What is Coffee?

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The rambling thoughts of a friend after hanging out with Nick and Crew for a day…

What Is Coffee?

Coffee is a fruit. It is a cherry. It grows on a shrub or a tree. The coffee ‘bean’ is actually the pit of the coffee cherry. Coffee cherries grow in a variety of colors, but when they are ripe, they are typically yellow or dark wine red.

There are two main species of coffee: arabica, and robusta.

35% of all coffee is robusta. Robusta is traditionally considered lower quality. It’s a hardy, tough plant, with higher yields than arabica, and it’s where low-budget tubs of coffee come from.

65% of the world’s coffee is arabica. This coffee is a lot more fragile, and the yield is lower, but the coffee tends to be much higher quality if it is tended right and processed correctly.

100% of what Euphoria roasts is arabica coffee.

A Brief History of Coffee

Coffee originates from the country of Ethiopia, Africa. This is known because Ethiopia has the greatest genetic diversity of wild coffee plants in the world. There is a legend about how a man named Kaldi found that when his goats ate the coffee plant, they became energetic and much more playful. Kaldi then tried the coffee plan himself and experienced caffeine first hand. This mankind’s love with coffee began to blossom.

In the late 16th century, Yemen inherited a handful of Ethiopian varieties of coffee. Yemen was the first to commercially cultivate coffee. They became very protective of coffee, and they made it punishable by death if a person was caught smuggling coffee outside of the country. In the 17th century, four Dutch spies smuggled four coffee plants out of Yemen to the island of Java. The Dutch created coffee plantations on Java. The Dutch were able to industrialize coffee and export it to the rest of the world. However, they would not export any plants so they could maintain a monopoly.

Eventually, the Dutch gifted a coffee tree to the King of France as part of a peace treaty. The King of France realized that coffee was going to be a very big deal one day, so he put the coffee tree in one of the very first greenhouses and propagated it. From France, coffee spread all over the world.

Interestingly, the coffee grown in Kenya, a nation right next to Ethiopia, is traceable back to the French King’s tree. The coffee had been smuggled around the world, consorted with thieves and spies, was bred using the most advanced technology of the day, and sold by royalty, only to return right next to where it came from.

Growing Coffee

What happens if you are a farmer in Guatemala or Panama and want to plant coffee? Where do you start?

Most coffee is grown at high altitudes and only in the tropics, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Coffee grows in lots of types of soils, but the ideal soil is fertile volcanic soil. It is typically grown from a seedling, and its bloom is a jasmine-scented white flower similar to an apple flower. It takes between 7 to 11 months to ripen into a coffee cherry. Ripe coffee cherries are generally a dark wine red, and cherries on a single branch will ripen at different times. Ripe cherries produce the highest quality coffee bean, so the vast majority of specialty coffee is picked, one ripe cherry at a time, by hand.

The cherries are put into a machine called a depulper. This takes the skin off the cherry. The remaining pit is usually still encased in pulp, so it is put into a fermentation tank for about 10 to 12 hours to loosen the pulp. The pulp-free pits are taken out to raised beds and dried out in the sunshine.
The pits of a coffee cherry are also called beans, and that is what coffee customers know them as. The beans are turned by hand several times a day. This lets the bean dry out so that it becomes completely shelf-stable. At the end of the drying process, the bean is run through a dehuller to get rid of the final flaky pieces of dried pulp on the bean. The beans are bagged and can be shipped anywhere in the world.

It takes at least three months after the cherry is picked for that coffee bean to show up at Euphoria Coffee.

The need for coffee cherries to be picked one by one by hand to make high-quality coffee means that coffee growing is not a major industrial operation like American soybeans. Very, very small farms can remain in business, and in fact, they do.

There are 200 million people growing coffee as a means of economic survival. 20% are large coffee plantations, using mechanized methods to make low-quality coffee. The other 80%, the vast majority, are very small farmers. The average size of a coffee farm around the world is 2.2 acres. One coffee tree makes about 1 pound of coffee per year, and there are two to three thousand coffee plants per acre. That means the average coffee farm produces between 3000 to 5000 pounds of coffee per year, and given that the average price the farmer receives for a pound of specialty coffee is about 50 cents, that means the average farmer must live and manage their farm with an income of between $1,500 and $2,500 per year.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, only surpased by crude oil. Hundreds of millions of bags of it are traded yearly. The specialty coffees served by Euphoria come from the top 10% to 15% of coffees traded.

When Euphoria buys a certain lot of coffee, a big reason it is considered a specialty coffee is the farmer grew it properly, picked it properly, dried it properly, and shipped it properly. That coffee represents a full year of the farmer’s diligent work. At that point, it is Euphoria Coffee’s job to roast and brew it properly. If Euphoria brews it properly, the coffee will stay very a high-quality specialty coffee. If Euphoria does not do its job properly, then it can turn what started as a very high-quality specialty coffee into a medium or low-quality cup o’ joe.

So why does Nick view coffee as an art and his store as an art gallery? “As a coffee shop owner, I can only showcase the farmer’s hard work,” Nick explains. “I talk this out this with the baristas all the time. If I mess up the roast, I destroy that work. If I roast a specialty coffee correctly and give the baristas the roasted beans, and they put it in the hopper and they screw up the brewing, they can still serve a medium quality coffee. In football terms, when we get the coffee in the door, we inherit the ball at the 5-yard line. So our job is, don’t fumble the ball. Get it across the line.” Since the coffee shop can only showcase the farmer’s hard work, the best way to advertise and educate about coffee is to make the store a showcase.

Grading Coffee

So what, exactly, is specialty coffee?

The top 15% of arabica coffee is what is called specialty coffee.

All coffee is scored on a scale of 0 to 100. For example, it is scored on such qualities as balance, body, or acidity. The lowest point you can get in any measurement is six, and the highest is 10. When the points are totaled, specialty coffee is anything over 80 points.

These points are awarded based on industry standards. There is a special type of person called a certified Q grader who is trained to certify coffee with this point scale. They go through a very extensive course to calibrate their taste buds to an industry-standard to be able to grade coffee. As Nick explains, “Many times coffee is said to have a cherry note in it. But what is cherry? What if somebody has only ever tasted canned cherries, which I think taste just awful? And then what if we have another taster who grew up with a cherry tree in his backyard? The industry training takes those two people and gives them a standard to work off of.”

“Coffee has a language, a flavor language,” Nick continues, “The whole point of that language is that when I am on the phone with one of my farmers, and he says ‘you’ll really like this coffee, it tastes like peaches,’ I know what he is saying because we are both talking about the industry standard.”

Euphoria Coffee buys nothing under 80 points, and it mostly buys 86+ point coffees. Since 80 point coffee is specialty coffee, and specialty coffee makes up only 10% to 15% of all arabica coffee, every specialty coffee shop in the world is competing for the same 10% to 15%. There are probably 30 specialty coffee shops in the state of Iowa, thousands across the United States, and tens of thousands across the world. Nick says ruefully, “We are all fighting over the top 10% to 15%.”

However, it is not as dire as the percentages make it sound. “There is still a growing demand for specialty coffee,” says Nick. “At the moment there is a lot of access to that coffee. It’s not like it’s tough to find it.” The big difficulty with specialty coffee is paying for it: but if one is willing to pay the premium price, it is available.

It’s tough to find really good coffee at a cheap price point, but Euphoria has chosen to put access to coffee above profits and Nick slims his margins and pays a premium price to keep good coffee affordable for his customers.

Putting It All Together

Nick buys high-quality beans, roasts them himself, and trains staff in proper brewing techniques to deliver a cup that is objectively quantified by industry standards as ‘an exceptional coffee.’

Before Euphoria, there was certainly no market in West Union for specialty coffee. The local grocery stores and gas stations that kept West Union citizens supplied with caffeine were more likely to serve Best Choice or Folgers. “But sometimes people don’t know what they want until they taste it,” says Nick, and Euphoria provides the most attractive environment for that first taste.

That friendly environment and the coffee served there serves makes Euphoria Coffee into one of West Union’s latest civic centers. Coffee provides the excuse to meet and is the social lubricant for dozens of different groups, from old friends meeting to discuss the latest local news to political campaigners meeting to strategize for the upcoming elections. Cafes help cement social ties, and the closer a community is, the stronger it gets.

Strong communities are good for everything: good for individuals, good for health, good for society, and good for business. And one of the best ways to create strong communities is to create businesses that promote social ties. That’s why Euphoria coffee is making a drink for chatting with your friends or planning the next community bike ride. At it’s core, specialty coffee is social.

Being able to make a business out of encouraging socialization is good for society. At bottom, coffee is a luxury. However, making a living is not. Very little destroys a society like poverty, and without the money provided by the friends, neighbors, students, and retirees that patronize Euphoria, there would be no money to buy the beans, no money for staff, no money for the shiny bean roaster in the corner, and no money for the farmer in Nicaragua. For them, coffee isn’t just an enjoyable way to hang out with friends. It is a living. Treating Euphoria like an inviting living room and coffee like an art goes to show how much respect Euphoria has for the way they make their living.

By making Euphoria a gallery of performance art where anyone can buy a taste, Euphoria is enriching the lives of everyone who walks in the door. Some are enriched with time, some are enriched with personal connections, and some with a tasty cup of coffee. This delicious brown bean provides enormous opportunities to make life better for all who delight in it and all who depend on it. Nick and Euphoria Coffee intend to take advantage of every one of those opportunities they can.

124 E Elm Street
West Union, IA 52175
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