According to the National Coffee Association, coffee holds rank as the most popular beverage in America, with 58% of residents choosing it daily over tea, water, juice and soda, but how much do you really know about your cup of joe?
Where coffee comes from
A member of the cherry family, coffee grows on trees — mainly the Robusta and Arabica species — across a tropical swath of the world known as the “coffee belt.” Terroir lends its own distinctive flavor qualities and characteristics to the beans harvested in each growing region.
Some of the most widely recognized coffee-producing countries across the globe include Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Columbia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Yemen and Indonesia. In the United States, Hawaii claims the lion’s share of coffee territory, although a specialty coffee farm industry is now emerging in Southern California as well.
Once the coffee beans, or cherries, are ripe, they’re hand-picked and removed from the branches before sorting, washing and drying. The husks are removed, then the green cherries are graded by size and weight before shipping around the world for roasting, grinding and drinking enjoyment.
The dynamics of roasting
Paige Gesualdo, head roaster for FRINJ Coffee, says roasting by its simplest definition involves heating a batch of coffee beans to augment their aroma, flavor and solubility.
“Coffee beans are roasted according to a profile, or recipe, appropriate for their size, variety and desired flavor,” she describes. “The three main elements you have to pay attention to are time, temperature and volume.”
The first phase is drying, heating the beans anywhere from four to eight minutes to pull the moisture out, which ends in the yellowing phase, an indicator that the beans are ready for the next phase.
“This is the most crucial step because it determines the overall roasting time for each batch and sets the stage for the rest of the process,” Gesualdo continues.
During the browning that follows, the coffee beans start to look more familiar and recognizable, but the final development stage is what really brings out the flavor and aroma.
“You get to a point where the beans start to crack,” Gesualdo says. “It sounds like popcorn or Rice Krispies. Some will even puff up a little bit.”
Roasting is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The roaster must keep careful watch as the beans go through several colors in a matter of minutes and can quickly burn if not closely monitored. The temperature, the length of the roast and the spin speed of the roaster drum can all be adjusted as needed along the way.
“For me, roasting is like meditation,” Gesualdo muses. “It’s a very mindful, intuitive process that requires full concentration.”
Roasting levels and caffeine content
Logically speaking, the longer coffee beans spend in the heat, the darker the roast will be. How dark to go depends on the desired result and the coffee profile for a particular bean. However, Gesualdo warns that too much caramelization can mask the subtle natural flavor notes of high-quality beans.
“We do a lot of light to medium roasting at FRINJ, usually 9 to 12 minutes total,” she explains. “For most of our Arabica beans, a dark roast would overwhelm the floral and fruit-forward qualities we’re trying to create. We want our beans to stand alone on flavor.”
Contrary to popular belief, dark roasted coffee doesn’t contain more caffeine than a light roasted variety.
“Caffeine is extremely stable throughout the roasting process,” Gesualdo says. “If you’ve got a light roast and a dark roast, the difference in caffeine is negligible when you’re comparing bean for bean. But, it can vary if you’re comparing bags of coffee beans by size and volume.”
Robusta coffee contains more caffeine than Arabica, clocking in at 2.7% versus 1.5%. As Gesualdo points out, most specialty coffee growers work exclusively with Arabica beans for their prized flavors and adaptability.