Coffee, the magical potion that makes the world go round. Hipsters love it, Baristas make a living from it and any hardworking person above the age of 16 literally cannot function without it. We flavor foods with it, make coffee beer, and even coffee scented perfume.
But what do you really know about the humble bean? Sure, you know how it looks like, that it is roasted and ground, and the barista who just refuses to write your name right grinds it up and pops it into a funny looking machine, but what do you really know? Go and talk to a coffee geek at his favourite local roaster and you will understand how woefully under informed you really are.
What do you know about Arabica or Robusta beans? What on earth is a city roast or a peaberry? What the hell is a Slayer? With Singapore currently in the Third wave of coffee, these terms are becoming more widely used. Fear not though, I will guide you through the basics of coffee, and hopefully you can further appreciate how it is made, how it’s grown and how it’s served.
Arabica vs Robusta
You see that word all over. 100% Arabica beans, Pure Arabica Coffee etc etc. But have you given thought to what it means? Do the beans come from Arab Countries? Are they grown by Arab farmers? Are they watered by Arab tears?
Basically, without getting too scientific, Arabica was the first species of coffee to be cultivated, and the most prominent. ¾ of all coffee produced is Arabica, which is considered the best type. I am really generalizing here as it depends on the roast and varietal of the coffee, but Arabicas typically have more fruity notes and more acidity than a Robusta, which has more nutty, toasty and bitter notes. Also, Robustas have twice the amount of caffeine than Arabicas, making them more bitter.
Local is Better
There is a reason why almost all coffee is sold in vacuum bags. Coffee is an extremely perishable product. After a few days in oxygen, the coffee has oxidized or turned stale. Have a bad cup of old coffee and you will see what I mean. Most of the more volatile aromas and flavours are lost. For this reason, coffee is kept mostly in vacuum. But even still, the shelf life of a vacuum packed bag of coffee lasts for half a year. Noticeable degradation appears after a month or so. And don’t get me started on pre-ground coffee. With such a large surface area, they can last 3 months sealed. If opened, they degrade rapidly. A week would turn your lovely single varietal into convenience store coffee.
For this reason, we should patronize local roasters. Coffee only degrades once it has been roasted, so roasters ship it in green, and roast it on premise. With the rise of artisanal coffee, local roasters have started popping up around Singapore. Take a leap of faith and spend the few extra dollars. Get a fresh bag of good coffee and grind it at home. Grind it on premise if you really must. Your palate will thank you. Talk to the baristas and roasters, learn and enjoy.
You may have noticed I talked about the Third Wave of coffee earlier, a term coined in 2002. Now what do I mean by waves of coffee? Basically there are three waves of coffee. The first wave was the popularization of coffee, where people had instant Nescafe in every household. It was not really appreciated, more of a basic commodity.
The second wave was the slightly better understanding of coffee. People wanted different roasts, Starbucks became popular with the different types of coffees it produced.
We are currently in the third wave in Singapore, where people don’t just see coffee as a caffeine supplement, but a beverage worthy of appreciation. We as a whole are more aware of coffee origins and varietals than we were 20 years ago. We are at a coffee boom now, so take the opportunity to get out there and get a good cuppa joe.
Of course not all coffee is created equal. Dependent on varietal, freshness and origin, coffees can be worlds apart. But before all the special coffees, I would like to request something of all readers. Stop drinking Kopi Luwak. Right now. For those who do not know, Kopi Luwak is the infamous Civet Cat poop coffee. The idea behind it is due to the fact that civet cats forage and eat only the best coffee beans, and the trip through the digestive system enzymes makes the coffee smoother, while decreasing aroma and flavor.
But I am not here to argue taste. The main issue is due to the fact that civet cats are being kept in battery cages like chickens, and being force-fed inferior coffee beans, just so they can poop them out. Civet cats are not meant for captivity, and some get so stressed they chew their own arms off.
Tony Wild, the man who popularized it, has publicly denounced it. If you see a good coffee place selling it, scold the owner. Send a complaint letter. Scowl at the barista. Just send the message across that overpriced shit coffee is not welcome here. It isn’t even good anyway.
In contrast, a coffee you have to look out for is the Geisha. A special variety that is pretty rare. To fully describe the taste, imagine a mixed fruit juice. Just mixed fresh fruits, a bucket of this generic juice. Add in some jasmine, a little bergamot, some honey. Now dunk your head in it. That is what Geisha tastes like. Just a blast of sweet fruits with lovely floral notes, a honeyed sweetness and long finish. Go to your local coffee place and request it. Not Starbucks though, the dude at the counter has no idea what it is.
Quality coffee is important, but the machines you use are equally so. Pop a Geisha into a crappy budget espresso machine and what comes out is mediocre. Pop a standard one in a good machine though, and you can do wonders. The granddaddy of all espresso machines is the Slayer. The machine can adjust the pressure and flow rate on the go, making it able to give you two very different cups of coffee from the same bean. Depending on the flow rate, the pressure and the grind, you focus on extracting different flavours from the bean.
A coffee could be light, floral and acidic the first time, and thick, sweet and nutty after a few adjustments. At the moment the only place in Singapore that I know has a Slayer is Jimmy Monkey at one-north. Don’t bother getting one for home use though, the machine will set you back 18,000 USD at least.
If coffee were simple, there wouldn’t be barista competitions. Those guys behind that machine at the local coffee joint have been practicing on that machine for possibly years, and have devoted their time and energy to perfecting their craft. The information here barely scratches the surface.
So in the end, the last aspect that makes a good coffee good is the human aspect. I have seen amazing baristas not being accorded the correct amount of respect. Treat a good barista as you would a good chef, they have probably devoted the same amount of time to producing the best tasting product for you.
Go down to a good coffee place. Easy to find at this point in time. Have a good coffee, talk to the barista (as long as he is not busy) and learn. In the end, taste is subjective. If you prefer instant coffee or those overly sweetened drinks at Starbucks over a good espresso, then there isn’t much I can do. But just remember one thing, stay away from ‘cat shit coffee’. #justsaying