Dubbed the elixir of life, coffee—the undeniably beloved brew is far more than just a dark caffeinated liquid. Excelso founders Carrie and Jeff are committed to helping people drink the best coffee and to understand the intense process that is involved in every cup. Roasting in Tauranga since the early 1990s, they supply cafes, wholesalers and customers from their Roastery on Third Ave and now run a series of educational workshops that cover every facet of coffee production, from green beans 101, to an introduction to cupping for beginner and advanced palates and, as you’ll discover, the fascinating life cycle from crop to cup.
Much like wine, the flavour and characteristics of coffee depend on an array of variables: from terroir and growing conditions, to processing techniques, degrees of roasting and brewing methods. Each stage in the process imparts a significant characteristic to each and every cup.
Green Arabica Plant
This evergreen tree is the beginning of coffee’s existence, transforming from blossom to a ripe coffee cherry. As the fruit ripens to a deep red colour, it is individually hand-picked and transported from the plantation to the various processing stations. Leaf rust, animal pests and hilly terrain are all obstacles that hinder the initial growing process and typically some of the most delicious coffee can be the hardest to obtain as it grows at higher altitudes.
Once picked, it’s time to pulp or process the fruit to extract the bean using various methods. Washed (wet) is the most common, where water is used to remove the fruit from the beans and then left to dry—generally imparting a cleaner flavour. Natural (dry) processing removes the fruit after the drying process. It takes more time and imparts a sweeter flavour. Honey processing sits somewhere in between. The coffee cherry is sliced open, the fruit forced off and the sticky honey-like mucilage substance is left on the bean to ferment. It’s more intensive but produces a bean that is both clean and sweet. The decaf process is an interesting one. Excelso uses beans that undergo the Swiss water method, which takes up to 8 hours and relies on the process of osmosis to extract the caffeine, which is then sold to pharmaceutical markets.
The processes for sorting, grading and shipping all take extensive time and resource, which for many small-scale coffee farmers would be impossible to undertake. Farm co-operatives are a fantastic initiative, where various coffee farmers collaborate to collectively use the machinery and equipment required, instead of each having their own. As with any natural product, visually each bean will look, feel and behave differently to the rest depending on its journey thus far.
Owner Carrie explains: “You can think of the coffee roasting process a bit like popping corn, where the dense green beans undergo a snap, crackle, pop.” Appropriate heat and precise conditions allow the beans to carry out a series of chemical reactions; the acids and sugars react, the moisture is released and the bean essentially puffs up, resulting in an increased size or mass, but a lighter weighing product. The job of a roaster is to get the best result out of the green beans, which involves experimenting with small batches and applying heat to extract the best flavour, texture, aroma and viscosity. Varying degrees of time and temperature are played around with to discover how light or dark each roast needs to go. Using ‘cupping’ methods, the roasters pick out the characteristics of each bean to determine whether it is best used alone, as a single origin, or blended with another and then trialled to gauge whether it is best used for espresso or perhaps lighter brewing methods and in some cases a combination of both.
After roasting, coffee beans are ground to specific settings depending on the method in which it will be used. But the general rule is: finely ground coffee for espresso, medium for filter and coarse for plunger. Naturally, the fresher the bean, the better the outcome. Whole roasted beans will always last longer than ground, so a hand grinder is a great option for the home brewer. Once ground, due to oxygen exposure and the volatile oils within the roasted bean, characteristics like aroma will begin to deteriorate. Though if grinding fresh every day isn’t an option for you, Excelso will happily grind your beans to exactly how you like them.
There are three key methods to extracting the prized caffeinated liquor into the cup. Filter/drip is used for chemex, v60 and cold drip, where water moves slowly through the medium ground coffee. Immersion is used for methods like plunger or Aeropress, where the water sits in a coarse ground coffee for several minutes before being pushed or poured out. Pressure is the final method, used for espresso and stovetop, where heated water is forced through using a very fine grind to extract the coffee.
In terms of storage, avoid the fridge and stick to an airtight container or thermos bean holder in a cool, dark place away from direct light.
Espresso coffee is generally the richer and stronger of the brew methods and tends to use a blend of beans from different origins to impart enough body, balance, acidity and flavour that combines to create the deep chocolatey richness, signature crema and can stand up to being combined with steamed milk. Natural/single origin beans are increasing in popularity; they tend to be lighter, more diverse and impart a distinct smell. Ethiopian beans especially are fruitier, lighter and more like tea, while Kenyan beans are darker, more gutsy and have a more intense finish.
Equal parts complicated, timely, universal and subjective no matter how you choose to drink it, the prized coffee bean and its farmers deserve the utmost respect. So, before you sip, always take a moment to appreciate the unique and laborious journey coffee has undergone to have found its way into your delicious cup.