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Not your average cup of joe

April 23, 2008

8 Min Read
Not your average cup of joe

Americans love to start their day with a steaming hot cup of java. In 2000, the National Coffee Association found that 54 percent of the adult population of the United States drinks coffee daily, and 25 percent of Americans drink coffee occasionally.

The good news is that drinking coffee can confer a variety of health benefits. One of the most promising new studies shows that regular coffee drinking can help to decrease insulin sensitivity and lessen glucose tolerance, thus reducing the risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Other studies have shown that drinking coffee can help reduce the risk of developing Parkinson?s disease, colorectal cancer, gallstones and liver cirrhosis.

And thanks to the coffee revolution that started in the Pacific Northwest, coffee drinkers have many varieties to choose from. When selecting which coffees to stock in your store, it helps to know the fundamentals that go into making a premium coffee. Not only is a choice coffee bean essential, but its growing conditions, roasting, blending, packaging, grinding, filtering and brewing all play an important role.

Before it appears in a customer?s cup, coffee takes a long journey that originates when a bean is picked from a tree. ?Coffee trees generally take three years to bear coffee cherries,? explains George Vukasin Jr., executive vice president of operations and product integrity at Peerless Coffee & Tea. ?When ripe, the coffee cherries are picked. Inside each cherry there are two coffee beans. The ripe cherries are sorted and inspected, and then they?re milled to remove the cherry skin and inside mucilage, exposing the two coffee beans. After drying and cleaning, the beans are ready to be bagged and shipped to the roaster. The roaster will then roast the beans, blend if necessary and deliver to the customer.?

Although there are many, many coffee varieties, it all originates from two species of coffee plants, known in Latin as coffea robusta and coffea arabica. ?There is a dramatic difference in the taste of arabica and robusta,? Vukasin says. ?Robusta is a lower-grade coffee, which presents a very harsh and unflattering taste. Having said that, all arabica beans are not equal. There are top grades and there are lower grades. I look for the heirloom type of arabica because they produce the most true flavor of the coffee.? Hybrids of these two species are also used in coffee production.

After they?re picked, beans from different varieties are blended. ?Blending coffees should result in a product that is greater than the sum of its parts,? says Rick Peyser, a spokesman for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a manufacturer that carries lines of both organic and fair trade coffees. ?Blending offers an opportunity to add missing or limited characteristics to one coffee variety by adding another coffee or two that have other qualities to offer. This can result in a very interesting cup.?

Peyser says the roasting process is equally important to the flavor of the coffee. ?A lighter roast provides an opportunity for the coffee lover to experience a wide range of aromas and flavors. Darker roasts tend to impart a bittersweet taste that often has charred undertones. This can overpower the subtle differences in tastes that growing conditions in different areas of the world provide to each bean.?

On the customer?s end, Peyser says that the grinding, filtering and brewing process are also essential. ?There are many opportunities to ruin coffee, including each of these steps,? Peyser says. ?Only when each has been done properly will one be rewarded with an excellent cup of coffee.? Peyser says that first the grind must be adjusted to the brewing method, in order to have the right level of coffee extraction when water comes in contact with the beans. As for filters, he says, ?Paper filters trap sediment and many of the oils that carry some of the coffee?s flavor. Gold filters do a good job catching the sediment, but allow more of the oils to pass through.? A French press, he says, ?allows for full extraction of the coffee, keeping all oils available for consumption and enjoyment.?

Protecting land and laborer
Organic coffees are now widely available and offer numerous benefits to consumers. ?Organic coffee is the future,? says Peerless? Vukasin. His company specializes in custom roasts, organic and fair-trade coffees. ?After many years of experimentation, coffee farmers have been able to produce exceptional-tasting organic coffee beans,? Vukasin says. ?We also now have the variety of organic coffees comparable to nonorganic, since most coffee-producing countries are now growing organically. In terms of pricing, there is an added cost to grow coffee organically, which will not disappear. But we have seen organic prices come down over the past 10 years.?

While that may be true at wholesale, the retail price has barely budged. In 1999 consumers paid an average of $8.82 per unit for organic coffee. In 2004, the average price was $8.64. That hasn?t fazed shoppers? commitment to the product. In fact, in the same time period, dollar sales of organic coffee jumped 174 percent, from $3.1 million to $8.5 million.

The concept of fair trade is also gaining currency. ?Fair trade provides small-scale coffee farmers who belong to democratically organized cooperatives with a minimum floor price for their coffee, regardless of market conditions,? Peyser explains, noting that a low-price crisis in the coffee industry for the past five years has driven more than 600,000 farmers from their land, forcing them to search for jobs in urban centers. ?Fair trade enables many of these farmers to stay with their coffee, their families and their communities,? he says. ?Best of all, in this crisis environment, fair-trade farmers are among the few with resources available to invest in the quality of their coffee.?

Other designations that show up on premium coffee labels these days are ?shade-grown? and ?bird-friendly.? Both Peerless and Green Mountain coffee carry these two environmental designations. ?Shade-grown and bird-friendly coffees are certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center,? Peyser says. ?Shade-grown coffee provides habitat for migratory birds that summer in North America.? While the two designations are similar, many companies choose to use both on their labels. ?Growing coffee in this shaded, forest-like environment has, at worst, a benign impact on the environment and, at best, is beneficial.?

Sample before you stock
With so many different coffees available, Peyser recommends that store buyers make their purchasing decisions by evaluating comparable coffees head to head. ?I?d recommend trying a couple of different brands at the same time,? Peyser says. ?If a company comes in and says, ?We have a great Breakfast Blend, or a great French Roast,? I?d encourage buyers to set up a tasting of like coffees so you?re sure if you make a change you?re making a better change. Invite samples from at least two different vendors—if you?re wanting a Kenyan coffee, have a Kenyan from both roasters, or a Sumatra, or a Colombian—you might prefer the roasting style of one company over another.?

Peyser also recommends buyers evaluate coffee for several key elements. ?First, you should test for fragrance. Start by smelling coffee that?s been ground, but not yet brewed,? Peyser says. ?Then brew it, and compare the aroma of each of the coffees. Next, taste it. First try it while it?s hot, and then 10 minutes later as it cools to room temperature. It?s much easier to pick up distinguishing characteristics and much easier on your taste buds when it?s cooler.?

Vukasin recommends that stores take time to educate customers about the various coffees they have available. ?Education is extremely important,? he says. ?The world of coffee is an immense and beautiful world filled with artistry, traditional values, legends and nuances. It?s also a delicious beverage. To translate that to the customer is important. In-store tastings have proven very effective for us. Shoppers enjoy variety but sometimes need a push to indulge themselves. That?s where the partnership between the roaster and the retailer fits in.?

Lynn Ginsburg is the author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin?s Press, 2003). Check out for more information.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 2/p. 24, 28

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