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From roots to roast, crop to cup: A brief look at coffee’s infinite variability

From roots to roast, crop to cup: A brief look at coffee’s infinite variability
It might not be something you want to think about while brewing your pick-me-up at sunrise, but coffee is staggeringly complex. It’s more convoluted than simply asking for Mokka-Java or Colombian and being done with it. The factors that influence and nuance that morning cup are nearly infinite, and they interact with one another. Change one thing, and you change them all.

As a roaster, I’m always intrigued to find out what people call their favorite coffee. I try to match those preferences with my coffees, but it can be quite a challenge. I have to work off of my perceptions of those stated flavor preferences, which isn’t the most straightforward process. It would be great if everyone’s taste buds, olfactory nerves, and brains worked together in the same way, but that’s clearly not the case. I roast coffees to get what I interpret to be the best flavor from the beans. To a degree, every roaster does this, but some aim just for a flavor profile they think will sell, others try to exemplify the character of the bean, and still others simply go through the motions of what they believe to be the “correct” process and apply it across the board.

From the very ground in which the seedling is planted to how you end up grinding the beans and brewing them—even how you sip, slurp, or gulp it down—everything affects the taste of coffee, some things more than others. Here are ten of the biggest variables influencing your cup of joe:
1. Origin. Coffee is grown in the equatorial band around the globe between the Tropic of Cancer to the north and the Tropic of Capricorn to the south, known generally as the tropics. Dozens of countries produce coffee inside this strip of the globe, and each one has different circumstances that affect the green coffee seed from the very start.
2. Subspecie. There are dozens of subspecies of coffee, known as varietals. Every varietal has its own story. Some come from selective breeding and adaptation to new regions after being transferred by horticulturalists. Some were created with various grafting techniques. Some were cooked up in laboratories in attempts to minimize susceptibility to disease, infestation and drought. Many trace their lineage through several or all of these, and every single one has a slightly different flavor profile.
3. Soil. Differing soil conditions also play a role in fruit development. Just like terroir has an effect on wine, it also affects coffee. High iron content in the soil can add a metallic taste. Phosphorus can increase acidity in the cup. While they haven’t all been isolated, you can be sure that for every compound found in the earth in which the coffee is grown, there’s a difference in the taste.
4. Microclimate. Differing microclimates contribute a surprising amount to the final cup. Sometimes a certain section of a hillside will get different breezes, moisture, sunlight, or rainfall, each of which in turn affects the plant and therefore the fruit.
5. Macroclimate. Of course, if a small change can alter the taste, a large one undoubtedly does, too. Coffee grown in a sheltered area away from prevailing weather patterns will have a substantially different outcome than coffees grown elsewhere in a given region, and coffee grown in an entirely different part of the world more prone to fog or sea breeze, high heat or wind, humidity or harsh weather will do the same.
6. Altitude. The higher one climbs, the thinner the air. I know it. You know it. And coffee definitely knows it, too—as do the various pests that attack it. Coffea Arabica, for example, is very susceptible to disease and infestation and therefore requires higher elevations to thrive. There are other advantages to this as well. Higher elevations place more stress on the plant causing it to put more effort into reproduction (the seed), in turn giving Coffea Arabica deeper and more complex flavor profiles than its Coffea Robusta counterpart.
7. Processing. Yes, even the act of removing the fruit from the seed can change the taste of a coffee. In fact, it can be the single largest contributor to a bean’s flavor profile. The difference between an identically grown varietal processed two different ways (e.g., being washed and dry-processed versus being wet-processed) can actually be greater than the difference between two coffees processed the same way from opposite sides of the globe. It’s that big of a deal.
8. Roasting. The coffee seed is transformed into a palatable product and made ready to brew through roasting, and it can make or break a bean. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,400 roasters in the U.S. alone. Roasters range from mass-producing, industrial corporations to micro-roasters like us at Wood-Fire Roasted Coffee. As a micro-roaster, I have the opportunity to spend time with bean, to get to know it and really bring out the best in it. I roast to achieve total cup balance. This can mean maximizing characteristics like acidity and terroir, or downplaying them in a roast. The goal is a cup that sings from start to finish and stays true to its ideal flavor.
9. Grind and portion. This is where you (or your barista) come in. These are very important steps in the pursuit of a perfect final cup. Believe me, you can have the best coffee roasted to draw out everything wonderful about the bean, and if you don’t grind the coffee right or use the proper amount, you will always come up shy of greatness. My standard is 1 gram of coffee to 15 grams of water. Start there, and adjust to your taste.
10. Brewing. The penultimate step, right before you bring that cup to your lips, is brewing. You’ve selected your coffee. It’s fresh. It’s from your preferred roaster, and you have put in the effort to ensure that the portion and grind are just right for your brew system. I always recommend the French Press for brewing, as it gives the most control over all aspects of the brewing process. A couple of great alternatives: The Chemex brew system or the Clever Dripper. I never under any circumstance recommend an auto drip coffee maker or percolator. Please ask why next time you are in the shop.

Neither of us, nor the growers, have control over every aspect we’ve covered, which is why trust and experimentation are sort of meta-factors in flavor. You need to trust that your roaster can pick the right crop and roast it to the height of its potential consistently. Once you’ve got it, experimenting to really zero in on what you like best is key to finding your cupful of Nirvana. The next time you wrap your hands around a piping hot mug of coffee, spend a moment thinking about all of these factors and the myriad others that had to line up to get you—and the coffee—to that perfect place.