Knowing your beans: quality over quantity

My husband is in charge of our coffee. He grinds the beans and sets our Black and Decker Thermal Carafe coffee pot every night to begin brewing at 5 a.m. The thermal carafe is necessary since I drink coffee throughout the morning and really hate when it gets cold. We buy beans from Starbucks—the Italian roast, I think, because my husband likes bold coffee. (At least, I think bold is a term that can be used to describe it.) Sometimes we switch to the French roast, and he watches me take the first sip, eager to see if I notice the difference. I never do.

Clearly, my palate needs training. And now might be a good time for me to become a more sophisticated coffee drinker. Back in June, the New York Times Magazine reported that several studies found links between drinking three to four cups of coffee per day and a reduced risk of certain types of skin, oral and prostate cancers. Coffee was also credited with reducing the reoccurrence of breast cancer, Type II diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Coffee lovers everywhere rejoiced. It’s nice when science supports our daily habits, isn’t it?

True, but you might want to pass on that refill. In August, a study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings and reported by dozens of media outlets found a more than 50 percent higher mortality rate for people under the age of 55 who drink more than four cups a day, 28 per week. While cardiovascular disease was singled out, being hyper-caffeinated was blamed for myriad risks called “all-cause mortality.”

Left Coast Roast coverThree to four cups per day can increase your life span, but more than four will shorten it? Clearly the so-called “think drink” is leaving coffee drinkers under 55 thinking about moderation.

It occurred to me that if I’m going to keep careful track of intake, it might be good time focus more on quality. This is where Portland, Ore. author Hanna Neuschwander and her book, Left Coast Roast (Timber Press), can help.

Coffee, it turns out, is every bit as complex as wine in its flavor profiles. (Like wine, coffee also comes in different varietals; Yellow Bourbon, Caturra, and Pacamara are all varietals of  the high quality Arabica coffee.) Formal coffee tasting, which can be done now in many upscale cafés, is called cupping, and involves a lot of loud slurping. I have never been cupping, but after reading Neuschwander’s book, I think I’d like to go. Before that, though, I’d like to understand a bit more about the coffee I’ve been drinking.

Our Italian Roast from Starbucks is Fair Trade Certified. According to Neuschwander, Fair Trade describes a system in which farmers can participate in a co-op for milling and selling their coffees at higher prices. This is all good, though if I were in the pursuit of a more ethical coffee, I might also look for labels pronouncing my coffee to be organic, shade-grown, bird-friendly, or certified by the Rainforest Alliance.

The Italian roast is dark, referred to as “bold” on the Starbucks website www.starbucks.com. While the origin of the coffee isn’t identified on the bag, the beans are a blend of high-altitude Latin American coffee, according to the site. Okay, great. Costa Rica, Guatemala, Brazil and Columbia all grow high-altitude rsz_coffee_tasting-Heather_Harveycoffees. Brazilian coffees can be chocolaty or nutty; Columbian coffee might have a cranberry tang. I don’t really taste any of those flavors in my morning cup, though. Neuschwander has an explanation for that: “Dark-roasted coffee has lots of roasted flavor and little or no origin character.” So, there you have it. If I want to taste the chocolate or fruit flavors in a typical Guatemalan coffee, I’ll have to go for a light roast. And a single-origin coffee would probably be best, so those local flavors—a result of the terroir (the soil), varietal, ripeness, processing and roast—really shine through.

Fortunately for me and those who live in California, Washington, or Oregon, Left Coast Roast includes a detailed look at the coffee roasters thriving in these states. In my home city of Portland alone there are sixteen coffee companies and roasters profiled in the book. The takeaway, though, whether you take a tour of Neuschwander’s profiled roasters or just head down to the coffee shop, is to taste (or cup) a variety of coffees and roasts to determine what you like.  Lightly roasted beans from Sumatra with an earthy, mushroom flavor? Or “exploding blueberry” coffee from Ethiopia? What’s your favorite roast, and where do you go to get it? Post a comment below and let me know.

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received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and now works as a freelance writer and editor. Her clients include many first time authors, and she delights in helping them give voice to their stories. She has recently completed work on her own first novel, Besotted, literary fiction set in Shanghai, for which she is currently seeking representation. She lives in Portland, OR, with her husband, two children, and Yorkshire Terrier, Saunders.