LEARN ABOUT COFFEE
Billions of cups of coffee are consumed every day all across the world. You likely already have a connection to coffee; it means something to you and your morning (or afternoon) routine. The experience can be both personal and communal: it can mean a moment of pure, solitary peace before the daily rat race begins or it can be a midday break with a good friend at the corner cafe. Enjoying a good cup of coffee is one of those simple but vital pleasures of life.
But like so many simple things, the story behind the final experience is far more complex and intriguing than it would seem at first glance (or sip, as it were.) A myriad of steps and processes go into the final cup. You can learn more about all these steps below...
Coffee grows in countries around the equator (hence, one reason for our name). There are two species of coffee: the famous (and highly marketed) Arabica and the lesser known but widely used Robusta. While Robusta coffee can grow in lowlands (à la Vietnam) and in direct sunlight, its finer, more delicate (and higher quality) cousin, Arabica, likes wet, sunny highlands. It grows best somewhere between 800-2000 meters above sea level, often on steep inclines (making the farming a whole lot more challenging), and under the canopy of big, leafy trees. “Shade-grown coffee”, now a market buzzword, is pretty much an observational comment. That’s how coffee grows naturally anyhow.
Many of the farms where coffee comes from are remote, at least a day’s worth of travel (assuming you’re going by motor vehicle - by donkey is another story!) from any major urban centre. Once processed, the coffee has to make its way to these cities - by back, donkey, or truck, which is the start of the export journey.
Before coffee is ready for export, it goes through a long process of preparation. Starting as a “cherry” on a lean, leafy tree-bush, the coffee is first handpicked from the plant. Unlike in many commercial vineyards or olive groves, mechanization of coffee picking is not possible, at least not if you want high quality coffee. The cherries ripen at different speeds and good coffee comes only in the form of a red, ripened cherry, which has to be picked by hand.
After being picked, the cherries’ pulp is removed, revealing two small, slimy beans. They sit and ferment (allowing flavours to develop and sugars to excrete) for a couple of days, after which they are washed and laid
out to dry on a patio, a raised bed, or the side of the road depending on where you are!
Once the beans are dry, which can take ten to fourteen days or more depending on weather patterns, they are called “parchment”; the hull of the bean is intact and must be removed. So yet another process begins: hulling, sorting, sizing, cleaning, and then a final sort by the human eye and the human hand.
Coffee production is not for the faint of heart. It is a long, laborious process and one that without a doubt deserves better compensation for those who do it. Seeing it first-hand makes you wonder how it is that we pay so little for something that requires so much work. Equator believes farmers should get more for their work. That’s why we source the way we do.
From the start, the way that we source has been as crucial to our business as what we source. Quality coffee, in our opinion, has to come out of quality partnerships. How we and our fellow importers treat the farmers, their families, and their communities matters. It matters in a way that can’t be quantifiably “certified” but there are some practical measures we can and do take to make sure that the way we trade is always seeking to be the fairest, best option for those with whom we trade.
There is no perfect model for sourcing coffee. After all, it’s a hundreds-of-years old industry that was and is built on an inherently unfair system where the rich of the world benefit from the poor of the world. But in recent years, there have been several attempts (some more sincere/legit than others) to balance the scales and give more back to the farmer. Given that small scale farmers grow the majority of the world’s coffee, it should be clear that any worthwhile system has to address the plight of these men and women.
Fairtrade International is arguably the best known certification system that has tried to bring more equitability to the industry and to small-scale farmers. It stipulates certain finite criteria (for both producer and purchaser) that, if followed and successfully audited, get the “Fairtrade Certified” stamp of approval.
In 1998, we became one of the first coffee companies in Canada to use the fair trade certification system. For the next ten years, we used the mark on our bags and promoted the program. The system has a lot of merit, particularly for companies that would like a portion of their product to be “fair.” In other words, it’s a good first step. But it never went quite far enough for us.
After five or six years of buying fair trade organic coffee from brokers (the companies that handle the importing and storage of the product), we wanted to find a model that would be more transparent, more direct, and more cooperative. We came across a unique group of roasters who teamed up together to buy straight from the producer groups. Within a couple of months, we became member-owners of Cooperative Coffees, an importing co-op that skips the broker and a whole slew of middlemen and trades directly with the farmer cooperatives. The co-op is also responsible for quality control and for providing regular feedback to the producers about that quality, including collaboration on specific quality initiatives, so that all the work that goes into producing the coffee is honoured and rewarded properly.
The standard model of trade - using brokers and private companies - whether certified “Fairtrade” or not, makes the transparency and traceability of the product from farm to cup that much more difficult. As member-owners of an importing cooperative that trades with cooperatives made up of producer-members, we get the kind of transparency and traceability that no amount of certification could ever provide. How do you certify a “good relationship”? How could you certify whether a farmer prefers to sell to you because of the way you treat him/her? The issues are complex and more than often “grey” in a market that tries to be black and white. We figure the more transparency and accountability in the transactions, the more dialogue between the buyers and sellers, the more effort towards constant and collective improvement, the better. Like we said, there is no perfect sourcing model. Doing better trade is a work in progress. We are thrilled to be a part of a social movement and community within the industry that never stops working towards better coffee, better trade, and a better world.
Roasting coffee is a cross between science and art. During the roasting process, the time and temperature for each batch is measured and recorded by the roastmaster on computer software. This is to determine the "roast curve" (think of it as a recipe) for whichever origin he might be roasting. We roast each origin differently, depending on its flavour profile, its moisture content, the density of bean, and other aspects of its composition. It's up to the roastmaster to determine what the optimal conditions are (temperature, time, airflow, etc) for each coffee, hence the name "master". Establishing a roast curve allows us to guarantee consistency and quality, time after time. Many of the roast curves for our classic blends date back to when Craig first got started on his 10kg Toper. But two roaster upgrades and nearly twenty up-and-down years later, we’ve made a lot of changes and improvements.
The learning never stops when it comes to roasting. Despite the help of computers and technology, roasting coffee still requires a knowing eye (colour of the roasted bean) and a discerning nose (smell of the roasted bean) to figure out the sweet spot for the origin and the roast. The art of roasting plays a powerful role in the development of our blends and single origins. Every week, our roastmaster and team taste our coffees and evaluate the impact of or need for changed techniques. Understanding our customers’ preferences and the way those preferences evolve, is obviously a big part of the equation as well. One thing’s for sure: it’s never boring in the life of coffee roasting!
The final step is the grand finale, the last chance to redeem the morning and give you your daily cup of extraordinary. We've all experienced the problem of inconsistency with our daily brew, wondering why today’s coffee doesn’t taste as good as yesterday’s or never seems to taste as good as at the café. Well, just like roasting, there is an art and a science to brewing coffee. A few crucial steps in the process can “make it or break it” when it comes to preparing your morning cup. Once you learn and internalize the following tricks of the trade, you’re free to take various artistic liberties.
Start with freshly roasted coffee beans. As coffee ages (and it doesn’t take long!), it becomes stale and bitter. Oils are extracted during roasting and extract further with aging. These oils can start to go rancid if too much time passes (oily coffee is not generally a good thing, but dark coffees will be oilier than medium). The broader industry has trained us to treat a bag of coffee like a can of tuna, when in reality, coffee should be treated with the same respect for freshness as you would with bread or fruits and vegetables. Would you put up with six-month-old bread? Well, don’t settle for six-month-old coffee either! For some people, the taste of fresh coffee takes some getting used to (just like freshly baked bread would if you had only ever tasted stale bread). But in general, once you taste the sweetness and smoothness of freshly roasted coffee, you can never go back to that other stuff.
One of the keys to consistent coffee is to brew by weight rather than by volume. The typical guideline of two tbsp per cup is really just that, a guideline. A more accurate measurement is to use seven to ten grams per 6oz 'cup' of coffee. A medium roast requires less weight than a dark roast due to the higher density of the bean. Within this range, your own taste will determine your preference. A simple kitchen scale is a great asset to your home-brewing set up.
We cannot emphasize this enough: grinding beans immediately before brewing is a game changer. At public tastings, we’ve done a blind taste test of one-month-old coffee beans vs. freshly roasted coffee that was ground two days before brewing. The one-month old beans win. Oxygen is coffee’s worst enemy; it’s mostly what causes aging. The more oxygen the coffee is in contact with, the quicker it ages. Pre-grinding exposes the coffee to far more oxygen than when kept in bean form. So by the time you get your pre-ground freshly roasted coffee home from the café or the roastery, it’s already aged the equivalent of several days. Do yourself a favour and buy a grinder! It is worth the thirty extra seconds in the morning.
What grinder should I buy, you might ask? There are basically two categories of grinder on the market: the blade and the burr. The blade grinder, a.k.a a spice grinder, whips the beans into various sized particles. Because the ideal for any brew method is to have the same particle size so that the same amount of extraction per particle occurs resulting in a smooth, uniform cup, the blade type grinder is not the best. But it is the most economical option and it will get the job done. You can generally pick one up at your local café, hardware or grocery store.
Burr grinders consist of two opposing discs with sharp teeth that spin in opposite directions to literally grind the coffee, like a flour mill. Depending on how close or far apart the burrs are, the coffee can be as coarse or as fine as the brewing method requires. This is the type of grinder used in cafés. A wide range of options and prices are available for burr grinders; price mostly has to do with precision (size of the particle), longevity (how long the grinder will last), and power, which when you’re grinding for one pot of coffee per day isn’t much of an issue. Our advice: start with a blade grinder to appreciate the difference between pre-ground coffee vs. freshly ground coffee. Then, if you want to graduate, explore options for a burr grinder. We recommend the Baratza Encore.
A cup of coffee is over 95% water so as you can guess, the quality of the water is important. In cities, though the water quality is tested and safe, chemicals such as fluoride or chlorine can greatly affect the way the coffee tastes. If you pour a glass of water and can smell any trace of chlorine, we recommend using a simple filter system like Brita. In rural areas where water can be heavy on minerals and/or salt, a filtration system is important not only for the flavour of the coffee but also for the protection of the brewing equipment, because mineral deposits can do a lot of damage over time.
The temperature of the water during brewing is also a major factor. Depending on the roast level (dark vs. medium vs. light), the temperature of the water will need to vary in order to bring out the best of the coffee. The darker the roast, the lower the temperature. This is because hotter water extracts the bitters in the coffee. So if you lower the temperature, there is more chance you’ll prevent those bitter flavours from coming out in the cup and you'll have a sweeter, smoother result. We generally recommend around 190 degrees (F) for darker roasts and 200-205 degrees for lighter roasts. But feel free to play around with water temperature - it’s fascinating to see the impact of temperature on the flavour of the coffee.
The length of time that the coffee grounds are in contact with the water makes a big difference in the level of extraction, i.e. the amount of soluble material that comes out of the coffee. This includes the good flavours such as caramelized sugar as well as the not-so-good elements such as bitterness. When grounds sit in water for too long or if the water is too hot, the coffee can start to taste harsh and bitter. On the other hand, if the coffee grounds don’t “steep” in the water long enough or if the water isn’t hot enough, the final cup will taste weak and watery. A good rule of thumb for any brew method is somewhere between two and five minutes.