Taste the ‘Notes’ on Coffee from Around the World

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The moment a barista hands you your morning cup of joe is the culmination of hour upon hour of hard work by several hands across the globe.

There’s the farmer in southeastern Asia or central Africa or South America. There’s the processor, the importer, the roaster and, finally, the barista. Each plays a role not only in delivering that cup of coffee, but in developing its flavor.

Coffee doesn’t grow in northeastern Ohio. Nor does it grow in the United States save for far-flung Hawaii. All of the world’s coffee is grown in between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – about 23.4 degrees north and south of the equator, respectively – in a belt that includes central Africa, southeastern Asia and Central and South America.

Since most café owners don’t have the resources to travel the world to visit the farms where their coffee is grown, they rely on importers scattered across the country. Ben Ratner, owner of Libs Market in downtown Salem, gets a portion of his product from Café Imports in Minneapolis, while Nova Coffee Co.’s Logan Reinard buys from other coffee shops: Metropolis Coffee Co. in Chicago and Rêve Coffee Roasters in New Orleans.

For commercial clients, these companies provide what are known in the industry as “cupping notes,” or details on the flavor of a variety of coffee.

“They tell you what that coffee’s going to taste like once it’s roasted,” says Joe Sylvester, owner of High Octane Coffee Co., Canfield. “We went through the list and I knew what I was trying to achieve with my different roasts. I knew I’d want this, this and this, and I can blend these two together. On the first shot, it went good and we haven’t changed since.”

The notes they’re looking for appear little different from what wine connoisseurs look for. Ethiopian coffees tend to have some sweetness making them reminiscent of peaches or apricots, Reinard says, while those from Indonesia have “heavy notes” such as molasses and maple.

And while those general flavors are prevalent by region, the beans from each farmer have their own unique tastes. The altitude of the farm can affect the flavor, as can the chemical composition of the soil and the water used at the farm.

With such an array of options, some stores have chosen to offer a constantly shuffling menu – Branch Street Coffee Roasters in Boardman, for example, specializes in small-batch, single-origin coffees – while others offer a codified menu.

“I always get the same stuff for my store,” Sylvester says. “I like to keep everything the same because customers know what they want.”

Most common, though, is a mixture of the two: classic standbys such as a Guatemalan or Colombian coffee and a few high-end coffees, perhaps from Indonesia or Uganda.

“We found a blend from Metropolis that we like. It’s a medium-dark roast. That’s always on,” Reinard says. “And then we cycle through different single origins. We always have five or six.”

Once the beans are collected, how they’re processed also imparts notes. There are three styles of processing coffee beans: natural, washed and honey.

In natural processing, the coffee cherries – the fruit plucked from the tree, skin and all – are left to dry. That allows the bean to absorb the fruity flavors of the husk and pulp.

Most common is water processing, where the skin and pulp of the cherry are washed off the bean. After the unusable beans are separated from the crop, the remainder is left to soak and ferment, which allows the sugars in the beans to turn into acetic acid, giving the resulting coffee a more floral taste.

Honey processing is a middle ground between natural and water processing methods. The cherries are washed and de-pulped, but skip the fermentation tank, leaving mucilage – a gooey substance the fruit secretes as part of germination – on the bean. The method tends to even out the flavor of the bean, bringing extreme notes to the middle.

“The soil has an effect. The way they’re watered has an effect. The processing has an effect,” Ratner says. “The roaster has to understand that chemistry to unlock those compounds in the best way for the consumer.”

Logan Reinard co-owns and operates Nova Coffee Co. in downtown Warren.

The roaster, High Octane’s Sylvester agrees, plays a crucial role in determining those final notes. In its entirety, roasting takes a little over 10 minutes and, for most of that time, the method is standardized across origin and style with little difference between light, medium and dark roasts. But at the end, the roaster has some decision to make.

“[The roast color determines] what temperature you roast it, how long you leave it in, the air flow. There are a lot of variables and if you change it the slightest bit, it changes the flavor of the coffee,” Sylvester says. “As they roast, the beans get larger and crack. That’s where the flavor and aroma comes out. You have to do it by sight. That’s part of the artisan process. It’s never exactly the same every time.”

The impact on flavor is so great that some opt to avoid certain styles of roasting completely. At Warren’s Nova Coffee, Reinard says the shop stays away from using dark roasts – where beans are left in the roaster longest – because of the resulting textures.

“We don’t do traditional dark roast because it takes away a lot of the flavor and can leave it tasting ashy or burnt,” he says. “With [Reve’s] roasting techniques, we love that it’s not over-roasted.”

Then, finally, there’s the part everyone sees. A barista pours a cup of hot Sumatran coffee or maybe a cold-brewed Colombian. Perhaps an espresso made with beans from Rwanda is in order. Whatever the order, the person pouring the drink in your cup has the final control over its quality.

And it starts with water.

“It’s 98% of the finished product. Having the right chemistry in the water is key,” Ratner says. “It doesn’t matter what beans you have if you don’t have the right chemical balance.”

Even the method of preparation can alter the taste. The traditional pour over – hot water is poured over the beans – results in different tastes than the cold-brew method, where beans are steeped in water up to 24 hours, giving your cup of joe a fuller, stronger flavor.

“Cold brew is taking a blend and extracting [flavors] for 17 hours. That process allows it to slowly pull out the flavors. When you have that slow extraction, you end up with a smooth cup of coffee,” Reinard says. “Siphon process lets water boil up and you put the grounds in the boiling water. It’s an agitated coffee, so all the flavor and caffeine comes out.”

In mixed drinks such as espresso or macchiato, baristas must take into account that customers often add sweeteners and milk or cream. For his espresso, Reinard favors beans with heavy chocolate flavors that will come through when milk is added.

And for those who aren’t yet connoisseurs of coffee, the Nova Coffee co-owner recommends a simple method for getting a grasp of the notes he and other cafe owners aim to tease out of beans: taste coffees on opposite ends of the flavor spectrum.

“We have a single-origin from Indonesia that has heavy notes like molasses and syrup, giving it kind of a maple flavor,” he says. “Then compare that a Costa Rican that has strong flavors of strawberry and is really sweet. When you compare the two, you can taste how different the flavors are.”

If that fails, he says, there’s always another option.

“You can read the bag to see what notes are in it. Then you can pretend you know what you’re talking about,” he says with a laugh.

Pictured at top: Pictured: Ben Ratner owner of Libs Market in downtown Salem.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.