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Speciality coffee

Good for you, good for the growers

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Speciality coffee

Good for you, good for the growers

By Jennifer Stern

, |

5 min read

Interesting how people who will spend hundreds of rands on a carefully selected bottle of wine will happily grab a bag of pre-ground, almost certainly stale, coffee to serve after the meal – probably with an elegant potstill brandy or a cognac. It’s taken us a while to learn about wine, but we’ve only just started the coffee learning curve.

What is coffee?

When coffee was first brought into Europe, it was called ‘the wine of Araby’, which is apt. Like wine, it is a natural product with an enormous spectrum of flavour and bouquet. But, in the same way that some people are happy to glug away at the cheapest box wine they can find in the supermarket, many people are happy to pick up a bag of pretty generic ground coffee. And – if you’re going to smother it in milk and add sugar – that’s fine, in the same way that you can use a pretty rough and ready box red to make sangria or glühwein. But there is so much more to coffee than using it to flavour milk, and the speciality coffee market is growing. But what is speciality coffee?

The big deal about speciality coffee

Speciality coffee, according to Warren Machanik of Quaffee, ‘is coffee that you want to drink black.’ If you think back to wine – a really good wine is one that you do not want to turn into a spritzer. In the same way that you can recognise the different flavours in wine, a good speciality coffee presents you with a huge spectrum of nuanced flavour and bouquet – and, much like wine, you can extend that experience. As you open the container, the aroma of the coffee escapes – don’t waste it. Savour it. Then – as you grind it – the sensation intensifies. You can then choose from a whole smorgasbord of ways to prepare it. Or if you want the effect, without having to do all the thinking, a good bean-to-cup machine will offer you consistent quality fresh-ground coffee every day.

But there is more to great coffee than how you make it – first you have to find it. You can find good coffee in the supermarket, in the same way you can (or at least once could) find good wine in the supermarket. But you won’t find great coffee there – or great wine – and you certainly won’t find speciality coffee there.

How coffee is grown

Coffee is grown in very specific climatic conditions – high-altitude tropics – and, like wine, there are a number of varietals. And, also like wine, different regions have a signature spectrum of flavours so, roughly speaking, African coffees are bright and fruity, South American coffees are nutty and chocolatey, and Indonesian coffees are sweet, spicy and sometimes earthy. Of course, like wine, the coffee harvest can change from year to year, and – like wine – the ultimate quality of what you end up with in your cup depends on how the coffee has been treated from the time it is plucked off the tree, till the time you drink it – yes every step along that path.

The best coffees are grown in high-altitude tropical forests. Yes, in the forest, not next to it. So, fortuitously, the best coffee is grown by planting a few shade-loving coffee trees between the existing trees, leaving the indigenous forest intact. And, unlike grape vines, which ripen pretty much all at once, coffee berries ripen individually, so the best coffees are those that are lovingly hand-harvested over a long period, picking only the ripest of berries and leaving the not-so-ripe ones to mature. Then there are a few dozen different ways of getting the coffee bean out of the cherry, and we won’t go into that here, but it does make a difference. And then the processed green beans have to get to market. As you can imagine, this process is pretty ‘inefficient’ but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Surely efficiency is a good thing

There is efficient coffee production – huge plantations where the poor little coffee trees have no protective shade, and are harvested by machines with green, almost-ripe, perfectly ripe and slightly over-ripe berries indiscriminately mixed together. The beans are mass-processed, packed into bags and sent off to industrial roasters, where they are packaged (and sometimes even pre-ground) and distributed to supermarkets. It’s efficient and – quite honestly – essential because without that, half the people in the world would have to start work without caffeine and that would probably destroy the world economy more effectively than COVID-19. (Some coffee beans even end up being pulverised into instant ‘coffee’ and – despite what it says on the label – they are not the finest.)

The coffee value chain

So how does speciality coffee work? Well, what’s great about the way coffee consumption is moving is that there’s been a realisation that growing and processing good coffee is best done by small, independent growers in an ecologically and socially sustainable way. How cool is that? And, yes, if you read the labels carefully, you will find coffees that claim to be shade-grown, forest-grown, organic and/or fair trade. All of these are good things, but none of them really ensures either true sustainability or superb quality. In fact, nothing does, really, because coffee merchants are notorious for squeezing the growers who are at the tail end of the food chain when it comes to handing out coffee revenue.

But that is all (slowly) changing with the growing recognition of the importance of direct trade. Again, think back to wine – a good wine is one with a traceable provenance. Imagine buying a wine that simply said ‘Cape’, or – even worse – ‘South Africa’. Doesn’t tell you much, does it? And neither does ‘Colombia’ or ‘Costa Rica’ tell you much about a coffee.

What is direct trade coffee?

Direct trade coffee connects the end user with the growers through a short line of mutually responsible intermediaries. So, if you buy a good direct trade coffee from a local roaster, she or he should be able to tell you to within a few kilometres where the coffee was grown, and how it was processed. And local roasting is another key issue.

The importance of roasting

In their green state, coffee beans are hard, flavourless seeds. It’s only once they’ve been roasted that they start releasing the more than 150 aromatic compounds that go to make up that magic aroma and taste. And from the moment the coffee leaves the roaster, it starts to lose the most interesting, complex and volatile of its flavours. It doesn’t go off, and it doesn’t become undrinkable, it just loses its spark. Imagine drinking a wine that’s been sitting in an opened bottle on the kitchen counter for three days. You won’t die, and it will probably taste okay, but, really, it’s probably best used for cooking. Same with coffee – and, once you’ve ground it, you’d better prepare it pretty quickly if you want to catch the top notes.

If all this sounds like so much away-with-the-fairies hype, that’s not really surprising. If you’ve never tasted coffee, you wouldn’t know. And there is a huge difference between drinking coffee and tasting coffee – much like there is drinking wine (on the beach, with a braai) and savouring wine. Not so long ago, you could do a dedicated coffee tasting session in much the same way as you could do wine tasting but, thanks to that pesky little virus, that’s not an option for the foreseeable future. However, you can still buy great coffee direct from the roasters. Quaffee, the super-duper little roastery tucked away on Buitenverwachting Wine Farm, has been roasting (and delivering all over the country) fantastic coffee all through lockdown because – of course – coffee is an absolutely essential product. Absolutely essential! Just for example, without coffee, this whole story would just be an unintelligible jumble of words.

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