Here is the third installment from my future shop's Facebook page...
So what's the big deal with specialty coffee? What separates it from the coffee you find on the shelf at the supermarket? Why do some people (including me) feel it is worth the extra expense to buy fresh, roasted coffee beans that have yet to be ground?
Well, let's start by talking about coffee as a plant. There are two basic kinds of coffee: robusta, and arabica. Robusta currently makes up anywhere from 70% to 90% of the world's total coffee crop production. The reasons for this are simple: Robusta coffee is, well, robust. It requires less care, and is more disease-resistant and drought resistant than its cousin, the arabica coffee plant. Robusta grows well on the plains, and produces large crops each year. It is a stable commodity in the world market. Arabica coffee plants, on the other hand, grow best at high altitudes, in areas less accessible to modern farming equipment, and are very sensitive to soil ph levels, rainfall, and disease. Arabica coffee farming is just high maintenance, and costs in production are higher.
In today's American supermarkets, Arabica coffee is swiftly becoming the most popular, due to the preference the public has shown for its flavor. This was not always the case. Because robusta was so much easier to produce, large coffee roasting companies used robusta as the foundational ingredient in their coffees. Indeed, in Europe today, robusta is a staple in European espresso blends, where robusta and arabica beans are roasted, tasted, then mixed together to achieve a balanced flavor profile.
In the United States, as well as in other countries around the globe, arabica coffee is considered superior to robusta, due to the considerable difference in flavor. The wonderful thing about arabica coffee is the sheer variety of flavor possibilities, due to soil acidity, altitude, rainfall, harvest and processing methods, shipping and packaging processes, and roasting processes. For instance, a specialty coffee roaster may include information on the package of fresh, roasted, beans you are holding in your hand. That information may include: country of origin, region of origin, FARM of origin, altitude at which grown, processing method, etc. (And a truly "enlightened" roaster will include the "Roasted on" date, so you will know how fresh it is.) The wonderful thing is, two separate roasters can offer coffee from exactly the same place, the same batch of processed coffee beans, and due to their roasting process, may produce different flavor profiles entirely.
In most supermarkets, the most information you can find is the basic geographical region of origin, and the "sell by" date, which is often WAAAAY too long for the coffee to remain fresh. If I can find whole bean coffee, with a sell by date at least 6 months away (a year is better), I am willing to risk trying it. If it is already ground, I won't waste my time. Grinding fresh, and brewing immediately, is by far one of the most critical elements in enjoying a great cup of coffee. We will talk about grinding procedures later.
I still have not explained the different ways the coffee fruit is processed to access and dry the coffee beans. This is so important to what you taste in your cup, I am going to dedicate a separate note, just for that.
So until next time....