I spoke to Giles Hilton, who was product director of Whittard for more than 30 years. He currently combines consultancy work with a role as tea and coffee specialist at Fortnum & Mason. He has travelled the world visiting producers and judging competitions in South and Central America.
We discuss the two fundamental types of bean – robusta and arabica.
“Robusta represents around 20 per cent of global production,” says Hilton. “It is wild and – funnily enough – robust. Although the Italians argue it is vital for giving coffee strength, you wouldn’t use it to provide subtle ﬂavour.”
This is true. Robusta produces a bitter, woody and astringent coffee. It has a higher caffeine content than arabica and is able to defend itself against insects, so is easier to cultivate. “The most superior arabicas are found in Brazil, Colombia, Central America, Indonesia and East Africa,” suggests Hilton.
Personally I find the arabicas from Ethiopia the most exciting because there are many we haven’t even yet discovered.
All types of coffee come from these two beans, though there is incredible variety and something for every palate.
“Each country’s coffee is distinctive,” says Hilton. “I think Guatemalan coffee has the rich sweetness of dark chocolate, that of Java has a heavy and firm richness, whereas Brazilian beans have the most incredible metallic bite to them.”
“Using a bean-to-cup coffee machine such as the De’Longhi Eletta Cappuccino Top, you have the opportunity to experiment with and try many different beans.”
Hilton says that the world’s most popular coffee is Colombian, a country with a rich heritage of coffee farming. “There are now old estates dating from the mid-1800s, well into their fifth generation of coffee cultivation.”
It’s true that Colombia produces well cultivated, harvested and processed beans which translate into delicious, clean coffees.
If you were brought up with robusta beans, then that may be your preference
“My favourite coffee is Monsoon Malabar,” muses Hilton. “This is produced by my friend Faiz on the Malabar coast of west India. The beans are laid out on trestle tables to gently dry in the monsoon winds. This creates the most unique and exotic ﬂavour, deliciously spicy with notes of cinnamon and coconut cream.”
“I am a coffee snob,” he admits. “But good coffee costs only a little more. It’s not like buying expensive wine.”
Besides, considering the subjectivity of coffee, if you were brought up with robusta beans, then that may be your preference.
When I taste robusta coffee, I am reminded of the time in my childhood that my father blew cigar smoke at me. It has the same taste in the mouth.
I say to Hilton that I couldn’t specify one favourite coffee as I love exploring the incredible variety, though I’ll always have a soft spot for Ethiopians, Kenyans and Colombians.
Some enjoy different coffees at different times of day. Hilton believes that people enjoy a long coffee first thing and perhaps an espresso mid-morning. “This also tends to be the coffee of choice after a social lunch or supper,” he adds.
But again, there are no hard and fast rules and no reason why you can’t have espresso first thing for a kick.
We agree that the harvesting process is fascinating and concur that the best coffee comes from small producers where the fruit of the tree (called cherries), is harvested by hand. “Smaller farmers pick the ripe red cherries as you and I pick raspberries or apples from the garden,” Hilton explains.
On the vast Brazilian farms the cherries are picked by machine, but this means that they collect both under and over-ripe fruit. The enormous machines can strip a coffee bush in three seconds.
“They are all graded and sorted,” points out Hilton. “The cherries are dropped into vast tanks of water and the best quality beans sink and are scooped from the bottom.” This is known as wet processing.
“The firm flesh of the cherry is removed and the stone cracked open – within which are the two halves of the bean. Ideally, they are left in the sun on large patios to dry for seven days.”
I add that the method of processing depends on different elements: location, access to water and how wealthy the farmer is.
“True,” Hilton nods. “Dry processing can work well to develop a good Ethiopian coffee with character, but could ruin the richness of Central and South American coffees.”
These dry, raw beans have no coffee ﬂavour (as we know it) and will keep for a year or two. Ideally they’re stored for four to six months and then exported from the country of origin – each country roasts their own.
Hilton and I don’t think many coffee drinkers are aware of this.
But of course it makes sense: roasting the beans releases the oils which create the incredible taste. Freshness is crucial – beans keep for longer and freshly ground beans are usually superior to ready ground coffee.
The roasting process is extraordinary. The beans are poured into what look like huge cement mixers and rotated while being blasted with heat for between 10 and 15 minutes.
Different beans are roasted for different times. “For example certain Kenyan coffees are best medium roast – for around 12 minutes. High roasting might make it acidic. Yet Colombian coffee can be high roasted for the full 15 minutes,” Hilton says.
Store coffee correctly. Keep it in an airtight container to stop further dehydration. It looks pretty, but exposure to sunlight in glass jars will damage the beans further. And don’t store in the fridge – they’ll get damp and smell of mince and broccoli.
Choosing fresh coffee beans is just the start. Using a bean-to-cup machine such as the De’Longhi Eletta Cappuccino Top takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the process as it prepares the coffee automatically, grinding beans fresh for every cup to extract the best coffee taste. (Source)