Coffee is made from the Coffea plants. It finds its roots in Africa, but is grown in more than 70 countries today. The stuff we drink is made from the very misleadingly named ‘bean’. It’s actually not a bean at all, but a seed. Ruby red and shiny, these seeds come two in a pod and are dried and roasted before being ground.
Italy never colonised any coffee growing nations, so it has had its pick of the best growers since the 17th century. This sets its apart from countries like France, which obligated its citizens to drink coffee from its colonies. That’s probably why coffee in Paris is famously rubbish. Coffee found its way into Europe via the Middle East and the port of Venice.The first European coffee house opened in Rome in 1645 and even the pope deemed it a ‘most Christian drink’.
About 75 per cent of the world’s coffee is made from Arabica, also called mountain coffee or Coffee of Arabia even though it’s actually endemic to Yemen and Ethiopia. If you travel to Ethiopia today, you’ll struggle to find Arabica, so if you’re keen to see what this plant looks like, you’re better off heading to Latin or Central America. In its first years of life, the Arabica plant produces beautiful white flowers that smell like jasmine. The flowers are a taste of what makes Arabica such a gorgeous coffee. The beans, once roasted, produce a mild, sweet and aromatic coffee that’s not bitter at all.
Much to do about Arabica
Not all Arabica beans are the same. Gourmet coffees are almost exclusively high-quality mild varieties. The best are Jamaican Blue Mountain, Colombian Supremo, Tarrazú, Costa Rica, Guatemalan Antigua, and Ethiopian Sidamo. Arabica is such a popular choice for espresso because it packs a punch. If you only have a tablespoon’s worth, you want it to be one hell of a tablespoon.
Italians are particularly drawn to espresso made with 100% Arabica because the bean’s natural sweetness helps produce the syrupy consistency they’re looking for and cancels out the need for added sugar. If you think about it in wine terms, Arabica has a bouquet that literally contains thousands of notes and each of these notes is an expression of the ‘terrior’ or, less pretentiously, the place where the beans were grown.
There is no perfect roast for espresso. It depends on the individual beans, the roaster and the drinker. In Southern Italy, the locals prefer a darker roast, while further north, a lighter roast is celebrated for bringing out more of the natural flavour of the bean.
Some love for Robusta
Gimoka doesn’t produce 100% Arabica coffee nor do espresso aficionados clamour for it. Poor Robusta often gets a bad rap as the cheaper and less sophisticated cousin, when in reality, it’s essential to the makings of a good espresso. The purists love 100% Arabica, but that doesn’t mean Robusta is undesirable. High-quality Robusta is used in authentic Italian espressos to add a much sought-after bitterness and to produce a better crema. An espresso is not a caramel latte, a hint of bitterness is welcome.
Robusta comes from central and western sub-Saharan Africa, although it’s now more commonly found in Vietnam and Brazil. It has a heck of a lot more caffeine than Arabica, which is why most Italians choose an Arabica-Robusta blend for their morning coffee. You can’t face a day of passionate hand gestures and heated discussions without a good dose of caffeine. But in all seriousness, Robusta is used in percentages of about 10-15 per cent to give body and strength to an espresso. A good Italian espresso should be short and syrupy with an aromatic flavour that livens your tastebuds and provides a lovely and persistent finish that stays with you for the better part of half an hour – Robusta does both of these things.