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  • Jill Lawson

Java's Magical Journey From Tree To Cup

For fellow coffee lovers, nothing beats the smell of fresh java in the morning. The anticipation of taking that first sip is powerful enough to roust us out of bed, even after a sleepless night. It is not only something many of us look forward to every day, drinking coffee is a ritual. We take great care in doctoring up our cup with the appropriate accoutrements. We give great importance to it, and let nothing stand in our way of it. If we could be so committed to repeating all good habits this way, we might surprise ourselves. Nonetheless, coffee jumpstarts our day, and to miss it...well, ensues unpleasantries for us and those around us.

Did you know oil, natural gas, and coffee are the top three most traded commodities in the world? Everyone needs fuel I guess.

Before moving to Maui, I had no clue what a labor intensive journey java takes to reach my lips. We have over a dozen coffee trees in our yard, and we were encouraged to experience the magical process. I'll tell you something: grinding, brewing, and pouring is only a snapshot of the arduous path from tree to cup.

For starters, picking coffee is extremely tedious, as only the red cherries (also called berries) are appropriate for harvesting the beans. As you can see in the photo, the bunch does not all ripen at the same time. Handpicking is necessary to select only the ripe and ready fruit.

Dean says it's important to have an inspector of sorts; someone to watch over the process and make sure the harvesting is going well. Say hi to Dean and his Inspector Greta.

The coffee cherries are edible. They taste a lot like cherries, only not as sweet. Tangy, with a hint of chalky tartness, some folks like to use them in desserts such as strudel cake. (Insert sinister laughter here).

What we refer to as coffee beans are actually the pits inside the cherries. Our cup of coffee comes from the seeds inside the fruit. There are usually two seeds per cherry; a sort of mirror image of each half of the pit.

Removing the seeds by hand brings me back to childhood. Each squeeze of the cherry catapults the two halves like flying chips in a game of tiddlywinks. The process is exciting as well as tactilely satisfying, probably a lot like mashing grapes with your feet. Theorists on aging say the hands of coffee pickers stay forever young. While nutritionists claim this is due to the fruit's antioxidants, I think it is because pinching the beans until the seeds squirt out restores giddy youthfulness. Inspector Greta agrees with me.

The seeds are covered in a sticky, slippery film. The flying seeds kept landing on Greta's head, as you can see from the sheen above her right eye. This sheen must be removed; from the seeds, and from Greta.

A good wash under the hose will take the coffee slime off of Greta, but a quick rinse is not enough to wash the film off the seeds.

Soaking the beans in water for two to three days is required. After a couple of days, the seeds begin to ferment, and the byproduct of the fermentation eats away at the slippery coating.

You can tell when the seeds are ready by running your fingers through them (because we love tactile stimulation!) You'll notice the seeds "scraping" each other as they'll have a grittier texture than before. Now it is time to dry them.

There is more than one way to skin a cat. Wait. What I meant to say is you can dry the beans however you'd like, but it is recommended that they dry in the sun, and for at least three weeks. Whichever drying method you choose, the seeds must be dry enough to have only about 10% humidity. Who can measure that? I don't know! But one thing I do know is they are not going to peel easily if they are holding moisture. Peel? Don't rush the drying process. Mark my words.

Peeling, referred to as husking, is the next step, and it is dreadfully time consuming. How would you like to peel 1,000 sunflower seeds by hand, one at a time?

"Genius is nothing but a great aptitude for patience." ~George-Louis de Buffon.

I'm certain hand husking coffee would work well in an elementary school detention hall, to smarten those kids right up.

The next time we harvested coffee, I decided I'd try rolling a pile of dried seeds under a brick on top of our concrete patio. What I discovered is that the husks shredded right off the seed, and with a slight breeze in the air, the prize was easily revealed. Bingo!

"Patience is the companion of wisdom." ~St. Augustine.

Perhaps it is the need for patience that makes us all the wiser. Or at least all the more clever.

I like roasting the seeds in a cast-iron skillet. I could use the barbecue. I know what you're thinking. "Wouldn't the seeds fall through the grill?" Um, yes. That's why I would use the coffee roasting attachment. We actually have one of those! I never tried it but I imagine it works just like a green chili roaster, only with smaller holes so the seeds don't fall through.

The skillet is hot, and the seeds must be stirred constantly. Once they reach a certain temperature, they will "pop" to let some of the last 10% of moisture out. This is when they will slowly begin to darken. It will take some time. Remember patience?

The second "pop" is your wake up call if you've been drifting. After that second pop, the color will turn quickly. Attention is of the essence. Too dark and your coffee will taste burned. The seeds will keep darkening once you remove them from the heat source, so take them off a wee bit early. I like to match my beans (let's call them beans now) to the color of my favorite Pete's French Roast.

While roasted coffee has a pleasing smell, roasting coffee is smoky. Use your stove's overhead fan or down draft.

Once your beans have cooled, you MUST wait at least 24 hours before you can grind and enjoy. The beans need to off-gas some carbon dioxide or your coffee will taste bitter.

Isn't it ironic that coffee makes us zip around and do things faster, yet we need to have so much patience and sssslllloooowwww wwwaaaaayyyyyyy dddoooowwwwwnnnnn to make it?

Once you get to this point, the point when you are ready to grind, pick the appropriate setting for the style of coffee you'd like to enjoy. Want espresso? Pick the espresso grind. Want cowboy coffee? Grab that husking brick and get to work!

Black? Cream? Sugar? I say have it your way! A coffee aficionado may beg to differ, but after all this time, I'm going to enjoy a little splash of 1/2 and 1/2 in mine!

And we're off to the races! Patiently, of course.

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