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Complexity of Coffee

Complexity of Coffee

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Published by A52372
For coffee lovers.
For coffee lovers.

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Published by: A52372 on Sep 12, 2010
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12/16/2014

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F
or sheer sensory enjoyment, few everyday experiences cancompete with a good cup of coffee. The alluring aroma of steaming hot coffee just brewed from freshly roastedbeans can drag sleepers from bed and pedestrians into cafés.And many millions worldwide would find getting through theday difficult without the jolt of mental clarity imparted by thecaffeine in coffee. But underlying this seemingly commonplacebeverage is a profound chemical complexity. Without a deepunderstanding of how the vagaries of bean production, roast-ing and preparation minutely affect the hundreds of com-pounds that define coffee’s flavor, aroma and body, a qualitycup would be an infrequent and random occurrence.Connoisseurs agree that the quintessential expression of coffee is espresso: that diminutive heavy china cup half-filledwith a dark, opaque brew topped by a velvety thick, reddish-brown froth called
crema
. Composed of tiny gas bubbles en-cased in thin films, the surprisingly persistent
crema
locks in thecoffee’s distinctive flavors and aromas and much of its heat aswell. Espresso
the word refers to a serving made on requestexpressly for the occasion
is brewed by rapidly percolating asmall quantity of pressurized, heated water through a com-pressed cake of finely ground roasted coffee. The resulting con-centrated liquor contains not only soluble solids but also a di-verse array of aromatic substances in a dispersed emulsion of tiny oil droplets, which together give espresso its uniquely richtaste, smell and “mouthfeel.”Aficionados consider perfectly brewed espresso to be the ul-timate in coffee because its special preparation amplifies andexhibits the inherent characteristics of the beans. Espresso isuseful for our purposes as it is in effect a distillation of all thenumerous techniques by which coffee can be made, includingthe Turkish method and various infusion and filter drip pro-cesses [
see box on page 91 for descriptions of alternative cof-fee-preparation methods
]. To know espresso is to know cof-fee in all its forms.High-quality coffee arises from maintaining close controlover a multitude of factors in the field, in the plant and in the cup.Coffee cultivation entails myriad variables that must be moni-tored and regulated. Once a coffee bean is grown, nothing canbe added or removed: the quality must already be present. Fora single portion of espresso, 50 to 55 roasted coffee beans arerequired; a single imperfect bean will taint the whole sufficientlyto be noticeable. This is because human olfaction and tastesenses originated as defense mechanisms that protected our an-cestors from rotten
hence, unhealthy
foods. Only throughmodern technology can one economically and consistentlyidentify 50 nearly perfect beans.
Growing Coffee
RAW COFFEE BEANS
are the seeds of plants belonging to theRubiaceae family, which comprises at least 66 species of thegenus
Coffea
. The two species that are commercially exploit-ed are
Coffea arabica,
which accounts for two thirds of worldproduction, and
C.canephora,
often called robusta coffee, withone third of global output. Robusta coffee plants and all wildcoffee species have 22 chromosomes, whereas arabica has 44.Therefore, arabica and other coffee species cannot be crossedto produce a hybrid plant.Robusta is a high-yielding and disease-resistant tree stand-ing up to 12 meters tall that grows best in warm, humid climes.It produces a cup featuring substantial body, a relatively harsh,earthy aroma, and an elevated caffeine content that ranges from2.4 to 2.8 percent by weight. Although robusta is sold by manypurveyors, it does not give rise to the highest-quality coffee.Arabica, which originated in the Ethiopian highlands, is amedium- to low-yielding, rather delicate tree from five to sixmeters tall that requires a temperate climate and considerablegrowing care. Commercially grown coffee bushes are prunedto a height of 1.5 to 2.0 meters. Coffee made from arabicabeans has an intense, intricate aroma that can be reminiscent of flowers, fruit, honey, chocolate, caramel or toasted bread. Itscaffeine content never exceeds 1.5 percent by weight. Becauseof its superior quality and taste, arabica sells for a higher pricethan its hardy, rougher cousin.
86
SCIENTIFIC AMERICANJUNE 2002
Coffee
The complexity of
One of life’s simple pleasures is really quite complicated
By Ernesto Illy 
Photographs by Tina West
COPYRIGHT 2002 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC.
 
COPYRIGHT 2002 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC.
 
A good rainfall induces arabicacoffeeplants to blossom, and some 210 days af-terward red or yellow fruit called cherriesappear. Each cherry contains two oblongseeds
the coffee beans. Because bothflower and fruit can be present simulta-neously on the same branch, the picker’sforefinger and thumb are the best tools togather just the ripe cherries. Stripping en-tire branches by hand or using automat-ed harvesting machines does not discrim-inate between the ripe and the unripecherries.The ultimate quality of the resultingcoffee beans depends on the genetics of the plant, the soil in which it grows andthe microclimate, which encompasses fac-tors such as altitude, the amount of rain-fall and sunlight, and daily temperaturefluctuations. Along with the roasting pro-cesses that are applied, these agriculturaland geographical considerations are re-sponsible for the taste differences amongthe many varieties of coffee beans thatsuppliers combine to produce the variousdistinctive blends one can purchase.
Processing Coffee
coffee cherries
must be processedimmediately after harvest to preventspoilage. Producers employ two process-ing methods: sun-drying and washing.Effective sun-drying is accomplished byspreading the cherries out on a patio andstirring the desiccating fruit frequently toevenly heat and aerate it. The dried cher-ries are run through a machine thatcrushes the hulls and then removes boththe hulls and the surrounding parchmentmembrane layer, thus freeing the beansfor sorting and bagging. In the alternativeapproach, the fruit is mechanicallypulped, washed, and finally dried and lib-erated from the parchment covering. Thegoal of either route is the same: the 65percent water content of the coffee cher-ry is reduced to the 10 to 12 percentmoisture level of a prime raw, or green,coffee bean.One of the greatest challenges in pro-ducing superior coffee is ensuring thatone starts with exceptional green beans.Premium producers, such as illycaffè,based in Trieste, Italy, use many sophis-ticated process-control techniques to min-imize the percentage of defective coffeebeans, including ultraviolet fluorescenceanalysis to spot moldy beans and trichro-matic mapping to generate a color finger-print (yellow-green, red and infrared) of each lot of beans. At illycaffè, a dichro-matic sorting system developed in collab-oration with the English company Sortexis applied as a final control right beforeroasting. As beans fall into bins, photo-electric cells detect duds, signaling forthem to be rejected individually with apuff from an air nozzle. The sorting op-eration is accomplished at a speed that nohuman hand can match (400 beans a sec-ond) and with a precision that even themost highly trained eye is incapable of.A perfect mature green coffee bean iscomposed of cells with uncommonlythick walls: as much as five to seven mi-crons, an exception in the vegetal king-dom. During roasting, these 30- to 40-mi-cron-diameter cells serve as tiny reactorsin which all the key heat-driven chemicalreactions occur that generate coffee’s se-ductive taste and fragrance. The cells of immature beans feature thinner walls.Unripe beans also lack the important aro-matic precursor proteins that develop inthe last stages of the ripening process.
88
SCIENTIFIC AMERICANJUNE 2002
ERNESTO ILLY 
is chairman of illycaffè, afamily business based in Trieste, Italy,that his father founded in 1933. Overtwo million illy espressos are servedevery day in Italy alone. Illy holds a doc-torate in chemistry and has completedadvanced studies in molecular biology.His goal is to harness science to createthe truly perfect cup of espresso.
    T    H    E     A    U    T    H    O    R
COPYRIGHT 2002 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC.

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