Coffee at its best is a daily grind

Instant coffee won't do, says Richard Ehrlich. Freshly ground beans are the only option, especially at Christmas
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Coffee is big business. In 1995 its retail market had a value of $45b (around pounds 27b). It is produced in 80 countries, of which 51 are members of the International Coffee Organisation, and is cultivated on around 10 billion hectares of land.

This article is concerned with another side of the coffee business, a side exemplified in the mug that sits by my right hand as I type. The mug contains a beverage made from 100 per cent Arabica coffee beans grown in the Lintong region of Sumatra and roasted within the last week. It is deeply fragrant, with a warm earthiness and rich herbal notes which linger in the mouth. The beans are at the peak of freshness.

Coffee of this quality accounts for 1 or 2 per cent of world production. In the USA, it would be considered part of the market for "speciality" or "gourmet" coffee. In the UK, unfortunately, it is all too rare. The UK coffee market was worth around pounds 736m in 1995, but per capita consumption is the lowest of all EC countries. Finland is highest, at 13.2kg of beans. In the UK we drink just 2.7kg, and 90 per cent of that is instant coffee - or "soluble", as it's called in the trade.

Those who haven't yet been converted to quality are missing a lot. The best coffee is as complex as great wine. And with coffee as with wine, knowing where it comes from and how it's made is the first step on the path to enlightenment.

Coffee is brewed from the seeds, universally called beans, of the fruit (cherries) of a tropical evergreen shrub in the coffea family. There are two types, Robusta and Arabica. Robusta accounts for most of production, but only Arabica produces fine coffee. While coffee can grow from sea- level upwards, altitudes of 4,000 to 6,000 feet produce the best: cooler temperatures mean long, slow ripening and thus a dense, hard bean with a high concentration of flavour- forming compounds.

Let's say that you have just picked ripe coffee cherries from a prime, high-altitude estate in the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica. In each cherry the skin encloses a soft layer of mucilaginous pulp, a tough layer of parchment, a thinner layer of silverskin, and finally the seeds - normally two per cherry. You have to (A) get them out and (B) make them usable for coffee.

In Tarrazu that aim will be achieved by "wet processing". The skin is removed and the seed-bearing pulp transferred to fermentation tanks for 18 to 36 hours while enzymes in naturally occurring micro-organisms loosen the pulp from the parchment. If left too long, or if contaminated, the beans can develop a host of defects. When the pulp is loose, it is washed off and the beans are left to dry on patios, with regular raking to ensure even drying. When completely dry, the parchment will be removed by milling.

In a place with less water, the cherries will be "dry processed": spread on patios or tarpaulins and left, with raking, to let the skin and pulp shrivel in the sun. Then the skin and pulp are milled off, and the beans left to dry before they too are stripped of parchment. The complexities of processing are immense. If you want to learn much more, have a look at Espresso Coffee: The Chemistry of Quality (Andrea Illy and Rinantonio Viani, eds, Academic Press, 1995).

From the consumer's point of view, the difference between processing methods lies in flavour. Wet processing leaches out sugars and a higher proportion of soluble solids, yielding a cup with higher acidity (better called brightness) and less body - the weight, fullness, or creaminess in the mouth. Dry processed beans have less brightness but more body.

Our "green" beans will be sorted by size, and defective beans removed. Then they're packed into 60 kilo bags - the coffee industry measures in bags - and sold. Lower-quality beans would be blended and sold into the bulk market. But our beans come from the coffee equivalent of a classed- growth chateau, so they will be bought, unblended, by a smaller buyer.

They possess the potential to make great coffee, and will keep it almost indefinitely as long they remain un-roasted. But they still have three hurdles to clear before the potion of wonder greets you at breakfast.

The first hurdle is roasting, which can make the difference between perfection and land-fill. Giles Hilton, Buying Director for Whittard, says that "each country has a particular style, and therefore a perfect way to roast each one." Nonetheless, he adds, "even with a knowledge of the general rules, it's essential to fine-tune."

Roasting takes around 12 to 15 minutes, and it has distinct stages. After three minutes the beans start changing colour, and the coffee has a grassy or cereal smell which can be detected in the cup. At seven to eight minutes the beans undergo their "first pop", swelling and sloughing off the silverskin. They can be stopped now, and often are by cost-conscious roasters, but they are unpleasant. Another two minutes brings "full" roast, when the total package of flavours is at its fullest.

At 12 to 13 minutes we enter dark or high roasting, which dampens acidity, boosts body and caramelises sugar. This degree of roast can produce some of the best coffee, but it's also the danger zone. Another few minutes and carbon starts replacing caramel. At 15 minutes or so the bean is getting burnt. If you get a cup of coffee that tastes like charcoal, it is probably made from cheapo beans. Strong, black, disgusting - one expert calls this "Pompeii Roast".

After roasting, the beans have to be cooled. Large-scale roasters spray them ("water-quenching"), but the superior cooling system uses a perforated tray, on which the beans are stirred while a fan sucks out heated air. Flavours develop in the first 24 hours after roasting, and the rate of cooling affects both flavour and keeping properties.

We now have perfectly roasted beans, but a clock has started ticking. Roasted beans have a finite shelf life, so it's essential to (a) buy from a place that roasts often and (b) store them properly once you've taken them home.

On point (a), a great book called Coffee Basics, by Kevin Knox and Julie Sheldon Huffaker (John Wiley, 1997), gives useful points to look for in a retailer. One, they shouldn't sell more than 30 coffees; any more and they may not be freshly roasted. Two, ask when the coffee was roasted and how long it's been in the hopper. Three, their own brewed coffees (if they serve them) should be few in number, freshly made and of high quality. Four, coffees should be identified not just by country but by region and preferably by estate. These criteria are harder to meet in the UK than in the USA, but ask anyway. You might also ask in good restaurants, just for a laugh.

Point (b) is more contentious, but here are the main considerations. First, never buy pre-ground coffee: grinding speeds staling. Whole beans are usually sold in one-way valve bags (which allow carbon dioxide to escape), vacuum packs, or airtight bags with inert gas. Once opened they must be used fast - ideally within a week. If you buy in bulk, the bag will not be air-tight. Transfer beans to an airtight container, and again aim to use within a week. I should add that I keep beans for a month and notice no drop in drinking quality.

So, finally: great beans perfectly roasted, bought fresh and stored correctly. Do we have a fantastic cup of coffee? Not if we bugger things up in brewing. First: grind to the right size for the method being used; you can grind up to two to three days in advance. Second: measure 30ml (2 tablespoons) for 170ml (6fl oz) of water. Too little coffee and the brew tastes bitter because of over-extraction; too much and it's overpowering. Third: draw fresh tap water, boil it, then cool to just off the boil before adding to the grounds. Fourth: brew for four minutes. Less time and extraction will be incomplete.

Making espresso is a different matter altogether. You need a precise "dose" of precisely ground coffee, water at 90C, inlet water pressure of nine atmospheres, a "cake" of coffee with the right ratio of diameter to height and tamped down to create correct porosity. And the brewing must take place quickly - around 30 seconds - or the water will extract off-flavours. The aim: 20ml (one and a third tablespoons) of a drink containing high levels of solids and droplets of coffee oil. The foam on top, "tiny gas bubbles trapped by the viscous fluid", as Espresso Coffee puts it, should have a deep brown "tiger skin" pattern.

Can you make satisfactory espresso at home? I put the question to Dr Ernesto Illy, president of Illycafe, which produces 13 million pounds of top-notch espresso beans every year. He replied: "Some people can do it. People are intelligent and stubborn." I am not intelligent or stubborn enough. Italians say that espresso requires perfection in the four "M"s - macinazione (grinding), miscela (blend), macchina (espresso machine) and mano (the hand of the operator). You can get the first two right, but good machines cost hundreds of pounds. And the fourth M, the operator's skill, accounts for 50 per cent of success. As much as I love a good espresso, I'll leave it to the experts.

Coffee, once made, should be drunk while hot and without reheating. If that's impractical, the ideal procedure for all-day drinking is to decant the freshly brewed coffee into a Thermos-type flask. A compromise: pour it off the grounds right after brewing and reheat gently just till the coffee feels hot. This can be done in the microwave if you're careful. Never leave coffee on a hot plate for more than 15 minutes.

OK, now we know how to get a great cup. But which one should we buy? In a general sense, the answer is easy. Make small, regular purchases of well identified coffee from a supplier of freshly roasted beans. The supermarkets don't cut it.

The hard part of the answer is also the fun part - deciding what you like best. Experiment. Taste at home. Talk to a well informed retailer. The staff at Whittard are exceptionally well trained and can help with areas of production and types of roast. Getting hands-on (lips-on?) experience is better than any potted guide that I could give you.

As a quick guide to the three main areas of production, however, here's a starting point for top quality. In South and Central America: high-grown Guatemala and Costa Rica. In Guatemala look for the regional names Antigua and Huehuetenango; in Costa Rica for Tres Rios and Tarrazu. Peru and Nicaragua also produce good coffee, though it is harder to find. In Africa and Arabia: look for Ethiopia and Yemen. Ethiopia, where coffee first grew wild, has two great names: Yergacheffe and Harrar. In Yemen, seek out Mocha (or Moka) Mattari.

The third region is the Pacific, especially Sulawesi and Sumatra. Java can be outstanding, especially in well made blends. Aged coffees from all three places have reduced acidity and gorgeous earthy flavours. Papua New Guinea is fantastic at best. India makes a small quantity of fine coffee, including some that are "monsooned" - aged under damp, windy conditions. Jamaica Blue Mountain and Hawaiian "Kona" are never - repeat, never - worth the high prices charged.

UK coffee culture has a long way to go before it reaches American levels of awareness. But the trends are encouraging, with the market for roasted and ground coffee up by 150 per cent between 1990 and 1995. However complex the progress from shrub to cup, the choice between acceptable and truly wonderful is an easy one to make.

COFFEE TASTING

Most coffee is bought at supermarkets - 88 per cent - with own- label products accounting for 40 per cent of the roasted-and-ground sector. To assess its quality, I sat down two experts at the Monmouth Coffee House in London: the Monmouth's own Anita Le Roy and Jeremy Torz of Torz & Macatonia. They sampled bags from the multiples, a pair from two coffee bar/retailers, Aroma and Costa. We tasted blind, and kept tasting as the cups cooled to see how flavour changed. Jeremy said: "You need to make sure the flavours stay in the cup." Both were struck by the coffee's faint aroma, indicating lack of freshness and unsuitability of some grinds for the specified purpose. There was also one example of "omni-grind" coffee, ostensibly suitable for all types of coffee maker. Anita said: "This is done for the convenience of the store, not the customer."

THE COMMENTS

Waitrose Christmas Coffee Mocha Sidamo: pounds 2.79/ 227g. Jeremy said it had crisp acidity when hot but was "rougher and badly defined when cooler. It is not elegant." When the identity was revealed, he said: "These are bad beans from a good area." Anita agreed: "Harsh, Robusta-like qualities. Low-grade beans. A smell of rubber." Jeremy**, Anita**

Tesco Kenyan Blend: pounds 2.29/227g. An insurmountable problem here - fermented beans, described by Anita as "the sweet smell of decay". When I smelled again, I realised this was a familiar sensation. Anita guessed it was African, and both thought this might be good coffee without the defects. Jeremy*, Anita**

M&S Connoisseur's Choice Mocha Java: pounds 2.49g/227g. A thumbs-down. Anita spoke of "sacky flavour. Good Java should have spiciness, but this is just rough - poor-beans." Jeremy couldn't taste either variety, and described a "roughness that's not pleasant at all." When Anita said it tasted "like motorway coffee", Jeremy replied, "more like the motorway itself." Jeremy *, Anita **

Budgens Pure Arabica Blend: pounds 2.09/227g. This bag showed the importance of roasting. The cereal taste of under-roasting was evident, possibly from using a flush-bed roaster which supposedly does the job in four minutes. My team reckoned it could have been good coffee with better roasting. But Anita found it "under-developed" and Jeremy, though he detected underlying "sweetness", agreed. Jeremy**, Anita*

Costa Cafetiere Blend: pounds 2.29/227g. "Not bad", said Anita. "It holds up well and has good thickness." Jeremy found it a little harsh (possibly from over-extraction due to an over-fine grind), but called it a good "all-day coffee" and said he "would not be mortally offended" if someone

offered him a cup. Jeremy***/****, Anita***

Aroma Costa Rica Sarchi Estate: pounds 3.40/ 227g. My duo guessed that this was "Colombian or not-very-high-grown Costa Rican." What's more, they liked it - though again there were problems with over-extraction from too fine a grind. Anita: "good balance, with acidity that holds up in the cup." Jeremy: "soft, winey flavour": "this is OK." Both ***/****

Tesco Colombian Blend: pounds 2.29/227g. "Not bad," said Anita. "Character, acidity, good presence despite the coarse grind." Jeremy found it "clean and bright", though the brightness fell after a while. But he liked it. Tesco produced good beans and roasting. Better grinding and we might have had a winner. Jeremy***, Anita***

COFFEE MAIL ORDER: THREE OF THE BEST

Whittard Coffee Direct 73 Northcote Road, London SW11 4DU, 0171 924 1888

A monthly service: pounds 10 for a one-pound bag. You can choose from most of the Whittard range or ask for the Whittard Coffee Programme and get Giles Hilton to choose for you. A pricey but convenient way to buy this fine stuff. Coffee is sent in special packs designed to fit through a letter box.

Monmouth Coffee Company 27 Monmouth Street, London WC2H 9DD, 0171 836 5272

I have been a Monmouth customer for a decade. What they have is always freshly roasted and despatched quickly. Telephone service is helpful, and they can tell you what you had last time if you want the same again, but look out for regular arrivals of new coffees.

Torz & Macatonia The Roastery, 12 Black-wall Estate, Lanrick Road, London E14 0JP (0171 515 7770). E-mail: TorzMacatoniaCoffee@ compuserve.com

This relative newcomer roasts for the Seattle Coffee Company and a number of London's best restaurants. The range is small but perfectly formed. And those I've sampled were of the highest quality. They have a half-dozen blends but their regional coffees are stunning, and their brochure gives an excellent introduction to the world of coffee, plus tasting notes of real value.

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