Coffee – Judging Beans The Barista Way
A ‘barista’ is someone who makes coffee drinks as a profession. Naturally, that experience will shape how beans are judged.
‘Cuppers’ (coffee contest judges or professional tasters) and company buyers share the barista’s goal of finding beans which produce a great drink. But it’s the barista who stands in front of the final consumer every day and receives immediate feedback on the success or failure of those efforts.
So, let’s find out what the barista thinks about a bean and its product…
Roughly 70 countries now grow coffee from which beans are produced, from Africa to the Middle East, from South America to the Caribbean and over to Hawaii – all within a band about the equator of roughly 25 degrees north or south.
Not surprisingly then, given the differences in climate altitude, equipment and techniques – and a host of other factors – beans from different countries show marked differences. Even different plantations will often have drastically different products.
Even so, coffee plants come in two main categories – arabica and robusta. With half the caffeine of the robusta, the arabica is used almost exclusively for the finest coffees. Its beans are more flavorful and full of aroma.
Since coffee grows better at higher altitudes the Milds – arabica beans from plants grown at 3000 feet (915m) or above – are to be preferred. ‘Brazils’ by contrast are arabica beans grown in Brazil, but at a much lower altitude.
Beyond that, judgments will differ depending on whether the consumer intends to ‘roast their own’ or not. Unroasted beans are green, soft and have a vegetative odor, which is normal.
For those seeking roasted, the categories broaden. There’s a light or ‘cinnamon’ (named for the color of the spice; nothing to do with the flavor). These are acidic and highly caffeinated.
The medium or ‘American’ roast is slightly darker and enormously popular since it’s the degree used by the major coffee vendors (Folger, Yuban, etc). Not a quality cup by most barista’s standards.
Dark or ‘City’ roast is what is seen in many specialty shops, where the process has reduced the caffeine and acid taste. The result is a less bitter, often sweeter cup. This is what’s generally used for the average espresso.
Next in line is the ‘French’ roast, so named because the French tend to prefer their coffee more full-bodied. The beans will appear very dark brown and have an oily texture or sheen. Look carefully and sniff so as not to confuse these with beans that have merely been burnt.
Darkest on the drinkable scale is the ‘Italian’ roast, often used in specialty espressos. The deep brown color and pungent aroma are distinctive and make a fine cup.
As one goes down the scale of color, the cups made from these beans will be increasingly less acid and more sweet. This is a consequence of the carmelization (browning and thickening into syrup) of sugars resulting from the roasting process. At the same time some of the caffeine – a bitter chemical – is burned away, producing a mellower cup.
So, next time you shop for beans give a thought to the barista who stands daily in front of an array of choices and with an arsenal of machines. That person knows beans.