Drinks

Spilling the Beans

Everything you need to know about buying whole coffee beans
Photo: David Joyce via Flickr
Whole Coffee Beans

As the craft coffee scene continues to grow, so too does the presence of words that are almost wine pairing-esque. At small coffee shops like Perq Coffee Bar in Sarasota, Florida, a conversation with your barista is likely to focus more on the peach and passion fruit flavors your cup will give off, rather than specifying which type of sugar syrup you'd like.

We chatted with Brooklyn's Supercrown Coffee Roasters founder, Darleen Scherer, to spill the beans on what the buzzwords really mean and found three things to keep in mind while browsing for your next go-to morning sidekick.

① Aim High
"There are anomalies, but if you had a wish list, you'd want the highest tree on the highest mountain," Scherer says. The altitude at which the coffee plant grows is one of the factors that plays into its taste. And those "high-altitude" beans you see mean that the coffee tree was shade-grown and likely to have been grown organically in volcanic soil. That's why many shops list altitude when discussing origin—partly to brag, but also as an attempt to educate the coffee drinker. Keep in mind that this tip refers only to arabica beans, rather than robusta, which makes up the more commercial-grade brews.

Of course, the height is all relative. "Mountains only go so high," Scherer jokes, alluding to the fact that what's considered a mountain in Colombia might be a molehill in Peru. And remember that coffee grows near the equator—so no Mount Everest roast in the near future.

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② Wash and Learn
Looking at a cross section of a coffee bean, you'll see that it looks like a thick lipstick tube inside a hard shell. After the tough layer is removed during harvesting and the beans set free, it undergoes one of a few different processing techniques, each of which has some impact on the flavor profile of the beans.

In the "fully washed" method, the fruity pulp layer always comes off. The flip side of this is the natural process of putting it out to be sun-dried. "Because it's a fruit and there are sugars, it can ferment. These guys are fruitier, and it can hit you over the head—grinding it can smell like blueberry cereal," Scherer says. There's also an in-between method called the "honey" method, named for the thin, sticky layer below the thick skin that evokes the sweetness of a cantaloupe.

The method does play into what makes a roast "acidic" or "fruity;" the biggest factor in that is the varietal of the tree itself.

③ Taste, Taste, Taste
Earlier this year, the Specialty Coffee Association of America released a flavor wheel, so you can better understand and describe the different tastes. But don't feel bad if despite a label that boasts hints of dark chocolate, peanuts and molasses, it doesn't feel like you've scarfed down a candy bar. Scherer admits that these notes are subtle, and, yes, it is sort of like tasting wine. Like with everything else delicious, the best way to find your preferences is to try, try, try again—and with all that caffeine, you'll feel ready to take on the world.

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