Over the last 30 years, US Americans seem to have gotten into all things “craft”. Whether that means craft cannabis, craft beer, and, yes, craft coffee. On average, American workers drink 3.1 cups of coffee a day. That stacks up to 20 cups a week and a whopping 66 billion cups a year. Each year, too, sales of craft coffee are climbing at the red-hot clip of 20%. Which begs the question: What’s the exact definition of craft coffee, anyway?

“Craft Coffee: Customize the Right Brew for You”

Specialty coffee originated in 1978. Knutsen argued that a good cup of coffee is the product of a seed-to-harvest process. In the late ’70s, “craft coffee” may have struck many Americans as shi-shi. But the specialty coffee market had been growing in the US for two decades before then. The coffee economy has crisscrossed the globe for at least five hundred years.

1. Origins

Historians pinpoint the Middle Ages as the beginning of records mentioning coffee. Sufi monks planted coffee trees in Yemeni monasteries from beans shipped from Ethiopia. Coffee spread across the Middle East. Coffee houses sprung up in Constantinople, Damascus, and Vienna. England first imported coffee in the 1600s. By 1700, between 1,000-8,000 cafes had sprung up across that green and pleasant land. Coffee plants reached the New World in the 18th century. European powers staked their positions in the coffee-growing regions of the world. The Portuguese grew in Brazil, the French grew in the Caribbean, the Spanish in Central America, and the Dutch in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Those areas remain major coffee-exporting zones to this day.

Many Americans tend to think of the history of coffee like this. Once upon a time, the Greatest Generation drank coffee like it was a hard black boot kick-starting your day. but now millennials have fetishized it with an artisanal sensibility. The truth is that people have grown, sold, and supped coffee for generations, savoring its flavors and customizing its brew to their particular tastes. People talk about the “craft coffee revolution” in Seattle in the 1990s. The art of coffee is in fact older than the United States itself.

2. The Cycle of a Bean

The perfect growing conditions for the Coffea arabica tree are 64-70 degrees Fahrenheit. The regions listed above fit within the “Bean Belt” that spans the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. In other words, the tropics. Each region’s harvest is in high demand without monopolizing the entire trade. Each one yields beans with distinctive flavors depending on its microclimates. The full cycle of that process is worth a closer look.

About two to five years after a farmer plants a coffee shrub, cherries bloom along its branches. Farmers collect these cherries because each one contains two coffee beans. The beans are green and usually extracted in one of three ways:

  • Natural: Farmers spread the cherries across patios or raised beds. Then, dry them out before ripping off their husks. After being inside the cherries for 2-4 weeks, the beans produce coffee with a heavy body and intense floral flavors.
  • Washed: Farmers pulp open cherries and the bean. Still sticky with the fruit’s sugar – ferments in water for 12-72 hours. Afterwards, the sugar gets washed away and the beans dry out. This leads to a loss of fruit flavors, which makes the final vintage seem brighter and way less heavy.
  • Honey: Farmers remove the cherries, but the beans aren’t washed. The sugar left on them caramelizes into a rich yellow-black hue. The result? Sweet, with a medium body.

3. Different Origins, Different Flavors

One way to categorize those methods is to think of them as “Dark,” “Light,” and “Medium.” But it gets more complicated from here. That cup of coffee you’re drinking got its flavor not only from the harvest method, but also from the climate. Conditions like soil, water, sunlight, and humidity, vary between different zones, even if they all land within the “Bean Belt.” The particularities of climates affect the coffee shrub. Leading to different flavors depending on where it’s grown. Here’s a quick breakdown of those country-flavor pairings:

  • Central America: Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras are the big exporters of café. The coffee tends to be acidic and fruity, with undertones of caramel and chocolate. Generally speaking, it’s easy to drink, with a “middle-of-the-road” appeal. This type had a great influence on the North American coffee market.
  • South America: Colombia and Brazil are the big players in this region. They use heavier flavors than Central America – bold and intense, but with a caramel sweetness. Many consider this coffee among the best in the world.
  • Africa: Kenya and Ethiopia each feature distinct coffees. While many people detect blueberries or “vine-ripened tomatoes” in Ethiopian draughts, coffee from Kenya can be bolder and more intense than what you’re likely to find in South America. A taste sometimes described as “beefy.”
  • Indonesia: Like Kenyan coffee, the Indonesian variety is deep, dark, heavy, and earthy. Harvested on humid islands adds a smoky bitterness to the vintage. Which would make for great sipping on a snowy morning.

4. The Flavor Wheel

Those flavors are far more complex than the tag-line descriptions sketched out above. People have identified the ways that weather affects flavors forever. Today, coffee buyers with the palates of sommeliers decide whether each brew is gourmet-quality. They consult with the next step of the supply chain, the roasters. Then the cafes package the beans with the most robust flavor and sold to the public.

Fast-forward 40 years since Knutsen’s speech. 500 years since those Sufi monks were planting coffee trees in Yemen. Modern Americans seem to be living in a world in which, according to a 2017 article in Forbes, 59% of the coffee we drink is “gourmet.” On one hand, knowing how deep the history of coffee stretches, that may seem to mean nothing. But it’s worth noting that in 1999, 9% of US adults drank specialty coffee, whereas by 2017, that figure had surged to 41%. These trends show a generational gap. While people 65 and up drink their coffee at home, people under 35 tend to get their coffee on-the-go, in cafes and in shops.

Americans now embrace the spectrum of flavors coffee has always had to offer. Like microbreweries providing a huge variety of ales and lagers. a panoply of microroasteries have popped up across the country. These roasteries have experimented with different flavor nodes catered to each customer’s taste. When you’re at a restaurant, your waiter might recommend pairing red wine with steak or lamb. Any coffee shop worth its beans can do the same for a culinary experience. Take a look at all the nuances identified in coffee. Next time you’re at your go-to cafe, tell your barista what you like. If it’s rainy out, you might want to opt for a wintertime segment of that flavor-wheel. Remember – notes of nougat, caramel, cinnamon, or ginger. For those active earlier in the day, follow up your morning run with flavors of hibiscus, tamarind, banana, or peach.

Craft Coffee

5. The Final Pour

Like wine, or tea, coffee is one of the great drinks of the world, spurring trade, cross-pollinating cultures and offering an endless variety of aromas and acidities mild and bold. The New Yorker grabbing a Starbuck’s in 2018 is the latest iteration of the cafe-goer in Mecca in the 1500’s. The point is, customizing your coffee has been a feature of coffee since it was first harvested. Today we have more options to refine the perfect pour for you than ever before. As Javaya says, “Coffee is a craft.”

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