Sure, Valentine’s Day can be seen as a commercialized holiday to sell more flowers and chocolate. I choose to use this occasion as a chance to contemplate love beyond its traditional associations. I’d like to reflect on my passion for coffee and explore my relationship with it a little bit deeper.
To get a cup of specialty coffee with clear distinct flavours and complex aromas, it takes many dedicated and passionate people. Those artisans didn’t just show up, put in their hours, and go home without another thought about work until the next shift. They put a lot of time and thought into how to make your cup better. You may be surprised at how the decisions they have made directly impact what you taste.
It all starts with the farmer. Pete Licata, 2013 World Barista Champion, describes the farmer as the “cultivator of potential”. The farmer chooses which varietals to grow and nurture for five or more years before the first harvest. The Arabica species (Coffea arabica) that’s used for specialty coffee requires a lot more care, is harder to grow, and produces much lower yields than the Robusta species (Coffea canephora) that’s more commonly used for commodity coffee. An Arabica tree yields about one pound of un-roasted coffee per year.
Coffee cherries do not all ripen at the same rate. To get optimal and consistent results, workers hand-pick the most developed and mature specialty Arabica cherries. Some farmers go so far as to use refractometers to measure the sugar content of the cherries. A similar practice is used by grape producers in the wine industry. Higher sugar content in the cherry means the seeds (beans) are going to have higher sugar and carbohydrate content, resulting in a sweeter cup.
After the cherries are harvested, they are processed by wet, dry, or a hybrid method. The choice in processing method affects the coffee’s brightness, complexity, clarity, and body. Some regions have little access to water, so the decision is easy. Where there is an option, the processing method used can accentuate the beans natural attributes or balance them out.
Licata feels the roaster’s job is to unlock the potential that the farmer put into the coffee. Control over time and temperature of the roast allows the roaster to choose the balance of brightness, body, and sweetness. Beans can be sold as single origin to draw attention to the character of a varietal and how it might be affected by the terroir and other factors. Blending beans is an art in itself. A good blend becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
As a barista, the last thing I want to do is squander the efforts of the people that have impacted the coffee before me. I screw up one shot and that’s 6% of a tree’s annual yield into the composter. When I get it right, I’m able to use the variables of extraction to bring forward my favourite characteristics of the coffee. The barista is the last, and likely the only person in the coffee production chain that you will meet. The passion that you might see from me as your barista is not mine alone. When I’m able to see the metaphorical fingerprints of the farmer and roaster in the coffee, that excites me and I can’t help sharing that emotion with you.
 Arabica is used for specialty coffee, but not all Arabica coffees carry the specialty rating.