As an ancient coffee proverb, attributed to one Sheik Abd-al-Kadir, states, “No one can understand the truth until he drinks of coffee's frothy goodness." As much as I agree with the Sheik, the question remains: How do you help cultivate coffee's true goodness, not just in the brewing process, but from the moment you fire up the roaster?
We recently purchased a 150-pound bag of PNG Niugini A from smallholder growers in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and needed to create a new roasting profile, one that would extract the full potential of this exceptional bean. Coffees from Papua New Guinea are typically known for their sweet acidity and smooth body, but I knew that a few extra unnecessary seconds in the roaster could create a bitter finish and undesirable flavor. Naturally wanting to highlight its best qualities, we began where we always do with new coffee arrivals: experimentation.
We started with light roasts, meaning we waited for the first crack to begin (coffee beans crack, kind of like popcorn, once they’ve reached a certain temperature) and dumped the beans to cool at about two thirds through the first crack. Another batch I took past the first crack for an additional 20 seconds to achieve a medium roast. Other batches were taken all the way to the beginning of the second crack (coffee cracks twice in the roaster, if you leave it in long enough. The second crack is a sign of a darker roast), allowing some to stay in the roaster up to an additional ten seconds before dumping the beans into the cooling bin. While calculating down to the seconds might seem insignificant, in fact a matter of seconds can be a crucial window in developing a coffee profile that satisfies in the cup.
After roasting our samples, we left them to rest and degas for 72 hours. Freshly roasted coffee beans need that time to release the CO2 that forms during roasting. If not left to degas, the coffee will exhibit a metallic, unappealing flavor. After three days, we determined the coffee ready to cup.
Cupping, the form of coffee tasting which looks strange and sounds like a dentist’s suction tube, is my favorite part of the process. By powerfully slurping the brewed beans, a mist of coffee is sprayed on the palate, providing an opportunity to really discover the coffee--from its aroma to its mouthfeel to its general character, those evocative notes of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and sometimes even places. It’s a connection to the bean that begins with cutting through the burlap bag and ends (on the best days) with a smile.
So which roast was the best? For the PNG, we chose the lightest roast, which had a brown sugar-like sweetness and a flavor reminiscent of just-ripened peaches. It also least interfered with the coffee's delicate floral aromas and smooth finish. These qualities, we decided, were this coffee's truest “frothy goodness of the bean."