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Coffee: More Complex Than You Think
Coffee beans, grown in equatorial regions, come in two main species: arabica and robusta. In recent years coffee has seen the same kind of specialization as wine, with many different sources of beans and types of roasting.
Arabica beans grow at high altitudes – 1000 to 2000 metres. This species has a caffeine content of around 0.8% to 1.4% and is generally considered superior to robusta. Arabica accounts for about 70% of worldwide coffee production. "Grand cru" beans, the very best, only come from about 10% of all arabica production. Arabica grows in Central and South America, India, Eastern Africa, and Papua New Guinea.
Robusta beans grow in lower altitudes – 0 to 700 metres. This species has a high caffeine content of 1.7% to 4.0% and it accounts for roughly 30% of world coffee production. Robusta is stronger than arabica and has an aftertaste that's considered useful both in creating blends and in making instant coffee. Cheaper coffee blends tend to have a higher proportion of robusta beans than arabica, though some high quality blends, especially espresso blends, use the very best robusta beans to create great body and flavour. Robusta beans grow in Western and Central Africa, Malaysia, Brazil, and India.
During roasting, the water content of the coffee bean evaporates and the bean swells to twice its normal size. The skin, or chaff, breaks and falls off. The bean itself turns from a light green to a dark brown throughout the process.
Light roasts give the subtlest flavours and are quite light-bodied. Examples include the New England Roast, Half City Roast, and Cinnamon Roast.
These roasts attempt to balance body and flavour. The Breakfast Roast is a bit sweeter than a light roast. The American Roast is not as dark as European varieties, but is quite aromatic. The City Roast is slightly darker than most American roasts.
In creating Medium-Dark roasts, beans roast for a long time at temperatures high enough to bring the natural coffee oil to the surface. Examples include the French Roast or Dark Roast, which are often used to make espresso, the Continental Roast, or the Viennese Roast.
Examples of Dark Roasts include the Italian Roast or Heavy Roast. The beans are roasted until they are nearly black, making the flavour quite smoky and masking the taste of the bean itself.
The different types and sources of beans, along with the manners of roasting, ensure a wide array of coffee choices. Thus it's no surprise that ordering coffee has become a bit of a production.