Coffee. No other beverage or even food plays such a steadfast role in our daily rituals and habits. We sip it when we wake up. We consume it while we drive. We gulp it to boost our energy. We drink it when socializing with friends. No matter how we like it, the truth is approximately 64 percent of Americans drink coffee daily.
And we’re not talking about your mom’s instant coffee. These days, the more the coffee market grows and evolves, the more we as consumers demand unique and varied offerings. Not only did the percentage of Americans drinking coffee daily increase from 2017 to 2018, but the most prominent driver of growth was our increasing enthusiasm for gourmet coffee varieties, according to the National Coffee Association’s (NCA) annual National Coffee Drinking Trends report.
The gourmet category includes espresso-based beverages, premium whole-bean or ground coffee, and “Non-Espresso-Based Beverages.” Think cold-brewed, nitrogen-infused and frozen blended drinks. And, Millennials aren’t the only ones driving this change. The desire for gourmet is seen across all age groups, including consumers as young as 13 up through the 60-plus crowd.
And the choices are bountiful: The beans may be from Cuba or Papua New Guinea, Guatemala or Ethiopia. You might prefer breakfast blend over cold brew. What your friend drinks may not be your cup of tea, so to speak. “We didn’t have these generations ago. But the best coffee for me may not be the best for my wife or friends or family gatherings,” says Spencer Turer, vice president of Coffee Analysts, a coffee testing laboratory. “Everyone can figure out what they like or don’t like, and everyone has access to these coffees.”
This trend toward gourmet comes from consumers seeking transparency, Turer says. Consumers start with drinking coffee. But the gourmet trend, he says, advances when consumers go from drinking a generic blend, such as a breakfast blend, to single-origin coffees and knowing where their coffee comes from.
Typically, a blend is made to a specific flavor specification so that it looks and smells the same every time, but those who buy it don’t necessarily know where the beans come from. Turer says that the next step in purchasing would be to buy a blend for which you know its origin, for instance Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cuba or Indonesia. “This is when a consumer starts to get an awareness of where exotic coffees come from, and they start to have a greater expectation of their coffee.”
Single origin is when the beans and coffee all come from one country, such as Colombia. “The consumer wants to know the country, and they may want to even know the region.”
As consumers home in on countries or regions they like, an increase in quality is also expected. From here, Turer says, Millennials and Generation X purchasers, in particular, like to buy from local producers. Although coffee is inherently an imported product, it is typically roasted domestically. Alternatively, consumers may focus on the community producing the coffee with the thought that, “If I buy this coffee it will somehow positively affect children growing up in that country.”
But Turer says as packaging becomes fancier, with information about different regions and how the coffee is made, producers need to be careful not to alienate customers—not everyone is going to spend $15 to try something new. “If there are too many foreign words that a consumer doesn’t know how to pronounce, they may feel alienated because they don’t understand the merchandising. The adventurous person will buy it and try it. The hesitant person won’t because they don’t know what it means. There are some instances where transparency works against us.” Yet, he adds, coffee education is happening.
“Coffee today is where the wine industry was in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Consumers are opening their eyes and are not as overwhelmed by the details presented to them.”
The Flavor of Coffee
The species of coffee, the variety of plant, the chemistry of the soil, the climate—whether sunny or rainy—as well as the altitude at which coffee grows all play in to how it tastes. “What makes coffee so distinctive from one region is the unique climate conditions. A single varietal tree in that region, or a mix of varietal trees plus the microclimate, make the flavor profile of the bean,” explains Joe DeRupo, director of external relations and communications for the NCA.
How a coffee “cherry” is processed after being picked and how it is roasted significantly enhance flavor profiles, too. Coffee beans are in fact the pits of fruit called coffee cherries. Like a cherry, a coffee cherry has a thin outer skin to cover the fruit or pulp of the cherry. Inside the fruit is the bean, which is covered by a thin silverskin, which itself is protected by a layer of parchment. Another layer of slimy mucilage lies between the parchment and the fruit.
Coffee cherries are typically picked by hand and prepared one of two ways:
The Dry Method. Coffee cherries are spread out on surfaces, raked during the day and covered at night for up to several weeks, until the fruit can be pulled off in one step to release the inner, green coffee bean.
The Wet Method. The fruit or pulp of the cherry is removed, leaving only the parchment and skin on the bean. A machine removes the pulp from the bean. The beans are separated by size during this process and moved to water-filled fermentation tanks. Here they remain for 12 to 48 hours to remove the slimy mucilage layer attached to the parchment. After the wet process, the beans are then dried.
Beans are then hulled and polished to remove the parchment and silverskin. What’s left is the green coffee bean. This is typically how coffee is transported. Roasting, which typically happens in the U.S., is what changes green coffee into the brown beans we typically purchase. How you grind and brew your coffee is then up to you!
Everything in the grocery store is going prêt-à-porter (carry out), and coffee is no exception. MarketWatch recently reported that the canned and bottled ready-to-drink coffee market reached $19 billion in 2017, and it’s expected to keep going up.
The ready-to-drink market is so prolific that the NCA made a new category for it in its annual survey, including cold brews, nitro-infused coffee and frozen blended drinks. Cold brew alone jumped 540 percent in sales between 2011 and 2016, according to a recent report by market-research firm Mintel.
So what’s so special about cold brew versus iced coffee? According to Turer, “It’s from a Peruvian recipe in the 1700s. So it’s not necessarily new, [but] it’s a modified recipe that became exciting and innovative.” While iced coffee is made by chilling warm brewed coffee and adding ice, cold brew is ground coffee brewed in cold, filtered water for an extended period of time, often 12 to 16 hours. You can drink it cold or heat it up to drink warm.
Old or new, we think it tastes quite refreshing.
Nitro coffee is simply nitrogen-infused cold-brew coffee. Think of a rich, creamy Guinness beer, and apply that to coffee. It’s mostly available at coffee shops, but a few brands offer it in cans, including Caveman Coffee Co., Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Oak City Coffee. As it’s at the cutting edge of gourmet, it’s not for the faint of wallet, but it sure does taste good on a warm day!
Lucky for us, coffee has some health benefits. According to a recent study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, people who drink three to five cups of coffee a day may be less likely to die prematurely from some illnesses than those who drink less or don’t drink coffee at all. Similarly, research done by the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study has found coffee to protect against both type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. When consumed daily, coffee delivers antioxidant benefits.
But coffee doesn’t affect everyone the same way, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., creator of betterthandieting.com and author of <i>Read It Before You Eat It</i> (Plume, 2010). “When you hear stories, ‘coffee is addictive,’ ‘it hurts my stomach,’ ‘it keeps you up at night’ or ‘it gives me energy,’ all of it is true depending on you,” she says. The takeaway? You have to know how and if it works for you. “There are some people [for whom] before they exercise in the morning it gives them just that burst to give them more energy and have a more productive workout. Others feel jittery and uncomfortable and have a stomachache. If you are caffeine sensitive, it is really not for you.”
For those who feel more energetic when they drink coffee, you’re not imagining it. Coffee in fact blocks the chemical reaction of adenosine, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel sleepy. “It actually does make you feel more awake,” says Taub-Dix. But she warns, “Some people don’t need a lot of caffeine; others may have three cups. But what they really need to do is get into bed earlier and stop looking at their phones.”
- Coffee is grown in more than 50 countries around the world.
- Typically, coffee plants take 3 to 5 years to bear fruit. And then a plant bears fruit for approximately 15 years.
- There is typically one major harvest a year. In Colombia, there are two.
- 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries produce approximately 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans.
Robusta versus Arabica
There are hundreds of coffee species, but two primary ones: Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta (aka Coffea canephora). Each has its own family trees of varietals and cultivars.
Typically, robusta is hardier. It’s easier to produce and less sensitive to insects, making it more affordable to grow than arabica. This hardiness derives in part from the fact that robusta has almost double the caffeine content of arabica, which makes it more toxic to bugs. The higher caffeine content also gives this coffee more of a burnt flavor. It is typically less acidic and more bitter than arabica. Robusta makes up approximately 30 percent of the coffee market. It is commonly found in coffee and espresso blends.
Arabica makes up the bulk of the global coffee market. It was first cultivated in Ethiopia and Yemen. Currently, it is grown around the globe, but is predominant in Brazil, the world’s biggest coffee-producing country. Arabica is almost exclusively found in gourmet coffees.
Cascara: Cascara is the fruit of the coffee cherry. You can make a tea out of it or use it in coffee. It is a cross between a Bing cherry and a giant cranberry. Typically, the fruit has been removed and discarded during coffee bean production. It’s rich in antioxidants but can taste quite bitter.
Honey Coffee: Honey processing falls between the dry method and the wet method. For this, the coffee cherry comes off the tree, and the pulp or fruit of the cherry is removed. The mucilage is left on top of the parchment and then put in the sun to dry. Spencer Turer of Coffee Analysts likens the process to making a roux for sauces. “As you cook those sugars in the sun, you can go from a yellow honey to a red honey to a black honey, and in doing so, change the way the coffee will look, smell and taste.”