Espresso Joe and why coffee tastes like coffee
This post first appeared in NZ News UK, 7 January, 2011
Welcome to 2011. This year promises to be an excellent one for coffee lovers in London with more and more great quality cafes opening around the city – and kiwi coffee makers will be helping to lead the way.
Naturally, I will be heading out onto the streets to find the best places to buy from and sharing that knowledge with you. I’d also like to expand my knowledge of what coffee is and share that with you. So here goes…
There are, of course, two types of coffee.
For many people, this is all they need to know. Their pleasure usually comes from a caffeine hit or the sociability of sharing a cup with a friend.
For the rest of us, coffee can be an exploration of tastes and continents and the pursuit of the perfect cup.
Great cups of coffee exhibit all kinds of tasty flavours. Chocolate, toffee, crème-brulee, cherries or nutmeg can play tag with the base coffee flavour. It’s like having a greengrocer setting up shop in your cup.
There’s also the discovery of foreign places in each coffee shot: Brazil, Guatemala, Indonesia, Ethiopia or Jamaica await us – all from the comfort of our kitchens or local café.
Coffee is an organic, changing product found across the world. That’s what helps to make it such a fascinating drink.
But at the heart of it is that coffee tastes like… coffee.
I could bang on about the vanilla notes of a particular roast (and probably will, in another post) but the fact is that coffee does have a basic taste that makes it unique – it is not like tea, for instance.
It’s all in the roast. As coffee is heated, the starches residing in the bean – technically a seed – change into basic sugars, which begin to caramelise and turn the bean brown. (Starches are how plants store energy for the next season’s growth spurt.)
As well as starch, coffee beans also contain certain oils.
Somewhere just below 205 degrees C, the oils in the bean undergo a transformation and caffeol is produced. This oil is the very essence of what we call coffee. Coffee tastes like coffee because of caffeol.
It’s a fine balance in getting it just right. Heat the beans too much and the caffeol burns away. Not enough heat and the oil does not transform. So, a good roaster is worth his or her weight in… erm, beans.
The other problem is that heating something causes it to sweat – coffee beans included. That’s why the beans are left for a few days to reabsorb oils after roasting. If you buy beans and they look particularly oily on the surface, you’re not likely to get a good cup of coffee from them. True story.
So, knowing the above may not make your daily (or hourly) coffee taste better or worse but perhaps it may help you to decide why it tastes that way and whether you want to continue purchasing from your current vendor. It might just be time to try somewhere new for 2011.