Scales and burr grinders and exact coffee-to-water ratios—coffee “experts” always talk about the need to be precise in coffee brewing, even when you’re just making yourself a cup in the morning, before you even change out of your pajamas. The reason is more than simply taste-related, though of course everyone who loves to drink coffee deserves the best possible brew, no matter the method and no matter your budget.
The fact is it takes a lot of work to make great coffee, starting from the very soil the coffee trees grow in, all the way up to the moment you turn on your kettle or automatic drip maker, stir in milk and sugar, or pour that beautiful steaming-hot liquid into your mug.
Whenever I take coffee pros along to visit coffee farms to make personal connections or to help arrange buying relationships, I’m reminded of how hard it is for most people to imagine the care and skill that goes into growing, harvesting, and processing coffee. Even people who are well-versed in coffee drop their jaws when they see how steep the mountains are, how heavy the fruit is, and how much coffee grows on the branches.
To give you a taste of what goes into your morning cup before you brew it, here are a few scenes from a recent trip to Central America.
Exposed to wind and sun and rain, coffee plants themselves require a lot of nurturing and protection: regular pruning, well-fertilized land to grow in, and often the cover of shade trees to moderate the sun’s rays. Once the coffee berries begin to ripen, picking them is another precious matter: Coffee ripens unevenly over several weeks, which means that pickers must go through the fields repeatedly, searching for only the deep ruby-red fruit and leaving unripe ones behind until they’re ready.
The berries must be removed very gently to avoid damaging their stems, and the fruit is carried in heavy baskets or bags down perilously steep mountain slopes, often 100 pounds or more. There, the meticulous process continues: The fruit is weighed, and sorted to remove any hollow, damaged, or otherwise unfit berries. The process to remove the coffee bean from the fruit takes anywhere from 12 hours to several weeks, depending on the technique. In any case, great care needs to be taken to prevent mold, spoilage, over-fermentation, or any other damage while the beans are drying.
After drying, the coffee is sorted again, sometimes mechanically, sometimes with optical sorting machines, but often still by hand: Typically, several women will do the work of picking out undesirable beans one by one as they pass at top speed along a conveyer belt.
Mind you, this is before the coffee’s even been exported, let alone roasted!
Roasting itself is a fine-tuned craft, and it demands that the person doing the job has a keen sense of smell, timing, and intuition. The roaster must control the speed at which the coffee absorbs heat, the rate at which its temperature increases, and the point of development where the coffee should be taken off the heat entirely. The chemical and physical changes that occur in a coffee roasting machine are nuanced, varied, and many. A truly fine roaster will have an intimate knowledge of each in order to emphasize wonderful flavors and hide undesirable ones in any batch and with any bean.
Then—finally!—we come to brewing. It’s said that there are more than 30 hands that touch every bean of coffee before it winds up in your cup, and what you do with it completes the process. Weighing your grounds, measuring your water and brewing at the right temperature (195–205F) for the right amount of time (3–5 minutes) will make your coffee perfect.
So, you see? Precision matters in coffee, even in your kitchen — and hey, the result is so delicious, why not take that extra step? After all, your coffee went through all this in order to get to you: You may as well make every brew count.