All for a Cup of Joe

It's as much about the roast as the beans

By Karen Berman


As a nation, we love our daily coffee. The aromatic brew is consumed throughout much of the world, too, and enjoyed morning, noon, and night.

All coffee is brewed from coffee beans grown in tropical countries. Some of the best known are Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya, Costa Rica and Columbia.

We call them beans, but they’re actually the seeds of the coffee fruit. Each fruit contains two seeds, which have a thin skin surrounded by a parchment-like casing. Despite all the different kinds of coffee on the market, just two varieties of coffee bean are used for coffee: arabica and robusta. (A third, caturra, is a hybrid of the two, but doesn’t produce good coffee.)

Two Kinds of Beans
Arabica beans are beloved for the rich, aromatic coffee they produce. They are harder to farm, as they grow best at very high elevations in equatorial regions, subject to extreme fluctuations of daytime and nighttime temperatures. These beans are also susceptible to a leaf rust disease that can wipe out an entire crop.

Robustas are hardier and do not require the high altitudes that arabicas need; nor are they subject to the leaf rust disease. They are also higher in caffeine, but the coffee they produce is harsher, with a more bitter edge.

The kind of bean used can make a difference in the flavor of the coffee you brew. Coffee made from 100 percent arabica is typically more expensive than that made from robusta or robusta-arabica blends. Some coffee drinkers prefer the mellow arabica brew, but many like the edgier robusta. It’s all a matter of taste.

The Key Is in the Roast
Coffee beans must be roasted before they produce coffee. If they were just ground and cooked in hot water, the resulting brew wouldn’t be the same. Roasting transforms the beans’ chemical components into sugar and starch and releases their volatile oils, creating the flavor and aroma coffee drinkers love.

Roasting sounds simple enough: The internal temperature of the beans must reach 400⁰ to 500⁰ F. for several minutes. But it’s a process that requires skill and care. If roasting is too hot or takes too long, the beans may scorch. If it’s not hot enough or too fast, the resulting coffee can be weak.

For years, most coffee in the U.S. got a light to medium roast, and much of America’s coffee still gets this treatment. (In fact, the medium roast is also called American roast or regular roast.) But with the rising interest in coffee, darker roasts have become more popular. Dark roasts are called Viennese, New Orleans, or continental, while even darker roasts are called French, Italian or espresso roasts. The latter produce beans that are almost black.

Coffee is made by mixing different beans, roasted to different degrees. No two are exactly the same.

Which makes the best coffee? Again, it’s a matter of taste.

Karen Berman is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in food, lifestyle and business topics. She is the author of The Little Black Book of Coffee (Peter Pauper Press, 2006).