Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January 13: Coffee

This afternoon I got to watch a coffee roaster in action. Watching the process of how some of our edibles come into being can be fascinating and a bit arcane. Examples: candy canes, maple syrup, beer. And coffee. Abby, the woman in charge of roasting the beans, fired up the shiny, black, propane-heated roaster. As the digital read-out quickly rose from 49 degrees to 406, I kept thinking about Ray Bradbury's book Fahrenheit 451, so titled because that's the temperature at which books burn. Fortunately there's really no analogy between burning books and roasting coffee beans, although Abby did say that the smoke emitted by the roaster smells like burnt toast.

She poured about 12 pounds of organic Columbian coffee beans into the roaster, and then the fun began. The process took about 15 minutes altogether, during which we could see through a tiny window as the pale green beans turned cinnamony and then darker and darker brown. The beans snapped like popcorn as their shells split (apparently there's "first crack" and "second crack"--and at what time and temperature each stage happens gets carefully recorded by the roaster). Abby checked on the color every so often by drawing out a little tube-shaped scoop from the side of the roaster that would pick up a few beans. As she got near the end of the cycle, she checked color constantly. At some ideal point known only to her, she pulled a lever and all the beans spilled out into an attached tray with revolving arms that mixed and cooled them. They no longer looked like weird, split pea-like seeds, but real coffee of such a beautiful rich chocolate color that I wanted to scoop handfuls into my mouth. I did eat a few of the crisp beans for fun, and they tasted like coffee, of course, with a hint of burnt toast.

For me the most fascinating part of the process--besides the mesmerizing experience of watching those dark beans swirl around and around in the tray as they cooled--was checking out the big, 150-lb. burlap sacks full of as-yet unroasted beans from around the world and enjoying the tactile sensation of running my hand through mounds of the beans inside them. Columbia, Sumatra, Java, Brazil, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, and Bali were all represented in those slumping bags, some printed with colorful images. Seeing all those exotic places represented, I couldn't help but think of the hundreds of species of birds in each of these countries. This coffee was all organic and certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which doesn't require coffee to be shade-grown per se but does encourage plant diversity in plantations. So I have to hope that the land on which these beans were grown continues to support birds, and that these beans were fruited under the bright wings of macaws, tanagers, and oropendulas.

Scarlet Tanager at his summer home in Maine. Photo by Brian Willson.

Steaming hot coffee.
Tropical orioles flit
above ripened beans.

Note: The roasters I visited today, Green Tree Coffee, donate $1 to Coastal Mountains Land Trust for every pound they sell of one of four beautifully packaged Coastal Maine blends. You can buy their coffee via their website, or later this winter at their retail store opening on Route One in Lincolnville Beach.

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