seeds in each coffee fruit but about 5% of coffee cherries (so the fruits are called) produce one, round, coffee seed. Those specimens are sold separately on the market as peaberry coffee. (
(photo by Jake Liefer)

After the harvest, the seeds (beans) must be cleaned of the fruit remains. This can be done in one of three ways: dry, wet, or semi-dry. Instead of explaining the details of each possible step in the coffee production process, I will direct any of those interested to peruse a thoroughly written wiki page on the subject. I will give you a brief overview simply for the wow factor. From the plant to the cup, beans are:
  1. picked
  2. wet-milled (to remove the flesh of the fruit)
  3. hulled (to remove any excess mucilage or parchment)
  4. polished
  5. cleaned
  6. sorted
  7. graded
  8. (potentially) aged*
  9. roasted
  10. ground
  11. brewed
*This aging business deserves some attention, and I will share with you the story of how I was first hipped to it. I was working at Cafe Mare, and on one of my days off, I popped in to say hello after having just purchased some beautiful coffee beans from a local roaster. The beans smelled rich, were dark black and very oily. The legendary Jean-Pierre (Calabrese, but born and raised in Alsace...hence the franquish name) took a grimacing look at my oily little coffee seeds and said "no good, man." He explained further that "It's going to be bitter. Eventually, you want to dry the beans before you roast them, so the oils come out and you get a sweet coffee. That's how we do it in Italy." Damn Italians, everything they do is good. So, I said enough history but here's a little bit more with respect to how "aging" came about:

All coffee, when it was introduced in Europe, came from the port of Mocha in what is now modern day Yemen. To import the beans to Europe the coffee was on boats for a long sea voyage around the Horn of Africa. This long journey and the exposure to the sea air changed the coffee's flavor. Once the Suez Canal was opened the travel time to Europe was greatly reduced and coffee whose flavor had not changed due to a long sea voyage began arriving. To some degree, this fresher coffee was rejected because Europeans had developed a taste for the changes that were brought on by the long sea voyage. To meet this desire, some coffee was aged in large open-sided warehouses at port for six or more months in an attempt to simulate the effects of a long sea voyage before it was shipped to Europe.

Although it is still widely debated, certain types of green coffee are believed to improve with age; especially those that are valued for their low acidity, such as coffees from Indonesia or India. Several of these coffee producers sell coffee beans that have been aged for as long as 3 years, with some as long as 8 years. However, most coffee experts agree that a green coffee peaks in flavor and freshness within one year of harvest, because over-aged coffee beans will lose much of their essential oil content.

So, just like Madeira and India Pale Ale, the glory of aged coffee was discovered serendipitously. I love when that happens.

(photo by Jeff Kubina)
Additionally, aged coffee requires a longer rest after the roasting stage to fully even out. Aged coffee tends to taste best at a dark roast, as this helps to accentuate the body. While aged coffee tends to be of high quality, you rarely ever see aged coffee in anything else but a blend. This is because even the best aged coffee has a taste that some feel is acquired. However, when aged coffee is used in a light bodied blend, it is highly effective. This is because the presence of aged coffee beans can add body without adding undue acidity. (

Man, this is a long ass post!!! We're not even to the roast!! At any rate, once the beans are roasted, they should be ground and brewed as soon as possible. It's not always easy if even possible to know when your beans are ground, are lucky enough to live in Oakland or San Francisco, where you can get beans from Blue Bottle Coffee Company. The founder's vow is: "I will only sell coffee less than 48 hours out of the roaster to my customers, so they may enjoy coffee at its peak of flavor. I will only use the finest organic, and pesticide-free, shade-grown beans. If they can't come to me, I will drive to their house to give them the freshest coffee they have ever tasted." The last time Lissa and I went to the city, we grabbed a cup at the at Blue Bottle in the Ferry Building. While I was patiently waiting for my perfectly pulled espresso, I lamented to the barista, "I wish there were a Blue Bottle in Santa Cruz." He said to me, "Well, why don't you go to Verve, their coffee is awesome."

Errrrrrrrp (record scratching). Verve?? Dank microroasters on the east side of the Cruz, what???? Yup, and their beans are the bomb. Turns out that there are killer microrasters popping up all over the place. Hopefully there's one near you already, or one coming soon. You can see on the top of the label, the roasting date. In a perfect world, I would have a beautiful little manual burr grinder to freshly grind my beans each time I brewed a cup 'o' joe. Alas, I do not have a fabu burr grinder, but it's all good. We keep our ground beans in a ceramic canister with a locking lid, and go through a pound in a week. Now, on to the brew...

We use a melitta cone and (unbleached) paper filter to make our drip coffee. Here's some tips on how to brew the best cup if you use a cone filter also: let the water cool for about a minute once the water boils (water should be 198° F), pour some water through the empty filter to get rid of any papery taste and to warm the cup, use 3-5 tablespoons of ground coffee (soft but still gritty) for every 8 oz. of water, pour the water over the grounds to let them expand, then as you are pouring the rest of the water, gently but steadily stir the grounds. Now, finally, the culmination of tremendous amounts of time, energy, and (hopefully) love, you have before you in a ceramic cup, qahwat al-būnn min Kaffa, the wine of the bean from Kaffa. Enjoy.

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