The theme for this week's Corner View is coffee. Now, when you mention the word 'coffee', the first place people think of is Brazil. The coffee beans in the picture, which I will grind for my morning coffee tomorrow, are indeed from Brazil, but they have, in a way, returned home, because like most of the world's best coffee beans they are Coffea arabica and as the name suggests, they originally came from the Arabian peninsula, just over the border from here, in Yemen, where coffee was first cultivated more than a thousand years ago. Arab traders took these beans to Indonesia and East Africa hundreds of years later and eventually they were exported to Latin America.
Last summer I was in Panama and learned a lot more about coffee when I was given a guided tour of the Kotowa Coffee Estate by Dutch coffee farmer, Hans van der Vooren. The first and possibly most important thing is, don't buy coffee that's already been ground. Coffee not only loses its flavour and aroma very quickly, it also absorbs smells and tastes from its surroundings. So, for example if you fry bacon and eggs near ground coffee, that's what it will taste of. Also, for the same reason, you should keep your coffee beans in a vacuum-sealed container. When buying coffee beans, what should you look for? Well, they should have a uniform shape and size as this shows that they have been properly sorted and graded; bigger beans tend to be more expensive. And they should be 100% Arabica as that is the best variety. Why, you may wonder, do farmers bother growing any other variety? The reason is that Coffea arabica is not easy to grow and requires very specific conditions: warm mountain slopes with a minimum altitude of 1,500m and light shade, which is usually provided by surrounding trees. The other main variety, Robusta (Coffea canephora), which is the basis for most instant coffee, is far easier to grow and can tolerate direct sunlight.
Now, with regard to how the beans have been processed, Hans explained that you don't want them burnt too much. Light roast beans (the pale coloured ones) will retain the greatest bouquet of flavours. These complex natural flavours can range from citrus fruit to vanilla and chocolate. If they are poor quality beans, they will also have unpleasant bitter flavours present. So, the cheaper beans are roasted for longer to get rid of the bitterness. Dark roast beans are invariably poor quality which is why they needed to be roasted for so long. The worst culprits are the French roast beans. They are from the cheap Robusta variety and have been burnt almost to a cinder in order to eradicate their natural bitterness. Medium roast is indeed a happy medium as it will retain much of the original bouquet of flavours, yet at the same time not be too bitter.
Panamanian coffee is currently considered to be the best in the world. Based on price and results in international coffee-tasting competitions, the world's best coffees are Panama's Geisha, Jamaica's Blue Mountain, Hawaii's Kona, Indonesia's Kopi Luwak, Guatemala's El Injerto, Brazil's Fazenda Santa Ines, El Salvador's Los Planes, Island of St. Helena Coffee Co. and Rwanda Blue Bourbon. They are all Coffea arabica. A kilo of Geisha beans from Boquete can cost more than $200.
For those of you who haven't ground your own beans before, you don't need a mortar and pestle. There are lots of cheap, efficient electric coffee grinders available in the shops. I particularly like the Kenwood CG100.
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