To Bean, or Not to Bean, That is the Question

With the surge in coffee production and consumption in Asia in recent years, the coffee bean seems primed to stage a coup in Eastern markets that have for centuries kowtowed to the tea leaf. According to a 2014 report compiled by the International Coffee Organisation, Asia has experienced the most dynamic growth in coffee consumption in the world from 1990 to 2012, growing by an average rate of 4 percent per annum, increasing to 4.9 percent since 2000. While more tea than coffee is consumed in most Asian countries, the blossoming coffee culture in the East, coupled with the dynamics and high population density of developing markets, seems promising to those in the coffee sector.

As for Hong Kong, local consumer preferences seem to be changing in tandem with broader regional trends. To embrace the City’s evolving hot beverage preferences, the Member Benefits Committee organised a Coffee Day at the Law Society Clubhouse in March, providing members with the opportunity to increase their appreciation and understanding of coffee production, preparation and tasting. Assisting the Committee with this event, a local coffee shop prepared a variety of drinks using their signature house blends, which included espresso, black coffee and white coffee variations (ie, latte, cappuccino, flat whites and piccolo).

The event kicked off with coffee cupping or tasting, which is the practice of observing the aromas, fragrances and flavours of brewed coffee. As explained by the Specialty Coffee Association, a standard cupping procedure generally involves deeply sniffing the coffee, then strongly slurping the coffee to aspirate it over the entire tongue. Through these techniques, the coffee taster attempts to assess aspects of the coffee’s taste, such as its body, flavour and aftertaste. Since a coffee bean’s flavour contains clues about the region where it was grown, professional cuppers often attempt to identify the bean’s origin through its flavour profile. The house blend espresso coffee served at the event was a mixture of beans harvested in 2016: 30 percent of the mixture comprised Brazilian coffee beans harvested from Fazenda Ouro Verde and the remaining 70 percent comprised Colombian coffee beans harvested from the El Danubio Farm.

In addition to origin, the method used to process coffee from the seed of a coffee cherry into a ready-to-roast green coffee bean also impacts its final flavour profile. The local coffee shop representative explained that the two beans comprising its house blend espresso coffee underwent two different processing methods, with the Brazilian beans undergoing a natural or dry process and the Colombian beans undergoing a washed or wet process.

The natural process, which is one of the oldest methods, entails, just as its name suggests, drying coffee cherries after they are harvested. For those who have never seen a coffee cherry, it is covered by a skin that wraps closely around a thin layer of pulp, known as mucilage. Both the skin and mucilage encase the seed, which usually contains two coffee beans. During the drying process, the entire cherry is left intact, with the coffee beans absorbing some of the characteristics of the pulp and skin. After the coffee cherry is dried to the appropriate moisture level, which can take up to four weeks, the layers surrounding the bean are hulled. The natural or drying process is used for about 80 percent of the coffee beans produced in Brazil and Ethiopia. Naturally processed coffee beans have bold, fruity flavours, which are inherited from the coffee cherry’s sweet pulp and skin. Generally, these beans produce a heavier bodied cup of coffee.

In contrast, with the washed or wet process, the coffee bean is separated from the cherry in a procedure called de-pulping. This relatively new method of processing involves coffee cherries being dropped into processors and carried by water to a holding tank directly after being harvest. Any defective, or less dense cherries, float to the top and are skimmed off. The good cherries sink and are sent through a de-pulping device. From there the seeds are directed to a fermentation tank to rest for one to two days. After the pulp is removed, the beans are dried and then hulled. Washed coffees are typically described as tasting cleaner, brighter and fruitier. The term “clean” does not connote that washed coffees are of a higher quality; rather it means that flavours intrinsic in the seed are communicated more clearly, as opposed to the flavour of the fruit.

During the tasting, members noted that the Colombian and Brazilian bean mixture gave the coffee a fruity taste, similar to the taste of grapefruits. They also detected floral undertones and a trace of a nutty finish. The texture of this cup of espresso was creamy and intensely sweet, which differs from a cup of milk coffee that normally gives you the taste of nuts mixed in milk chocolate, with an extra creamy and smooth body.

A survey was conducted to determine the most favoured beverage. Surprisingly, most participants chose either the mocha drink or the latte. Those who chose the mocha drink explained that they fancied the taste combination of chocolate with bitter coffee. Those who preferred the taste of the latte indicated that they enjoyed the bold, bitter taste of coffee coupled with fresh, sweet steamed milk over it.

As evening fell, the Clubhouse was transformed into a latte art workshop with the help of Ms. Lamont Loo, a licensed Q-grader. The 8 members that attended learned how to create a simple heart-shaped pattern in the foam topping of their latte by using basic techniques of “high and mix” and “down and pour”. They also learned how to froth milk, which involved submersing a steam wand into a pitcher of milk until the milk reached the appropriate temperature and texture. While steaming milk may seem simple, it is remarkably difficult to do well, as it involves two phases – aerating (or stretching) and emulsifying (or texturing). Members learned that you have to attain a certain texture to the steamed milk to create latte art and that varying aerating and emulsifying techniques are used to create different types of milk-based espresso drinks.