Have you ever tried coffee lemonade? It sounds bizarre, extraordinary, perhaps a tad peculiar. You wouldn’t think that this combination works, right?
But it does.
Adding lemonade to your iced coffee creates a bold, tangy and delicious drink that tastes like Laura Secord Chocolates, the one with a lemon cream filling: bold, pungent, and with a toasted coffee undertone.
That’s according to Paul — a shift supervisor at a coffee shop in Toronto. Paul is passionate about coffee and anything to do with it. Working at the coffee shop helped him discover the most remarkable coffee secrets.
“You learn a lot in the process,” he says.
While we talk about coffee, Paul and I partake in an unorthodox tea indulgence. His chai tea latte softly steams from a white ceramic mug, and the steam lightly fogs up the window at our table. My Tropical Green tea cools off as I listen to his exciting coffee fascinations.
Despite choosing tea today, Paul, in fact, loves coffee and knows everything there is about coffee at his coffee shop and beyond. I, on the other hand, am an avid tea drinker.
A small café where Paul and I are meeting up is close to the coffee shop that he works at. After completing the Coffee Master program, Paul took his knowledge about coffee to the next level.
“During the Coffee Master program, you learn not just about the coffee, but also about the growing regions, growing methods, and the processing, like whether it is going to be washed, dried, semi-washed or aged,” Paul says.
I ask him to tell me everything he knows.
“Everything I know? That’s gonna take a while” he chuckles.
I sip on my Tropical Green and let him talk.
Types of beans
Customers usually encounter three ready-to-drink coffee roasts at his coffee shop location:
- Café Verona — a dark roast;
- Guatemalan — a medium;
- True North — a light.
These might vary from store to store, with some displaying Pike Place as their static medium roast and changing the dark roast weekly. Still, as Paul explains, Café Verona, Guatemalan and True North come from the same coffee bean, but all are roasted at different levels.
- As a result, the True North has a much lighter body than the rest and more acidic flavor, with accompanying taste of toasted nuts;
- With the Guatemalan you start to get more chocolaty flavors and a lot more nuttiness;
- Café Verona gives you mostly dark chocolate flavor.
Although they all come from the same bean, different roasting time turns them into completely distinct coffees with distinct flavors. And trained coffee masters, like Paul, pick that up quite well.
Starbucks claims that “geography is a flavor”.
The famous coffee chain Starbucks has three major growing regions: Latin American, Asia/Pacific and African; almost all of the countries along the equator grow coffee for the company.
To compare, the Canadian brand Tim Hortons gets its coffee beans mostly from South American countries, like Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, Kenya, El Salvador and others.
Surprisingly, this information was unavailable on the official Tim Hortons website; according to the Waterloo Region Record daily newspaper, Tim Hortons uses a top-secret blend of various coffees from various regions and takes its top-secret coffee blend very seriously.
Each growing region has its own environment and personal ways of processing the coffee beans, which accordingly affect the taste. No wonder Starbucks claims that “geography is a flavor”. Paul describes three of the processes: washed, semi-washed, and unwashed.
Latin American beans
In Latin America regions, such as Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil, the coffee plants grow in volcanic soil. Paul is unsure how that affects the taste, but a European Geosciences Union’s blog Four Degrees explains that volcanic red earth is the ideal soil for growing coffee because it is fertile with volcanic ash and retains water well.
The beans in Latin America are washed, which gives them a slightly acidic complexion. Leaving the bean unwashed gives it the most berry flavor, because the berry of the coffee bean stays on.
For those unsure of the coffee bean anatomy, Paul explains that the coffee bean is like a cherry, where the bean is the seed inside, warped around with the berry. During the washing process, the beans are soaked in the water to help get the cherry off.
The African region is famous for semi-washing their beans; the process leaves some of the berry intact. Semi-washing the beans reduces the acidity, creating a smoother, sweeter drink.
African region includes Ethiopia, Tanzania and Madagascar, among other countries. Paul admits that he doesn’t know much about the African growing region to know how the soil affects the taste, but the result is a citrusy-floral tang — some even identify such distinct flavours as blueberry and lemongrass.
Another quality of African coffee processing is that the beans are left under the sun to age, which gives them a spicy fruity flavor — this spicy-fruity is different from the spicy-earthy flavor of Asia/Pacific beans.
In Asia/Pacific, especially in the Vietnamese regions, the climate fills the beans with earthy, mossy flavour — the region is known for its fertile, rich soil and a tropical climate is ideal for growing coffee.
Asia/Pacific region includes countries like Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Cambodia. It has a variety of processing methods, but one that it is most known for is the aging process.
The coffee ages for about a year under the sun, explains Paul. The coffee tenders leave the fruit on the bean, and they leave the beans in a controlled condition in burlap sacks under the sun to dry. They come every couple of days to move the beans around, to ensure that the coffee ages consistently. When the berries have completely dried, they are removed and the bean is then roasted.
To me, the aging process sounds bizarre because at the end the cherry is removed anyways — why do the tenders leave it on for the aging? Apparently, this is gives coffee a nice spice note. This process originated back in 18th century, when coffee was being transported from Indonesia on wooden ships. During the journey, the beans were exposed to sun, salty ocean water and fluctuating humidity; in this condition they developed a thick, moldy peel, which gave it deeper, richer flavors.
Aged coffee adds a unique herbaceous note to some notorious blends, such as the Christmas blend or the Anniversary blend.
“It has a spicy, dark but not acidic flavor — it’s made with aged Sumatra beans,” Paul comments. “The regular Sumatra beans create earthy and herbal coffee; it tastes like something you would pull out of your garden, but it doesn’t have that spiciness that the Christmas blend does.”
While we talk, I notice that the baristas behind the counter lowered down the music. Could this be a sign of interest towards our conversation? After all, talking about the second most traded commodity on Earth is exciting.
Roasting coffee darker makes the bean lose its caffeine, but the darker you go, the more oils develop.
Paul has a bit of experience with roasting coffee. Just down the street from the café where we are meeting up is a coffee house that he worked at for a year and a half. That location does small batch roasting with a machine that has three different tumblers. Inside, the coffee is constantly moved while hot air continuously blows on it. Roasting coffee darker makes the bean lose its caffeine, but the darker you go, the more oils develop, and the more oil there is on the bean, the richer and darker the flavor is.
“The oil?” I ask. “Well, that’s a new concept.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that’s what it is when they clean their coffee makers — that’s the oil from the coffee,” Paul explains.
So, during roasting, the coffee produces oil, which starts to coat the surface of the beans and of the roasting machine. Coffee oil sounds like an undiscovered beauty product to me, though some companies already sell coffee essential oils and green coffee oil extracts as antioxidants. They claim that it improves appetite and prevents skin aging and damage. Sounds like coffee oil has a lot of potential for the modern beauty bloggers that love the drink!
A note on decaf coffee
The roasting process pulls the caffeine out of the bean, which means that the longer the bean is exposed to the heat, the more of the caffeine comes out.
This is one way to make decaf coffee. Another way that Paul describes to me is called the Swiss Water Method, termed so not because the water is Swiss, but because it was designed in Switzerland. This method is purely scientific; it uses solubility and osmosis to decaffeinate coffee beans. However, there has been criticisms of Swiss Water Method in that different batches of coffee are processed in the same solution, which results in a less distinctive flavor for each batch.
Paul comments that decaffeination process is similar to the washing process used in Latin America because it makes the coffee a little bit more acidic, but also cleaner and brighter.
“So, with mild coffee you rob yourself of the coffee flavor, or the essence of coffee, if you put it that way,” he concludes.
Decaffeination process is supposed to make the coffee free of caffeine, but Paul insists that there is still some caffeine left in the decaf, though a very small amount: we’re talking in the single digit of milligrams at most; an average cup of coffee has between 20–35 mg. Still, online health blogs like Livestrong.com, argue that decaf coffee may raise cholesterol levels, which may be an issue for people at risk of heart disease. So, if you love your coffee decaf, keep this in mind.
“Chai tea!” yells the woman from behind the counter. Our small café gets busier. People begin to come in for lunch.
How do you prepare a perfect up of coffee?
Though water temperature does not have to be exact, Paul says, making sure that you have the right portion of coffee and the right grinds is important.
I ask Paul what seems to be the itching question: how would he prepare a perfect cup of coffee?
Though water temperature does not have to be exact, he says, making sure that you have the right portion of coffee and the right grinds is important. Grinding it too fine makes the coffee stronger since it brews for longer, and grinding it too coarse moves the water right through the coffee, leaving it un-tasty. He gives Turkish coffee maker and French press as an example.
Grinds have to be finer for a Turkish coffee maker because you’re putting less water through and for a shorter time, so you want it to absorb as much coffee flavor as possible.
If you’re working with a French press, you’re leaving the water soaked with the coffee for about four minutes, so a coarser grind makes straining the coffee out of the water easier.
There are other common coffee brewers in North America, like with a cone filter, which requires a finer grind, or flat bottom brewers, which need the grind to be a little bit coarser.
Basically, ideally the water should be filtered for a good coffee, advises Paul.
There are specific water temperatures for an ideal cup of coffee, measured down to the degree.
Paul learned about this through working with clover machines, which use Vacuum-Press technology to create the perfect cup of coffee. The machine has specific heat settings for each coffee, which vary from 185°C to 202°C. So, perhaps the most requirements for the temperature fall in that range.
But there is another way to make as fantastic coffee: cold water. This is a method that companies like Starbucks use to make their cold brew. The result? A delicious cold coffee that is balanced and smooth, with hints of citrus and chocolate. Paul cautions that cold water affects the acidity, the flavor and caffeine in the process:
“When you use hot water, you wash the beans, pulling a lot of the acidity out,” he explains. “If you use cold water and you let it sit, it turns out much less acidic. It has more caffeine and a stronger flavor.”
Paul experimented with hot and cold water at his coffee shop, using Kopelani blend to make a cold brew, a fresh pour-over and a small French press.
“The cold brew came out a lot smoother,” he says, “less acidic and with a deeper flavor than the other two, but it didn’t have the same nuttiness. The hot water for the pour over and the French press definitely brought out the acidity, which helped to complement the nutty flavor. Nevertheless, brewing in cold water brings out more chocolaty flavor. It was a really interesting experiment.”
Making cold brew requires lots of steeping time — at minimum 20 hours in cold water — but making it at home is easy. You can buy pre-ground portions at your local coffee shop, empty them into cold water and slow-steep in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Though making coffee is fun, keeping it fresh is something that many have trouble with.
Paul advises to use coffee in the 14 days after it was ground.
As the time goes by, the flavor gradually stales; it will not be noticeable right away, but a trained coffee professional can tell. Ideally, coffee should be stored in a vacuum-sealed airtight container in a cool cupboard. And storing the coffee also has its secrets.
A popular myth is that freezing coffee prolongs the expiration date, but Paul advises against it, explaining that the enemies of fresh coffee are air, light, and moisture. So, when you put your coffee into the freezer, you expose it to varying moisture levels, turning it musty.
How long does coffee stay fresh after it’s brewed? Paul comments that demonstrating how time affects the freshness is his favourite exercise with new baristas. They make a cup of coffee and leave it on the counter for half an hour. When they come back to taste it, it feels very different. The acidity stays the same, but as the coffee cools, it oxidizes with air and develops bitterness, which many perceive to be staleness.
“For some beans the taste becomes bitter, for others — smoother,” Paul says. “There is a Latin American blend called Breakfast Blend — if you let it cool, it goes from the chocolaty acidic flavor to a very toasted nutty flavor.”
Paul does not like to leave coffee standing on the counter, but sometimes it pays off to wait, because you might discover that your hot coffee tastes better when it’s cooled down.
I look over to my cold Tropical Green. Its fruity undertones have slowly faded from the air, crescendoing the bitterness of green tea. I guess cooling down does not work with the brewed leaves.
Detecting the undertones
Smelling it first gives an unbiased coffee scent, because after you have tasted it, you will not be able to smell the same undertones.
I go back to the Coffee Master program and ask Paul about the coffee tasting. It has a very rigid format: the goal of the coffee tasting is to learn about the acidity, the body, the aroma, and the flavor, and to describe each.
The tasting begins with you smelling the coffee:
- you cover the top of the cup for the aroma to gather under your palm;
- you sniff it;
- you describe what you smell.
Smelling it first gives an unbiased coffee scent, because after you tasted it, you will not be able to smell the same undertones. Besides, smelling it first might bring out more complementary flavours.
- then you take a small slurp —Paul emphasizes that it has to be a slurp for a thin coffee layer to coat your tongue and hit all the tasting buds;
- you describe what you taste.
During the Coffee Master examination, trainees are required to describe the acidity and the flavor. The body of coffee is a little difficult to describe because it is often confused with acidity: a very acidic coffee might lead people into thinking that the body is very strong, when really it is the acidity that they detect.
Paul suggests that the easiest way to describe the body is to see how your mouth feels it, sort of like you judge a wine.
For example, Asia/Pacific coffee, like Sumatra, has a very dark, very earthy and intense flavor; it is low in acidity and feels smooth on the tongue.
In contrast, Latin American coffee, like Guatemalan or Breakfast Blend, has a sharp flavor; it is more acidic, though feels mild on the tongue, with mostly nutty undertones.
The most acidic coffee that Paul’s coffee shop offers is Willow blend: it is a mix between Latin America and East Africa beans that is washed and roasted to have high caffeine. Willow blend has a layered, deep, enveloping feel on the tongue.
Coffee tasting completes with you trying to pair coffee with a food item that brings out different flavors of the coffee, such as lemons, walnuts, blueberry or chocolate.
Interestingly, African coffee balances best with citrus-y items. This is why it is perfect to use for coffee lemonade.
Coffee pairing is another area that Paul is fascinated by, especially because of his culinary experience.
“Because I do have some training as a chef, I am very good at picking out tastes that go well together,” he smiles.
Depending on the coffee roast, different foods bring out or complement different undertones. Experimenting always pays off: surprisingly, dark coffees from Asia/Pacific region pair well with candy ginger, where the ginger complements the earthy herbal flavors of the coffee.
Another interesting pair is having something salty with a very bitter coffee — the saltiness cuts through the bitterness and neutralizes coffee’s natural pungency.
Generally, medium roasts equate with something nutty, like an almond croissant or a maple walnut muffin. For Latin American coffee, choose anything with chocolate or nuts, although it is also often good by itself.
Coffee from Asia/Pacific is dark and earthy, and goes well with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger.
Paul encourages to experiment when you’re having dinner too: order Asia/Pacific coffee if you’re having a meal at a restaurant — the coffee would pair nicely with the heartiness of the meat or herbs and spices.
To create a fine taste when pairing coffee with foods, Paul advises to think about complementary flavors. Find the tasting notes on the back of the coffee bag, note the growing regions, and go off of that.
Interestingly, African coffee balances best with citrus-y items, like the Starbucks lemon loaf. This is why it is perfect to use for the coffee lemonade. Paul makes this drink at home and is always quite pleased with the results.
“People think that the most prominent flavor would be the acidity of the lemonade,” Paul says, “but because the drink is slightly sweetened, the acidity and the citrus make other parts of coffee stand out more,” like the boldness or natural sweetness.
Coffee lemonade is a fairly common drink in a lot of regions, like Russia, where the commoners enjoy a koffe s limonom, which translates into “coffee with lemon”. Other popular regions for this drink are Sweden, Germany and Mexico.
The practice of adding citrus to coffee seems a bit blasphemic to me, as I think it should be reserved for iced tea. But coffee lovers like Paul disagree — when life hands you lemons, make coffee lemonade and enjoy your day!
“You can mask poor quality coffee with milk and sugar and make it drinkable, but if you get a good quality coffee, it will be fine on its own.”
With all the secrets and nuances that Paul knows about coffee, it is hard for me not to ask what he’d wish coffee drinkers would learn too. Paul takes his time to answer.
“To taste it before you dump milk and sugar into it,” he concludes. “You can mask the poor quality coffee with milk and sugar and make it drinkable, but if you get a good quality coffee, it will be fine on its own.”
That’s something that Paul has come to appreciate while working with coffee.
And following this advise is wise if you’re watching your weight. Adding milk and sugar to your coffee increases the amount of calories, though it does make coffee less acidic and better suited for people with fragile stomachs.
As we wrap up our coffee conversation, the café fills up with people meeting up for lunch.
The baristas continue to buzz around, preparing drinks, and the music is a bit louder now. The fog on the window from my Tropical Green tea has vanished as I finished the last bitter, cold drop a while ago. Talking about coffee while drinking tea does seem unorthodox, but the activity has an unbiased vibe to it. Paul thinks that the most important part of having a good cup of coffee is the company you have it with. I agree. The sweetest coffee could never compliment a bitter company, but I am glad that Paul is a coffee enthusiast who gladly shares his experience.
“You can learn a lot from other people. And just being able to have a conversation over a cup of coffee enhances it more than anything else ever could.”
True. I would have never known about the coffee lemonade.
Though I disagree with the coffee-lemonade marriage, I note it down as my to-try item next summer.