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Magic beans

David Burton looks at New Zealand's coffee boom and the new brewing methods showcasing single origin beans.

by David Burton | Cuisine issue #156 | Friday, 22 February, 2013
Some years ago it was predicted that juice bars would take over from espresso bars in New Zealand, but this never came to pass. Far from dying out, this country’s coffee culture keeps developing. No sooner had Geoff Marsland built his flash new Havana roastery in Wellington, than he announced he had outgrown it. Compare Auckland, which has a population of 1.4 million people, with Germany, which has 80 million: both have around 45 coffee roasters. Right across the board, New Zealanders have gone espresso-mad: on building sites these days, the apprentice no longer brews the traditional pot of tarry black tea for morning smoko, but gets sent out on a flat white run.

And now, we’re seeing the rise of premium single origin coffees along with gentler methods of brewing.

Globally, coffee is no longer in crisis, having leapt out of its hole over the past three years, says Justin McArthur of Coffee Supreme. Far from an over-supply, there’s now a global shortage, driven by increased hedge trading in “soft” commodities such as coffee and cotton since the global financial meltdown, but also by increasingly erratic growing seasons since the advent of climate change.

Competing for a greater share of this finite commodity is an exploding middle class in Brazil and China. This is in addition to demand from connoisseurs in the traditional markets of Japan, Scandinavia, South Korea and parts of North America.

In Panama, Hacienda La Esmeralda conducts just one online auction per year, and where the best quality Yirgacheffe from Ethiopia might sell for US$5 a pound, theirs can fetch up to US$66 a pound. 

Justin McArthur talks of one grower who will not haggle at all on price, confident that if you don’t take it, another buyer behind you will. 

Ten years ago, he says, coffee growers who wanted to add value would try to eke out a few extra cents per pound by applying to be Fair Trade or organic. But now that there is more money in coffee, the focus has switched to improving quality.  

Increasingly, coffee growers in famous regions are spending more money on having pickers pass over different parts of the plantation several times in order to achieve optimum ripeness. They might parcel off premium areas of their estate in the same way as grape growers, and there has been more investment in advanced processing technology – for example, aqua-jets to wash the mucilage off beans once the cherries have been soaked in water, rather than simply leaving them to ferment.   

Where once New Zealand coffee roasters bought from just two major importers, today most are actively seeking direct relationships with the coffee growers themselves.

“In parts of central America now, there’s a roaster behind every tree,” jests McArthur.  

One of these might be Matt Graylee of Wellington’s Flight Coffee, who spent 2012 travelling the world to meet with growers – from Brazil to Colombia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

Even large companies are getting into single origin coffee. Nespresso, which sells sealed capsules of ready-ground coffee for its espresso machines, has a number of single origin coffees and recently launched the limited-edition Hawaii Kona. Vittoria, the Australian coffee giant, has Oro, a Brazilian single origin, while Caffe
l’affare has a single origin range that includes coffee from Brazil, Honduras, Kenya and more.

Single origin beans might not be perfectly balanced in the same way as traditional blended coffee, but partly that’s the point – they are drunk precisely because they are quirky. Coffee from the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia, for example, has an unusually high level of acidity, but that is what gives a cup of Yirgacheffe its unique lime-like aroma as it cools.

Along with the rise of single origin coffee beans has come a new approach to roasting them. Because espresso is so highly pressurised, it is the most violent, unforgiving way to make coffee, requiring a dark, highly roasted bean.

This high roasting is done to mute the acidity of coffee beans, which espresso’s extreme pressure and concentration would otherwise render unpleasant in flavour.

Hence espresso coffee beans are more about the bitter-sweet caramelised roasting profile than the inherent fruity acidity of the beans.

But having paid such a premium for their specialty coffee beans, many coffee companies are now loathe to give them any more than a light or medium roast, in order to let their full complexity shine through.

This in turn means bypassing the espresso machine and turning to updated versions of the old drip filter methods that were popular 30 years ago – Chemex, V60, Swissgold and siphon among them.

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