Some fun facts about decaf: since caffeine gives coffee the majority of its bitterness decaf tends to be much sweeter, the decaf process affects the cellular structure of the bean so that even at light-medium roasts you'll still get surface oils whereas with regular coffee you'll only get that with a dark roast, also with some decaf coffees you'll get a very savoury smell (like meat) after roasting
Left: decaf coffee before it's roasted. Right: regular caffeinated coffee before its roasted.
Well, there is no short or clear answer! In traditional Italian coffee an espresso roast would be a very dark and oily roast that probably contains a percentage of robusta (a cheaper more bitter coffee variety). By roasting dark and using robusta they were able to create a coffee that isn't too picky about grind, doesn't significantly change taste as it ages and creates a lot of crema (the light brown foam on an espresso shot).
We at Other Brother Roasters like to keep it simple - an espresso roast is anything you would put into your espresso machine. Any coffee can be a used to make espresso but there is one thing especially that makes espresso easier to work with and that is solubility. Roasting a coffee to be brewed in a drip coffee maker (which takes a few minutes) is different than roasting for espresso (which takes a few seconds to brew) because we want the coffee to extract at different rates. So through some tricks of roasting we are able to increase the solubility of a roasted coffee (even at a light roast) so that it extracts nicely and evenly when brewed as espresso. Another thing we do when roasting for espresso is tame the acidity (or liveliness) because the espresso brewing method tends to accentuate this more than other brewing methods.
It grows on trees (more like shrubs) and there are usually two coffee "beans" per cherry. The photo shows under ripe (yellow, orange) and ripe fruit (red). In high quality coffee only the ripe cherries are picked but in cheaper coffee all the cherries are picked and even in some cases the entire trees are stripped bare using machines.
There are two main methods to get the coffee out of the cherry - washing the cherry or not washing it - and there are many variations in between. In the washed process first you remove the fruit by putting it through what looks like a large grater to remove the fruit and then you wash it in a large tank.
A fully washed coffee will accentuate a brighter, cleaner and lighter taste of coffee.
A natural coffee will not be washed at all but have the whole cherry (with the coffee inside) dried and then the dried fruit is removed later from the green bean. The natural method will accentuate body, minimize acidity and tend to have more of a fruity taste but there may be more defects because the coffee isn't washed. This is because defective beans float in water and there may be issues with rotting cherry fruit if it's not tended to properly.
A pulped natural is between a washed and a natural. In this process the producer will remove the skin off the cherry but leave the fruity mucilage intact during drying. These coffees have more body and lower acidity than washed but are cleaner and more uniform than natural coffees.
Then we have a wet-hulled sumatra which is essentially a different take on the pulped natural method in that they remove the green bean from the fruit in a similar way as is done in the natural method but then instead of drying it they put it in a tank or sack and let it ferment overnight and then the rest of the cherry is removed. This results in a funky musky, spicy, full body and low acidity coffee which Sumatra is famous for.
left: washed Colombia, center: pulped natural Brazil, right: wet-hulled Sumatra.
Did you know that all of the worlds coffee is grown in countries close to the equator? Also did you know that these are the poorest countries in the world? The commodity price for coffee is just over USD$1.10 now (by the way, similar to what it was in the 1970s) but specialty coffee is purchased for considerably more than that due to the work the farmers have to put into creating a quality product.
Fans say a peaberry tastes sweeter, others say it tastes the same but what exactly is a peaberry?
Coffee grows inside of a cherry fruit and usually there are two coffee "beans" per cherry that grow back-to-back - and where the two cherries touch each other it grows flat but the other side is allowed to grow round. What happens in a peaberry coffee is that sometimes there is only one beans that grows inside of the cherry. Since there is no other bean inside the cherry the peaberry is allowed to grow almost round - giving it its distinct shape.
A peaberry is definitely not a different varietal, and no so much a "defect" as it doesn't affect taste negatively. A peaberry is more like an anomaly.
Peaberry on the left, "regular" on the right.
Did you know that coffee is always decaffeinated before its roasted? There are a few main methods to removing the caffeine from the beans.
First the yucky method: The traditional/cheap decaffeination process was invented in 1906 and involves steaming the coffee beans with acids or bases to open the pores of the coffee bean and then using a solvent such as dichloromethane the caffeine is extracted. Yummy, right?
The second method - called Swiss Water Process - uses water and osmosis to remove the caffeine by soaking the coffee in hot water and running the water through filters. This process is performed several times and there are no chemicals!
The third method uses natural EA (ethyl acetate) - This is a similar process as the traditional chemical method in that they open the pores of the coffee but instead of chemicals they use natural occurring alcohols and naturally occurring acetic acid that they make from sugar cane.
There is also the Mexico water process which is similar to Swiss water. The advantage of these two methods is they can be done at the coffee producing country instead of shipping the coffee to a decaf processor which leaves more money in the producing country.
Of course we don't purchase any coffees that have been processed using the first method described above!
My daily grinder for my espresso machine at home is an older Baratza Vario (serial number 0749). I've had this grinder for about 5 years and while it is a great grinder the daily use has taken its toll on the pulley and belt that turn the burrs. Also the burrs had worn down from putting hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds through it. So, last week I was conducting a silly experiment trying to grind a non-coffee product which would up seizing the burrs which made the drive belt slip on the plastic drive gear and ultimately melting the belt and the gear! Thankfully Baratza's customer service is great and the replacement belt, pulley and burrs shipped right away but international shipping can take a bit so I was left with no espresso grinder to get me through a 2 week period. Baratza is also constantly improving their products so the plastic drive pulley is now made of metal.
What's a guy to do?
The only other electric grinder in the house (another Baratza) is dedicated to the drip coffee maker so that one wasn't available for espresso duty so that left the Porlex hand grinder. Normally the Porlex is assigned to grinding while travelling or for Chemex - which is a medium grind coarseness. When I first purchased the Porlex a while back out of curiosity I tried it on the espresso machine to see if it would grind fine enough and I remembered it could do it.
Using the Porlex for espresso
So, how does the Porlex work for espresso? In one word "passable". The coarseness adjustment on the Porlex is done by adjusting what is essentially a nut on a threaded rod in order to move the burrs closer or farther apart. The "nut" clicks at various intervals so you can have some repeatable settings. On my particular hand grinder it took 8 "clicks" to get from my Chemex grind to my espresso grind.
The good, the bad and the ugly
The good part is the Porlex can grind fine enough for espresso and it got me through my 2 week period without my Vario. The bad is that there is only one setting "click" that is fine enough for espresso so any adjustments you want to make to your espresso pour will have to be done by tamping harder/lighter or adding more/less coffee. Also, to my taste buds, the espresso produced by the Porlex is sourer and has less sweetness than that produced by the Vario. There really isn't any ugly - except maybe the time it takes to turn the crank by hand to grind 18 grams of coffee for espresso!
The Porlex is $68 whereas the Vario is $670 so overall I'm very happy I had the Porlex so I could keep drinking espresso while my Vario was down but I'm also happy that my Vario is up and running now better than ever! In conclusion, if you have to use the Porlex in a pinch for espresso it's good to know you can but I wouldn't want to do it on a permanent basis.