If you’ve ever read a review on coffeereview.com, you’ve most likely noticed a pair of Agtron numbers listed below the attribute scores. Unless you work in the coffee industry, you probably don’t have a clear idea what these numbers represent. The inquisitive have undoubtedly copied and pasted the term Agtron into search engines to yield information about the Nevada based company of the same name that manufactures roast color readers. Color readers are used in a wide variety of industries, from paving stones to pharmaceuticals, wherever consistency of color is important in a given product.
Color can be determined a number of different ways, Agtron uses “near-infrared abridged Spectrophotometers” to reflect light on a sample of coffee in order to assign a specific value, which we read as a number. The smaller the number, the darker the roast. There are other companies out there that manufacture color readers such as Javalytics, Hunter Lab and Photovolt, as well as Probat’s Colorette and Fresh Roast’s Color Track, but the king of the heap, at least in coffee industry nomenclature, remains Agtron. In fact, even when companies use another brand of machine they still may refer to Agtron numbers, sometimes converting their numbers to one of the Agtron scales. Many in the coffee industry are just as likely to use the word Agtron as a noun, in reference to the popular spectrophotometer, as well as a verb, to describe the process of taking a color reading on one of these machines.
In consulting work, we find it necessary to calibrate our M-Basic Agtron machine, which reads on the so-called Gourmet Scale, with the color reader that is being used by the companies we work with. The color reader may be a different brand, different model type (such as Agtron’s E-20, which reads on their Commercial Scale) or even the same model we use. Although each machine is consistent to itself, we find there may be a variance in the numbers generated by different color readers.
But I digress. The questions remains, why two numbers? The two numbers represent the whole bean and ground color value for each coffee. We gain additional insight about the roast of a coffee when we note the delta between the readings of whole bean compared to ground coffee. In general, the darker the roast, the narrower the delta, while lighter roasts tend to show a wider range. We do not take roast color into consideration when undertaking sensory assessment of coffee; we take Agtron readings only after the evaluation process of the coffee is complete. This added information will often corroborate the characteristics we noticed in the cup. For example, a narrow delta on a light roast may explain the limited aromatic range of the coffee.
Why should consumers care about the numbers? Well, they shouldn’t, as long as they know that small groupings of number ranges represent a color that can be seen with the naked eye. Roast color has an impact on flavor and you might know, for example, that you really like medium-dark roasted coffee, coffee that has been roasted right before or just at second crack. If you know that, and you know that when a coffee has a whole bean Agtron reading between 50-40, then it is probably going to be more to your linking than a darker roasted coffee in the 40-35 range. To that end, reviews always include a translation from the numerical readings into terms most coffee drinkers understand – light, medium, medium-dark, dark and so on. If you’re interested in the breakdown of Agtron numbers and corresponding color terminology, see this table: http://bit.ly/h57AZb.
I recently received an email from a self-proclaimed, coffee obsessed reader. The question she asked was a difficult one to answer. It had to do with that feeling many coffee drinkers have had. You know the one, that feeling of coffee being in some way better in the past. It could have been last year or twenty-five years ago, but that memory of the way coffee used to taste lingers. Maybe it was your first cups of specialty coffee after years of drinking canned conventional coffee. It could have been those espressos you had while on vacation in Rome, or when passing through Seattle. Those moments might have been in your own home, in the still morning hours, when the stars were aligned, with fresh packages of coffee, and those ritualistic sequences of events – the boiling kettle, the purring grinder and the Hario V60 dripping into your mug. You remember it like it was yesterday, sublime. Yet somehow you can’t seem to duplicate that taste again, either at home or in your favorite cafes.
“That” taste that is so hard to define. Everyone has a unique relationship to coffee that is influenced by factors such as where someone has lived, how old he or she is and the cultural traditions they have experienced. Someone who grew up in an immigrant household in New York’s Little Italy in the 1960s likely has a different relationship to coffee than a 25 year old living in Williamsburg today. So to offer one answer for all coffee drinkers is task beyond an emailed response or even this blog post. The Coffee Review website endeavors to provide context needed for individuals to figure out on their own what that taste is and how it can be rediscovered.
For many adults living in North American, however, the coffee taste remembered from many years ago can often be found in medium roasted, washed processed, heirloom varieties of Colombian coffee. There has been a long tradition of importing coffee from Colombia into the United States and Canada, and there are generations of people who have come of age drinking this type of coffee. As an agricultural product coffee changes over the course of seasons and generations, sometimes by naturalization and sometimes by design. This holds true for Colombia as well as other coffee growing regions throughout the world. Over time many farmers in Colombia have been encouraged to transition to from traditional varieties to higher yielding ones and this, in part, has had an impact on the way much of the coffee from this country tastes today. Still, there are many small-holding farmers in Colombia that produce the older heirloom varieties that deliver flavors that will remind many coffee drinkers of the taste they remember from years past. Over the last few months we have received several Colombian coffees in the Coffee Review lab that might very well meet the expectations of this group of coffee drinkers. I won’t list them here, but those of you who are interested can search the site to uncover these hidden gems. If these coffees don’t match up with your memory of “that” coffee experience, then there are a myriad of other reviews to peruse to help you rediscover the flavors you are looking for.
Recently a Coffee Review reader sent in a request that we post information on our website about cortado, a relatively obscure coffee beverage in North American cafés. I searched the reference pages, thinking some mention of it had to be buried in the “espresso cuisine” section. But no, no cortado was to be found.
Most serious coffee drinking café denizens are able to precisely define the differences between espresso and macchiato or latte and cappuccino without the blink of an eye. Cortado, on the other hand, is one of those second tier beverages like café con panna or an affogato. Sure, professional baristas will know what these are, but average coffee consumers are bound to draw a blank. By second tier I simply mean that these beverages are not often found on the menus of cafés in North America and therefore less frequently ordered, though they certainly have the potential to be delicious.
In Spanish, as in Portuguese, the word cortado translates to cut. In the case of the coffee drink, cortado is simply a serving of espresso that is cut with an equal part, or slightly more, hot milk. Typically a cortado is served in a small glass with very little, if any, froth. The cortado is common in Spain and Portugal as well as various Latin American countries. Naturally, alongside the diaspora of these cultures, cortado can be found in restaurants and cafes throughout the world.
Over the past half century, in the United States at least, coffee cup sizes have steadily crept up from six to eight ounces, then twelve to sixteen, and now twenty and even a mind boggling, heart pounding thirty ounces! Consumer demand and a desire for higher margins seem to be the drivers behind this escalation. In this climate, weighing in at about four ounces, little room is left for the diminutive cortado in most mainstream cafes.
Of course not all cafes fall into lock step with mainstream coffee trends, and recently there has been a small but distinct backlash against the “bigger is better” movement. You may recall the momentary flurry of media attention that Chicago based Intelligentsia received a couple of years ago when it decided to stop serving coffee in twenty ounce cups. An increasing number of cafes are focusing on a more basic, perhaps more traditional, assortment of coffee sizes. With ristretto shots of espresso and five ounce traditional cappuccinos, the humble cortado could fit quite comfortably on the menus of these cafes. In fact, it is increasingly available in select cafes but often served with more froth on top than a traditional cortado and occasionally with different names such as Piccolo or Gibraltar. Even when not listed, it is usually possible to order cortado off the menu.
As with many subjects related to coffee you will find a variety of opinions regarding freshness within the coffee industry. Take for example the question of storage, for every roaster that recommends storing your coffee in the freezer or refrigerator there are many more that perish the thought. No matter the number of roasters that extol the virtues of hermetically sealed, nitrogen flushed, one way valve bags, there are few industry insiders that would argue it is better to purchase just of one week’s supply of freshly roasted coffee at a time, whole bean, of course, and grind just before brewing. The three, six, twelve or, yes, believe it or not, even eighteen month shelf life suggestions sometimes made by large roasting companies should be reserved for fallout shelters and hermits whose mountainous cave dwellings are not served by local mail delivery or Federal Express. (Although the latter would be better off purchasing green coffee, and roasting it over a camp fire.)
When the discussion switches from brewed coffee to espresso our collective agreement on freshness diverges further from this arguably common understanding. Anyone who has ever pulled a shot of espresso with coffee straight from the roaster, whether on a home or professional machine, knows that it produces less than satisfactory results. This begs the question, what is the ideal time to wait between roasting and brewing coffee as espresso? I posed this question to a group of professional baristas who just competed against one another in the 2010 United States Barista Championship. The baristas in question are: Southeast Regional Champion, representing Counter Culture Coffee, Lem Butler; Midwest Regional Champion Mike Marquard from Kaldi’s Coffee, and Pete Licata, the Western Regional Champion who currently plys his trade at the Honolulu Coffee Company.
Let’s look at the easy answer first. If we take the average, this group concludes that one should wait about a week, give or take a few days, before pulling shots. This conclusion is based on the experience of working with the same groups of coffees on a daily basis over the course of years, as well as the rigorous preparation regiments needed to compete seriously in regional and national barista competitions. Lem sums up the ideal range of time coffee is at its peak for espresso brewing as, “6-8 days sealed in its original packaging. Once the packaging is opened and the coffee is exposed to air, the storage time decreases drastically.” Pete adds, “…once a coffee hits its peak it has between 1 and 3 days before the flavors, body, and aroma start to fade.” So it appears that with coffee purchased for espresso, just as with coffee purchased to be brewed by other means, our lesson continues to be, buy fresh coffee frequently. Mike also finds “that anything much over 20 days off the roast really starts to flatten out – both visually and on the palate.”
Mike suggests that the average consumer wait “…at least 3 days from roast before brewing any coffee as espresso.” Although for barista competitions, he prefers to store his coffee in a sealed bag for, “9-11 days off the roast, and then one extra half-day open.” Pete states that, “The ideal resting time for espresso always seems to vary from coffee to coffee.” So, the more complicated answer, as Pete suggests, is to, “Pay attention to your coffee and you will find its best window.” To illustrate this point, when considering an assortment of espresso blends from Counter Culture Coffee, Lem finds that he prefers, “…Espresso Toscano rested at 8 days; espresso Rustico at 7 days; espresso Aficianado at 6 days and espresso La Forza at 6 to 7 days.” I told you this would get a little complicated.
What’s with all the variation, you may be asking. A clue can be found in Lem’s belief that it “depends on how long the coffee was roasted.” Pete notes that there are, “major variations in the amount of expelled gas based largely on the roasting technique.” Lem continues this thought by adding, “Longer roasts build more gas inside the coffee bean … Pressurized brewing and lots of gas will produce bubbles inside the crema of the espresso as it extracts. With so much CO2 trapped inside the coffee beans, it will take time for the gas to part leaving the beans to develop more of the sweetness and brightness.”
This context helps explain the variance in the ideal amount of time to wait before brewing coffee as espresso as compared to other brewing methods. Pete adds that “most roasters use a different roast profile for espresso versus standard coffee. Because of this the resting time may vary.”
To summarize, the best results when brewing espresso are based on experience and practice. You don’t need years of professional barista experience to figure out how long to wait before brewing espresso coffee. All you need to do is purchase high quality, fresh roasted coffee and try pulling shots every day over a period of time. After a while you will come to your own conclusions and preferences. And hopefully you will always be drinking espresso coffee at its peak of freshness.
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya (if you follow @coffeereview on Twitter you already know that.) Although the purpose of the trip was to attend the African Fine Coffee Conference and Exposition in Mombasa, I was able to spend a few days exploring coffee farms and processing facilities north of Nairobi. Whenever I travel to coffee producing countries I am always struck by the depth of expertise of the people involved in the business of coffee at origin. Not to say that those of us in coffee consuming countries are ignorant of the coffee production process but the level of detail is often misunderstood or simplified in an effort to make sense of a complex, multilayered system.
This “coffee safari” consisted of visits to several farms varying in size from the small plots of the 1500 member Iria-ini Framers Cooperative to an estate owned and managed by Sasini Limited, a business that is publicly traded on the Nairobi Stock Exchange. Each facility maintained their own wet mill, often processing coffee cherries from surrounding area farms in addition to their own. Raised tables for drying parchment and natural cherry ruled the day, a powerful visual statement that quality is taken seriously in this region. No matter the size, these farms go about their daily business in much the same way — growing, harvesting and processing coffee — but, as any student of coffee knows, the production process is complicated, and when we drilled down to the details interesting differences in philosophy revealed themselves. What varieties should be planted, how should coffee tress be pruned, how and what kind of fertilizers and mulch should be applied, how long should fermentation last, should it be wet or dry and what about water use practices? Every action has a reaction and each one has the potential to yield a unique result in the cup.
On the final day of the trip we transitioned from the wet mills to the dry, in this case the Thika Coffee Mill. Most small and medium sized growers do not undertake the task dry milling at the farm level because of the investment required for the specialized machinery needed to clean the coffee, remove the parchment from the beans and sort by size, density and color. The Thika Mill serves as a vital link that moves coffee from farmers in the foothills of Mt. Kenya down the chain to roasters throughout the world.
Our last stop, another link in the chain, was the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. Now managed by the Kenya Coffee Producers’ and Traders’ Association, the exchange remains the primary means of trading coffee in Kenya. Every Tuesday the exchange auctions hundreds of lots of coffees from all over Kenya, with set reserve prices so the growers are assured a base price that is acceptable to them. The sample room is a sight to behold, bag after bag after bag of green coffee, marked with identifying names, lot numbers, grades and amounts available. Each dealer who participates in the auction is allowed a 250 gram sample of the coffees. They are provided about two weeks to evaluate the coffees, ship samples to potential customers and determine a ceiling price they are willing to pay.
Once I had made my way to the port town of Mombasa, I joined a group to visit the warehousing, grading and cupping facilities of exporters Rashid Moledina & Company. This third generation coffee export company takes the extra step of grading coffee after purchasing it from the exchange, in an effort to refine lots of coffee for their customers. Through this web of millers, dealers, marketing agents, exporters and shippers coffee is traded from grower to roaster. This part of the supply chain is perhaps most misunderstood but without the individuals and organizations involved in this process the right coffee might not ever find the right buyer.
A few weeks ago Kenneth Davids and I were asked to roast, cup and assess two samples of Haitian coffee. This request came in before January’s devastating earthquake and its horrific consequences struck Haiti. As I write, news outlets continue to report on the tragedy while charitable organizations step up their efforts to supply labor, material and money to those in need.
In light of this tragic event it is somewhat bittersweet to report that the coffees we tasted a couple of days before the earthquake were good, in fact they were very good. If we were to write a formal review of the coffees we would use terms like – sweet and round, chocolate and aromatic wood, rich, clean and perhaps the ultimate compliment for me, butterscotch-like.
As a student of coffee, the samples were particularly interesting to me because they were meticulously processed and, save for one variable, they were treated identically. The only difference between the two samples was that one underwent twelve hours of fermentation while the other a full twenty-four hour fermentation period. You can read more about the role of fermentation elsewhere on this site but simply put, fermentation is a step taken during washed processing where pulped coffee beans sit in tanks or other containers while natural enzymes and bacteria loosen the sticky coffee fruit pulp by partially digesting it. It is a step often replaced today by mechanically scrubbing the pulp off the beans, but it is one of the ways coffee producers can influence the taste of the coffee they are processing. The resulting cup, under ideal circumstances, is often enlivened, highlighting aromatic and flavor nuances.
Which of the two processing types was better is academic (although it happened to be the twelve hour version) the effort and dedication put forth by the farmers in the coffee growing area around Ranquitte, Haiti is most impressive.
We were happy to learn that no loss of life, injury, or property damage happened in the community of Ranquitte. We do understand however that the earthquake’s impact in this area will still be felt. Many of those in Ranquitte have family and friends in Port au Prince and other locales impacted by the earthquake. They also rely on Port au Prince as the primary life line for coffee exportation, medicine, agriculture supplies, and food.
The organization that brought this coffee to our attention is EcoCafé Haiti, a newly formed coffee cultivation and processing group whose purpose is to enable economic self-sufficiency in rural Haiti. Over the last several years their work has included construction of coffee washing stations and hulling operations, as well as guidance of 300 farmers in proper cultivation, pruning, and harvesting procedures. To learn more about the organization please visit their website.