As coffee drinkers around the world often refer to coffee as “the nectar of the gods” -- especially those of us not fit for human company until after our first cup -- the tribe that first used coffee seeds to make our favorite beverage actually believed it.
The Oromo tribe, descendants of the Ethiopians who first made coffee, would place a coffee plant on the graves of tribal sorcerers, believing that it grew from the tears of the gods who would cry over the memorial site. While many still debate the effects of coffee on our bodies, minds and spirits (and we’re still not discounting the presence of magical properties), there is one debate that is far more clear -- the difference between Arabica coffee and everything else.
“There are two different primary types of coffee grown commercially around the world,” said Chris deMezzo, COO and Roastmaster for Joffrey’s Coffee. “They are Arabica and Robusta, with Robusta accounting for most of the canned or pre-packaged coffee available in grocery stores. You would think that the demand for the different kinds of coffee would be driven by taste alone, but that’s not usually the case. Arabica is known for its more delicate and smoother flavor, while Robusta tends to be more bitter and have less flavor. However, because Robusta is much less expensive than Arabica, it is widely used as an inexpensive substitute for Arabica in many mass-produced, canned and pre-packaged coffees. At Joffrey’s, we use Arabica coffee exclusively, and even then, we source only the highest grade of Arabica, the specialty bean.”
The key, according to deMezzo, is that not all Arabica coffee is created equal.
“When you see ‘100 percent Arabica’ on a coffee label, it does mean it’s of a higher quality than coffees that use Robusta beans, but it does not mean it is the highest quality coffee available,” deMezzo added. “All coffee beans are graded according to color and size uniformity and taste. We only use the highest grade, Specialty; 75% of all coffee grown is Arabica while only 10% can be classified as Specialty.”
The coffee grading system can seem a little technical, but it creates a consistent method of determining which beans are, in the end, going to taste better. It consists of:
• Grade 1 -- Specialty Grade Coffee Beans: These beans are pristine, and they are all pretty close to being the same size. These beans stand out because of the following qualities: taste, acidity, body or aroma. The moisture content of these beans ranges between 9 and 13 percent, and that’s important, because drier beans won’t provide as much flavor. No unripened beans, called quakers, are allowed in specialty grade because they do not darken well when roasted. Of the more than 20 different defects that can affect coffee beans -- ranging from being over-wrinkled, partially crushed, damaged by insects, or even diseased -- this grade does not allow any defects. But all of those qualifications aren’t enough. Graders want the highest category of coffee beans to display some distinctive qualities, as well, so they’ve zeroed in on taste, acidity, body and aroma. All in all, you have to be a pretty special batch of beans to be Grade 1.
• Grade 2 -- Premium Grade Coffee Beans: Same as Grade 1, except a few quakers are allowed in these batches, which accounts for the lower grading. Between 0 to 8 defects are allowed in Grade 2 batches, which make it more difficult for this grade to show much distinctiveness.
• Grade 3 -- Exchange Grade Coffee Beans: These beans vary a little more in size than Grade 1, and a few more quakers are allowed in the mix. The number of full defects permitted in this grade range from 9 to 23. These beans are not special. They are just basic, average coffee beans.
• Grade 4 -- Standard Grade Coffee Beans: 24-86 full defects. This level of defects in the batch really affects flavor and moisture, which is why these beans are graded so far below Grade 1.
• Grade 5 -- Off Grade Coffee Beans: More than 86 full defects. Interestingly, off grade beans are still used in coffees people buy at supermarkets, but they are the generally the least expensive coffees on the shelf.
“Coffee bean quality originates from the kind of soil, moisture, micro-climate and cultivation techniques and processing used. Coffee drinkers have become more aware of these nuances, and they are beginning to pay attention to the more subtle cues of the grading system.”
“The lesson here is not to look at the label, but trust your taste buds,” deMezzo concluded.
“If the label says it contains 100 percent Arabica, it does not always mean you’re getting good coffee,” he said. “However, chances are better if you see Specialty Grade; you can get a great cup of coffee."