20 Apr How is coffee like vegetable soup?
When we generally talk about coffee, we probably don’t refer to it as a food. But that’s what it is and so there are many similarities to cooking and recipes.
In fact, when we get into a little detail, you can see how difficult it is not only to come up with a good tasting coffee, but to maintain its consistent quality.
Let’s do an analogy with vegetable soup. Say one using only three ingredients: carrots, onions, and celery. And compare it with a coffee blend with only three types of coffee beans.
First, we can understand that where our vegetables come from makes a big difference. Are they grown in a climate that is naturally supportive in terms of rainfall, sunlight, temperature?
Coffee trees grow in dozens of countries, some with climates that are ideal and some that require much more human intervention to produce coffee cherries.
Those climates that have an excellent mix of rainfall, sunlight, and moderate to warm temperature require much less attention to this part of the process.
And what of the soil? Is it nutrient rich? Or has it been over-farmed and lacks basic minerals that affect the taste and color of the vegetable?
Are our vegetables grown organically, or are a lot of chemicals and fertilizers used?
It takes five to seven years for a typical coffee tree to begin producing its flowering berries, inside of which are our coffee “beans.” Fertilizers can speed up the growth slightly, but at a cost to the coffee’s flavor.
And how fresh are our vegetables? How were they stored before we purchased them?
Green coffee beans will keep for several years as long as they are kept dry and not exposed to extreme changes in temperature. Once they are roasted, however, they begin to stale in a matter of hours. (Those wonderful displays of coffee beans sitting in open bags or barrels have a great aroma. It’s because the coffee oils, which carry the flavor, are evaporating into the air.)
You can either brew your coffee beans soon after they cool from the roaster, or use the right technology to package the coffee immediately in oxygen impervious bags with one-way outgassing valves. (A topic for another blog.)
And this is all before we bring our vegetables home and begin making our soup. This process begins an entire new set of variables to deal with.
Unlike wine where you only need to open a bottle and enjoy pretty much the same flavor the winemaker did when he bottled it; with coffee, getting a good bag home only leads to the next set of challenges.
Most basic, what is our water quality? Do we live in an area with extremely hard water? Do we use filtered or plain tap water for our cooking?
Brewed coffee is nearly 98% water. And it’s not only the taste of the water itself that colors the final brew, it’s the interaction of the minerals in the water with the complex mix of organic compounds in the beans.
Then there are individual preferences as to how long we cook our soup, and the ratio of the three ingredients. It’s obvious that if we use two pounds of onions and only half a pound of carrots and celery, we will end up with a different tasting soup than one that uses mostly carrots.
So, with a blend of coffee beans, not only the type and quality of the individual coffees but also the proportion of each coffee type determine the taste profile.
Like the soup, we want the three coffee types to complement each other. Ideally, each one should not detract from the others, while at the same time neutralizing any defects in the others. (At another time we can discuss some of the ways to accomplish this.)
And, finally, when we decide to make the soup a month later, using newly purchased carrots, onions, and celery, what are the chances it will taste the same?
In this last point, it’s amazing that our favorite coffee tastes remarkably consistent from month to month and even from year to year. The roaster is continually dealing with a new crop of beans. Even if they are from the same plantations, they have been affected by that year’s climate. He must adjust the roasting times and roaster temperature. And retune the proportions of the three coffees to keep them in balance.
Maybe next time we can talk a bit about the chemistry and chemical processes that occur during the roasting process and how they determine the taste and quality of our drink.