How do coffee beans turn into our morning elixir? Starbucks recently took some local media folks on a global "journey of the bean" to explain. And although it's Coffee 101 through the Starbucks filter, there's something to learn, no matter which brand you buy.
Starbucks obtains its coffee beans from three primary regions in the world: Latin America, Africa/Arabia and Asia/Pacific. All are within an equatorial "belt" between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.
Also, all the beans purchased are
arabica, which grow at higher altitudes and are considered better quality than the other major commercial species, robusta. Robusta beans also deliver twice the caffeine jolt of arabica.
Coffee beans grow on trees and are the seeds within the berries, called coffee "cherries," that turn bright red when ripe. Like wine grapes, their flavor reflects the growing conditions — soil and climate — and the way they are processed.
In Latin America, "washed" is the usual way of processing. Most of the fruit pulp is removed by washing, and then the beans sit in fermentation tanks to develop their character.
The result? A light-bodied vibrant coffee with noticeably higher acidity, "similar to white wine," according to Shannon Pariaug, the company's Southeast regional marketing specialist.
In the Africa/Arabian region, "dry" processing is common. The cherries are laid out in huge drying beds to bake in the sun, allowing the beans to take on earthy, exotic and/or spicy notes.
A combination of the two methods (minus fermentation), called "semi-washed," is used in the Asia/Pacific region.
These coffees are known for being full-bodied with hints of spice and herbs.
But roasting is the real flavormaker of coffee. Heat applied to raw green beans brings out their oils. The longer the time, the darker, oilier and smaller the bean becomes. The coffee, in turn, will become less acidic, more intense and full-bodied.
Currently, Starbucks has four roasting plants worldwide: in Seattle, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Amsterdam. It will add a fifth in 2009, in rural St. Matthews.