Coffee is my lifeblood. Before I do or say anything in the morning, I need a cup of coffee. A coffee with cream to be exact. To my black-coffee drinking husband’s chagrin, I put enough cream in my brew to turn it from the color of midnight to a light tan. And I’m not the only one. Upwards of 63% of coffee drinkers add cream and/or sugar to their coffees.
Water aside, coffee is the most popular beverage in the world. It has upwards of 850 compounds in it, giving it a more complex flavor than wine, which has around 600 compounds. So why are so many people diluting a drink with such robust flavor? Well, one reason is because most of us have been drinking stale coffee for our entire lives, and cream and sugar make otherwise overwhelmingly bitter brews more palatable.
The story of coffee begins with the coffee bean. Before the roasting process, coffee beans are green and can last for years, as long as you keep them dry and out of direct sunlight. But once coffee beans undergo the roasting process, it’s a race against time for those freshly roasted beans to get to your coffee pot.
“Coffee beans are only fresh five to seven days after they’re roasted,” says Derek Zavislake, CEO and co-founder of Merchants of Green Coffee in Toronto. For around 25 years, Derek and his brother Brad have been educating consumers on what it really means to have a fresh cup of coffee, and are known for encouraging coffee drinkers to roast their coffee beans at home.
Roasted coffee’s short shelf life is a matter of simple science. Coffee is made up of fats, sugars and carbohydrates, and when they’re roasted, those components are released, allowing us to transform those beans into the beverage that gets us caffeinated every morning. However, once those components are released, coffee becomes vulnerable to oxygen, which can cause the fats to oxidize. But for that five-to-seven-day window after roasting, coffee beans also release CO2, which creates a natural barrier between the coffee beans and the oxygen.
This is why coffee bags come with a release valve on the side – it allows CO2 to escape and prevents oxygen from coming in. Otherwise, the coffee bag would burst in transit from the roaster to the grocery store. One might argue that the coffee is technically still fresh in the bag. But once the bag is opened and oxygen rushes in, if the beans are no longer releasing CO2, then most of the flavor is lost within moments.
This is something to consider if your coffee isn’t being roasted locally. If you’re buying from a large-scale coffee company or your beans are traveling internationally, chances are that by the time it goes from the roaster to your grocery store – not to mention to your kitchen – the coffee’s window of ultimate freshness has been slammed shut.
If you do happen to get your hands on a batch of freshly roasted coffee beans, you can actually taste the sugars and fats that occur naturally in the coffee, which balance the natural bitterness of the caffeine. Average coffee drinkers who add cream and sugar to their coffee do so to counteract the bitterness of the caffeine, which overpowers the sweet taste of coffee, especially as it becomes stale.
“Coffee is like a fine wine,” says Zavislake. “It gets its flavor from its region, but you’re only going to be able to taste it if the coffee beans are fresh.” Coffee comes in a wide range of flavors all influenced not just by the regions in which the beans are grown, but also by nearby crops (if the beans are grown near citrus, for example, the coffee can take on citric attributes), and elevation (the higher up, the cooler the air, and the more condensed the sugar, making for a sweeter brew).
The best way to discover the flavors of coffee, Zavislake recommends, is to roast the coffee beans at home. “The specialty coffee industry would lead you to believe that roasting needs to be done by a master roaster,” he says. “But it’s a fairly simple process that can be done at home.” He compares learning to roast coffee to learning to make toast. You burn that first batch of toast, so you know for next time to toast it for less time.
All you need to do to roast coffee is to heat green, un-roasted coffee beans above 425°F. You can either roast them in the oven on a cookie tray or in a pan on the stove.
You can use a timer, but Zavislake says all you need to do is listen and watch. If you want a light roast, just wait until the beans change from their green color to a tan hue. A medium roast results from what is called “the first crack,” which sounds like wood crackling in a fire. At this point, the beans will have a chocolate color. But if you’re looking for a dark roast, several minutes after the first crack is complete, you’ll hear a softer “second crack” as the beans turn almost black.
So in addition to hacking your way to a better cup of coffee with that hand grinder or that AeroPress, try roasting the coffee beans yourself.