When you next take a sip of coffee, spare a thought for how it got there. From the ideal soil to the mysteries of “split-roasting”, we lay bare the secret life of the coffee bean
Location, location, location
As with wine, the “terroir” a coffee is grown in – that is, the soil, topography and climate – has a strong effect on its taste. Coffee grows best near the equator, in warm, humid climates. Of the two main types of coffee, arabicas thrive at altitudes of 1,000 to 2,000 metres; robustas at between 100 and 800 metres.
Key growing regions include Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Kenya, India and Ethiopia. Nespresso coffee experts travel the world in search of the finest beans to blend together into its 24 different Grands Crus, sourced from small coffee producers who are then supported and given expert advice through the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program.
One such farmer is Jaime Elias Eraso, whose land in Nariño, south-western Colombia, benefits from abundant sunshine at high altitudes, ideal rainfall, and rich volcanic soil. “Thanks to the increase in income paid for the sustainable quality of our green coffee,” he says, “we have been able to do things like fix up our house, and I bought another plot for growing coffee.”
It starts with a cherry
The fruit on a coffee tree starts off as a green cherry, turning to a vibrant red when ripe. It’s vital to identify the right moment. “The quality of coffee can be completely destroyed if it is harvested before it is ripe or when it is overripe,” says Alexis Rodriguez, green coffee quality and development manager for Nespresso.
The coffee cherries used in the Nespresso Grands Crus are mostly harvested by hand, with pickers using their skill and expertise to determine the readiness and quality of each cherry. Even when machines are used, the harvest is filtered for imperfections and cherries are graded accordingly.
Enter the bean
Nestled inside each red cherry are two green beans – they only turn brown when roasted. Three different methods are used to extract them.
If coffee is processed using the “dry method”, it’s referred to as “unwashed” coffee. In this quick, easy and inexpensive method, cherries are simply dried on large surfaces in the fresh air for three weeks to a month.
The second method, favoured by Nespresso, is the “wet method”. This involves removing the seed and washing off any residual fruit flesh before drying and milling the beans. This takes more time and investment, but intensifies aromatic flavours and reduces any bitterness.
The “semi-dry method” is the third option: if this hybrid of the wet and dry methods is performed correctly, it can maintain the balance between the coffee’s body and acidity.
On the move
After green coffee has been processed, it typically has a long journey to a production centre. In the case of Nespresso beans, they are taken to, Switzerland, after being shipped to Europe by boat via the most expedient shipping routes, to protect the quality of the fresh harvest.
There, a rigorous round of quality control begins, with every 60kg bag of coffee tested for conformity of physical and sensorial properties, the degree of humidity and the quality of coffee beans delivered. The experts at Nespresso take a sample from each sack to roast and taste – a final assurance of quality.
The “alchemy” of roasting, blending and grinding
Blending coffees from different regions and roasting them to develop their full potential is a crucial stage in the bean-to-cup process. Green coffee is selected for characteristics including aroma, finesse and lasting aftertaste, then skilfully combined with beans from a different origin for complementary aromas and extra body.
The best coffee producers, such as Nespresso, use a complex, time-consuming and skilled process known as “split-roasting”. This is where each component in the blend is roasted at different temperatures and for different durations before being blended, in order to bring each one to perfection. To take just one example, in the Bukeela ka Ethiopia blend, wild and musky beans from western Ethiopia are roasted darker and shorter to add body, then blended with beans from the southern Sidama region that have been roasted longer and lighter, to bring out their floral, bergamot notes.
The grind completes this stage of the process. After roasting, the coffee beans are transferred to an airtight silo, preserving their aroma, before being placed in a grinder that reduces the beans to a powder. Each grind is accurately calculated to perfectly suit the blend of origins and produce top-quality coffee.
The final stage of the journey is to your cup. Once roasted, beans can rapidly lose their freshness and flavour. Nespresso came up with an elegant solution to this problem when it began 30 years ago: its hermetically sealed aluminium capsules protect the Grand Cru coffees from light, air and humidity, so the coffee arrives in your cup as fresh as when it was ground. The clever capsule shape ensures an even flow of water through the ground coffee during extraction, and each one has an instantly recognisable signature colour, so you can choose your favourite blend at a glance.
A sustainable future
Nespresso aims to increase its collection capacity for used aluminium capsules to 100% wherever the company does business, and to source 100% of its aluminium capsule material in line with the world conservation union’s new Aluminium Stewardship Initiative standards.
By 2016, more than 70,000 farmers across 11 countries have joined Nespressos AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program, representing more than 80% of the company’s total coffee supply. With support from long-term partners Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, Nespresso has a target of sourcing 100% of its permanent Grand Cru range through the program by 2020, and expanding the scheme in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan.
Article published in the Guardian