How many of you stop to think about where your coffee comes from when you brew your morning cuppa? Or when you stop by a coffee house to grab yours to go. Regardless of how you choose to get your fix, do you really know the process it takes for it to get to your hands?
I am not a regular coffee drinker — four to eight times a year max — and I am extremely picky as to where I get that coffee from. I am super sensitive and most of the time, end up getting severe jitters or even worse, a major stomach ache after drinking coffee. My favorite spots include Kean Coffee and Moulin Bistro, both of which do not wreak havoc on my tummy.
Several months ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to coffee maestro Martin Diedrich’s house, where he and his wife Karen hosted a small group of the local chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier in a day of coffee berry harvesting. It is clear the minute Martin starts talking about coffee that his passion is infinite, and his knowledge, boundless. He journeys to Costa Rica frequently, visiting the farms where the coffee trees are grown.
Martin grew up in Guatamala surrounded by coffee trees. There is a third generation tree which grew on his family’s farm in his front yard today. Whenever Martin travels to coffee origin countries and a farmer introduces him to varieties of trees growing, he’ll pluck a few cherries. First, he eats them, then he plucks a few and bring them home to grow. Unfortunately, through the years, he’s lost track of which is which, some he knows specifically, but he has lost track of the greater bulk of them, which variety they are and where he’s picked them, and from which trip he brought them home from.
Coffee is not native to this part of the world, it’s a tropical plant, relying on tropical light to flourish. The way coffee trees grow has less to do with climate than the sunlight in the tropics. There’s a larger spectrum of visible light in the tropics than the northern hemisphere that we can actually see. Perhaps you have seen it when visiting Hawaii, or Mexico? Everything looks brighter like it sparkles. That’s a big part of what the tropical plants are accustomed to, and genetically programmed for such as photosynthesis.
In the tropics where great coffees grow, there is higher elevation and it’s a lot cooler. There is limitations where you can grow coffee because it does actually freeze, for example in the Andes. The variety and growing environments — the terroir — is what determines how the coffee is actually going to come out, and the most important thing about coffee is of course about the source fruit. You have to have a good base product to start.
Plucking the fruit when they’re optimally ripe is key. That’s one of the first stages where things can go wrong when making a great cup of coffee. Martin likens it to tree-ripened fruit, which tends to be sweet and luscious versus fruit that’s green and left in ripening houses. These most often do not fully develop correctly, leaving you with tasteless fruit. It’s the same with coffee.
“When picking coffee cherries, think about it, that’s nature’s ultimate perfection, what the natural world produces. Whatever we do to it cannot improve on that, only detract off it,” says Martin. That’s why the process, from harvesting on, everything that’s done to it is to maintain nature’s ultimate perfection.
We picked eight pounds of coffee cherries which Martin crushes and separates from the “seed” or “bean”. It is cleaned several times with a special filtered water, then left to dry. During this time, the weather, humidity etc, dictates the length of time it takes. For this specific crop, it took 52 days for it to completely dry out and be ready.
When the beans were ready for roasting, the Diedrichs invites us to Kean Coffee in Newport to continue the process we started almost two months ago. The beans are now dry and there is a film or “shell” which needs to be removed.
Then, the beans are sorted into sizes which is an important step. Roasting beans of the same size assures that they all brown evenly and around the same time.
As we wait for the beans to roast in the Diedrich coffee roaster designed and created by Martin’s brother Stephen (Diedrich Manufacturing), we take a moment to enjoy a cup of coffee berry tea.
The fruit separated from the fruit has been dried and now, steeped in hot water to create an infusion which we sip on.
It reminds me a little of dried jujube tea with a hint of sweetness on the palate. I told Martin I would absolutely purchase this to brew at home if it was available at the store.
The end of the journey is near. After approximately 14 minutes, the coffee beans are ready.
Kean Coffee roaster extraordinaire Jerry Folwell passes the beans to Barrista Mike Richardson and the batch of “Costa Mecan” beans we harvested many weeks ago is brewed and poured for us to taste.
It is very drinkable — Martin was surprised how palatable it turns out. This experience of a life time has taught me never to look at a cup of coffee the same way again. Nor will I grimace at the thought of having to pay $5+ for it either.