The science of sensuality

From crop to cup, there’s nothing simple about the unsung morning hero that is coffee.

By Russell Williamson 20/03/2018

Coffee lovers have never had such a richness of choice in their favourite beverage. And if you happen to be in Melbourne between March 22 and 24, the Melbourne International Coffee Expo, the largest in the Asia Pacific region, is a one-stop shop for all things coffee, with roasters, cafes, baristas and equipment manufacturers all on show.

Chances are, it’s the smell that first hits you. The rich aroma that wafts from behind the espresso machine, teasing the olfactory senses with smoky, nutty, floral or fruity odours. If that’s what gets you going first thing in the morning, you’re one of hundreds of millions of others across the globe.

Coffee is one of the world’s most traded commodities, with the production and export alone valued at over $20 billion a year. Australia plays a part in that trade, largely as a consumer with a per capita consumption of about 3kg per year. Surprisingly, that puts us in a lowly 42nd place globally, paling in comparison with the Finnish, who top the list with a massive 12kg per person per year.

Over the past two decades, however, Australians’ consumption of coffee has rapidly grown – and it’s not just how much, but which coffees we’re drinking that has changed dramatically.

The first big shift in Australian coffee drinking habits occurred in the 1960s, as the waves of post-war European immigrants established roasteries and cafes in Melbourne and Sydney. Brands like Coffex, Genovese, Grinders, Mocopan and Vittoria were born, awakening us to true Italian-style espresso.

But over the past 15 years, Australian coffee culture has risen to a whole new level. A boom in the growth of specialty coffee has seen the establishment of hundreds of small-scale and micro roasters creating and supplying specialty cafes across the country.

Walking into one of these cafes, one no longer thinks of simply a generic espresso, cappuccino or latte – but perhaps one made from a single origin Ethiopian Gesha, or Panama Red Bourbon, or a unique house blend comprising beans from Kenya, PNG and Guatemala.

This breed of cafes and roasters exists for the same reason a whisky drinker might look for an aged Islay single malt, or a wine aficionado seeks out a single vineyard Hunter Valley Semillon.

Coffee is not a generic product. Depending on the quality, origin and variety of the beans, the way they are processed, the roasting, the grinding and eventual skills of the barista, what you get is a massive variety in taste, aroma, body, acidity and even caffeine content.

In terms of flavour, origin has a big impact. Broadly speaking, the three main growing regions of Africa, Central and South America and Asia have certain distinctions. African coffees often are described as fruity or floral, and might include characteristics of blueberry, strawberry or jasmine. The product out of the Americas is broadly clean with a delicate sweetness of chocolate or caramel, while Asian coffee tends to be heavier-bodied and earthier.

But just like fine wine, individual terroir also has a significant effect on the growth, ripening and subsequent flavour of the coffee beans, with soil, sun, seasons, altitude and airflow all having an influence. As a result, many of the new breed of specialty coffee roasters source directly from small producers at origin – or at least are able to trace the direct origin of the crop – to better maintain the quality and characteristics of the beans they buy.

The bulk of specialty coffee comes from the coffea arabica species that was originally native to the southern Ethiopian highlands. However, within the species there are dozens of varieties that also have their own distinctive profiles, such as Typica, Bourbon and that most sought-after Ethiopian Heirloom Gesha.

The quality and origin of your beans still does not guarantee a great coffee. One of the biggest impacts on the taste and aroma of the end product is the roasting process. Processed green coffee beans are heated to between 180°C and 240°C for periods of eight to 15 minutes, creating a Maillard reaction that produces some 800 different compounds, many of which determine the resultant flavour.

Like winemaking, roasting is an art. That flavour is then tested, tasted and refined before the beans get packaged or ground, ready for the espresso machine or drip filter.

The grinding process of the roasted beans also affects flavour – and we haven’t even started on the barista, whose skills in creating the perfect cup of coffee cannot be underestimated.

No longer need you settle for a latte from your local. Seek out a specialty coffee café and explore the true potential of the bean.

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