Tasting notes, as any self-respecting wine lover will confirm, can be fanciful, to say the least. “Gardenia, black cherry and grapefruit zest”, for example, or “honeysuckle, blackberry and cardamom”, or even “notes of dark chocolate supported by narcissus and black truffle”. These are real reviews, but they are not about wine. They are about coffee.
Nowadays, for true coffee aficionados, it is not enough to know which country a coffee comes from, or even which region: they want to know which estate. In wine terms, they don’t just want Pinot Noir – they want to drink Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
These stellar coffees are invariably arabica beans; robusta, the other main variety of coffee is, as its name suggests, sturdy, high-yielding and less susceptible to disease than arabica, but it is inferior in flavour and mostly used in instant and lower-quality ground coffees. The best arabica coffees have a perfect balance of aroma, acidity, fruitiness, body and aftertaste, and can be as complex and expressive of where they are grown as fine wine. Those qualities depend as much on processing as on the beans themselves, however. Once ripe, the bright red coffee “cherries” are harvested and the flesh removed; then the seeds are fermented, washed and dried. In this “green” state, the beans are chemically stable and easy to transport – what produces the familiar colour, aroma and flavour of coffee is the roasting process, which develops the sugars and oils in the beans.
The freshly roasted beans then need to “de-gas” for anything from one to 12 days: for a perfect brew, the CO2 that builds up in the beans during roasting needs to escape. On the other hand, oxygen in the air will start the unwelcome, staling process of oxidation, which is why coffee is often packed in bags with a valve to let CO2 out and prevent oxygen from getting in.
While a wine buff need only pull a cork and pour, coffee is an altogether trickier substance. Assuming your roasted coffee beans have been de-gassed, they then need to be ground as evenly as possible and brewed correctly by whatever method you choose to employ. An increasing number of enthusiasts are starting a stage earlier, roasting the beans themselves.
Amir Gehl, founder and CEO of the Difference Coffee Company, outlines the options: “To make great coffee at home, there are three ways to do it. You can buy the green beans yourself, in which case you need a roaster. The Ikawa home roaster [£1,270, including six 500g packs of green coffee], for example, is controlled by an app that gives you roast profiles from the best roasters in the world. Or you can buy roasted beans and grind them yourself. The best grinders produce even-sized particles; cheaper ones will give an unpleasant, over-extracted flavour that comes from very fine particles. The water or steam will find the path of least resistance through the coffee, which is called ‘channelling’; a burr grinder – the Comandante C40 MK3 Hand Grinder [£199] is excellent, or the electric Sage Smart Grinder Pro [£159] – avoids this problem. Or you can buy capsules – just don’t buy ready-ground, vacuum-packed coffee. It will oxidise quickly and your coffee will be stale. Even with beans, buy the smallest pack size you can, maybe 150g.” Store it in a dark, airtight container. If you need to keep coffee for a long time, it can be frozen in an airtight bag, but don’t put it in the fridge – it won’t last any longer and might pick up unwanted aromas.
.“Espresso is supposed to mean ‘quick’ – if I feel the urge for a coffee and my machine at home isn’t turned on, I’ll go to a speciality coffee shop and buy one,” says Gehl, who owns a La Marzocco Linea Mini (from £3,354) with a double boiler that takes about 30 minutes to heat. For a home espresso machine he also recommends Decent Espresso’s DE1+ (£2,185): “Very small and very precise. For me, they’re the Apple of coffee machines.”
The quality of the coffee in pods varies from run of the mill to – in the case of the Difference Coffee Company – extraordinary. Gehl buys the highest-rated coffee beans from around the world, roasts them and then either sells them loose to trade or grinds them and puts the powder in Nespresso-compatible pods, flushed with nitrogen to keep the coffee fresh. As well as supplying home consumers, his coffees are listed in several Michelin three-star restaurants: in Paris, Guy Savoy, Anne-Sophie Pic and Alain Passard are all valued customers.
“All these chefs,” says Gehl, “buy a single-origin, single-estate, single-varietal coffee. When you get to the highest level, it’s the ultimate expression of terroir: like Château Pétrus or the finest burgundy, you don’t blend it with anything. What I love about Passard is that he decided to use our coffees just by smelling the grounds. He actually got excited before he even tasted it, because his sense of smell is so developed.”
Money is no object. “I recently bought beans from an estate in Panama that scored 94.66 out of 100, a local record,” he says. “I paid $661 a pound for them: once they have lost up to 20 per cent of their weight in roasting, that works out at around £10 for every pod.”
Thanks to the burgeoning number of craft coffee shops on the high street, however, a great cup need not cost a fortune. As Chris Ammermann, co-founder of Caravan Coffee Roasters, says, many of the roots of London’s enthusiasm for speciality coffee lie Down Under. He worked in cafés and restaurants in New Zealand, “where coffee was such an important thing, especially in Wellington”. He and his partners came to London and saw “a gaping hole in the market that was obvious to any Kiwi or Aussie”. Ammermann credits Flat White, the Antipodean coffee bar that opened in Berwick Street, Soho, in 2005, as an inspiration for Caravan, which now has five café/restaurants across London and is about to open a new, 790sq m coffee roastery in Lamb Works, Islington. “It has five times the capacity of our current place. We’ll have an education facility, a quality control lab and a bakery, as well as the roastery.”
He, like Gehl, is a fan of the British-made Ikawa roaster – “Just hook it up to your iPad and you’ll get a perfect roast” – and agrees on the importance of a good grinder. “I like the Baratza Vario [€499], which has 230 different, repeatable settings and gives a really even grind.” As far as actually making coffee goes, Ammermann says: “You can achieve the same results at home as in a coffee shop, whether you use a Hario V60 drip filter [£4], an AeroPress [a hugely popular ‘one-cup’ coffee maker, £29.99] or the classic French press, or cafetière. In the case of Hario and AeroPress, you can find the perfect recipe on their websites. Espresso is very different. The skills a barista possesses can’t be learnt overnight.”
Gehl agrees and bemoans the quality of coffee in many restaurants: “I call them ‘waiter-istas’ – they wouldn’t be allowed to make a cocktail, say, but actually a cocktail is far easier to make than a good espresso.” Both Gehl and Ammermann recommend using a calibrated tamper to compact the coffee: it clicks when the correct pressure has been applied. Espro makes a good example for €105.
Where, though, are the world’s hotspots for great coffee? Which regions excite experts the most? Ammermann has a couple of suggestions. “We’ve been working with Jamison Savage, an American expat producer in Boquete, Panama, for the past three years. He’s an expert at growing Geisha – originally from southern Ethiopia, it has an almost cult-like following because of its incredibly complex flavour profile, distinct acidity and deep floral notes.
“Kenya is also a great place to find high-end coffees, especially from smallholders in Nyeri County. Nyeri is a highlight of most coffee buyers’ annual sourcing trips: the fertile terroir produces incredibly intense and unique coffees.” Caravan has just released both Kiaguthu AA (£9 for 250g) – “complex, light-roasted beans from Nyeri” – and a limited amount of Geisha (£50 for two 100g packs) from Jamison Savage’s Finca Deborah. Difference Coffee Company also sells Geisha in boxes of 10 Nespresso-compatible capsules (£50).
Meanwhile, Antony Wild, coffee expert, former buying director for Taylors of Harrogate and author of Black Gold: The Dark History of Coffee (Harper Perennial, £11.99) is excited about the potential of Sri Lankan coffee. Although better known for tea, in 1860 Sri Lanka was one of the world’s biggest coffee producers before “leaf rust”, a devastating fungus, wiped out the plantations. “But coffee is now back on the island, being packed to international standards, and it’s excellent,” says Wild. “It’s being pioneered by Whight & Co, in the fertile Maturata Valley in the Central Highlands – they’ve planted more than 100 hectares of a variety they discovered locally called Sri Amma, originally from Ethiopia.” Fragrant, fruity, medium-bodied and spicy, it is sold (about £6 for 250g plus delivery) under the Ruby Harvest brand and is available either as beans or ready-ground.
Whether you are an expert hunched over a line of potentially award-winning coffees, or just waking up on a Sunday morning and looking for breakfast, there is one feature of coffee that everyone appreciates: its unique aroma. According to Wild, that is “the essence of coffee and it is all about the roasting. The subtle, complex aromas and flavours it creates give a dull, green seed the power to evoke emotions and memories. Roasting is the alchemy of coffee.”