The world’s best coffee on a ferry

Great restaurants rarely serve great coffee, and even the best restaurants are guilty of using poor quality commodity coffee. But some are now waking up to the fact that coffee can no longer be paid lip service – it’s a part of the overall dining experience. Noma in Copenhagen, considered one of the finest restaurants in the world, pays serious attention to every last detail of their restaurant, food and service. Yet until 2013, Noma served the kind of coffee that the enlightened barista might justifiably call 'grim'.

Coffee service at Noma. Photo by Tim Wendelboe.

Coffee service at Noma. Photo by Tim Wendelboe.

When René Redzepi, chef and owner of Noma, decided to pay the same attention to coffee as he paid to everything else gastronomical, the process took four years to get right. Several ripped up floorboards and an eight-month training programme later (under the guidance of Tim Wendelboe, author of ‘Coffee with Tim Wendelboe’ and owner of the eponymous roastery in Oslo, Norway), their goal of serving the best restaurant coffee in the world was finally reached. The coffee they now serve is undoubtedly excellent. 

Yet when he started, Redzepi had no idea that simply making great coffee would be such a difficult goal to attain, or that people would be so resistant to what they were trying to do. 

The customer response to this change was mixed. Reporting on the reception of Noma’s improved coffee service in his talk “Milk and Sugar, Please!” at the Nordic Barista Cup in 2013, Redzepi said that one critic who had otherwise enjoyed his meal at Noma sneeringly likened his after-dinner coffee to the sort he would normally expect on his daily ferry commute. Many of the customers, it seemed, had preconceived ideas about how coffee should taste. 

While they were prepared to be challenged with their food, even with their wine, the sentiment most often expressed concerning Noma’s coffee was: “don’t fuck with it”. Noma, however, continued to serve what they considered to be the best, and its customers gradually came around to the idea that coffee can have delicate fruity flavours. They had challenged their customers’ preconceptions of coffee flavour – and it seems that they had succeeded.

Coffee in the popular imagination

Most people’s concept of what coffee should taste like is completely different to the style of coffee that we’re discussing in this book. The flavour that you had as a kid in coffee-flavoured lollies is definitely not what we’re after. Most coffee discussed in books or in research papers are ‘fourth stage‘ (we will get to this later), and much information on the Internet is industry sponsored or pertains to ‘fifth stage’ coffee﹣commodity coffee﹣with many defects (see Figure 1.1), at higher roast levels. 

Figure 1.1. Both pictures are of the same bean. The left picture is the highest grade, which is sold as speciality coffee and the right picture is the worst grade of commodity coffee. All beans are 100% arabica.

This gap in information is changing and there is a lot of great content now available online, but it’s still difficult, even for the long-in-the-coffee-stained-tooth professionals, to distinguish between the iron pyrite of pseudoscience and the flash of real instructive gold. 

The six stages of coffee

People first brewed coffee leaves in the same way as they brewed tea. This process can be called Stage 0﹣Brewed as a tea

The first ‘real’ stage came about when some bright spark decided to roast the beans. Thus began Stage 1﹣Roasting the beans.

During the Industrial Revolution, labourers started working to the clock instead of to the sun. There followed an increased demand for coffee to keep workers alert and Jabez Burns, a man with great entrepreneurial drive and an even greater back shed, invented the continuous industrial roaster. This was Stage 2﹣Industrial roasting.

A man by the name of George Washington (no, not that George Washington) invented instant coffee. This led to Stage 3 ﹣Instant coffee and cheap prices for consumers... leading to a cheap prices and depression for farmers. 

In the 1970s, companies like Peets and Illy started to buy better grades of coffee than was common in coffee-consuming countries. And so began Stage 4﹣Better grades of coffee

In the 1990s, companies like Coffee Supreme in New Zealand and Five Senses in Australia started roasting and suppling fresh coffee to cafes. This was a marked improvement on the stale beans used in Stage 4. This became the era of the glorious Stage 5﹣Fresh roasted beans.

The sixth stage of coffee has only been possible since roasters have been able to get their hands on great green beans. It’s only recently that growers have been able to get prices for their high grade, quality coffee that is high enough to justify the extra effort required to produce it. Stage 6 ﹣Beans, roasting, preparation is characterised by single origin speciality coffee where the grower, roaster and barista all communicate to achieve the best possible flavour from the coffee. 

Sixth-stage coffee is where the barista, roaster and grower all work together to create the best flavours possible.

The coffee trinity

Sixth-stage coffee is produced by a trinity of the green beans (1), the roasting (2) and the preparation (3). 

Green beans (1)


Coffee comes from the genus Coffea. Within this genus, there are 128 species. The species that we use to brew speciality coffee is called arabica. Within this species are hundreds of varietals. Varietal classification is as arbitrary as the difference between an Asian or European human being (see Table 1.1). However, different varietals can have very different flavour and tactile qualities.

Table 1.1. Comparison of taxonomic terms.

Table 1.1. Comparison of taxonomic terms.

Most farmers choose varietals that have a high yield rather than a necessarily great taste. They’ve got some land, and they want to make money from it. However, given the higher price needed for speciality coffee (or out of sheer pride in their product), some growers will still choose to experiment with different varietals to produce better tasting coffee. 

As is also the case with people, the (flavour) characteristics of coffee beans are the product of nature and nurture. Varietals are the natural result of this ﹣everything done before the beans are roasted can be thought of as their nurture.


Terroir is used to describe all the environmental conditions that affect the flavour of green beans: soil composition, atmosphere, the side of the mountain, rainfall, altitude, etc. Any number and any combination of these things may introduce qualities that change the flavour and/or texture of the coffee.

Single origin

To have a particular terroir, process (we look at this in more detail later) or varietal, coffee needs to be gathered from a single source. This is known as single origin (SO) coffee. SO comes from estates or small cooperatives. 

Most coffees are sold according to grades or sizes and are an aggregate of beans from growers across regions or even entire countries. Such beans are generic and have few of the qualities that we seek in speciality coffee.

SO coffee means that the grower can directly influence a coffee’s flavour through repeated experimentation with the way he or she grows the coffee beans. Michael Gehrkin, owner of Blackburn Estate, Tanzania, has put out the microlots Clouds of September (2009) and Clouds of August (2010), where cherries were only picked in the morning, while the mists were still hanging about the estate. In 2013, Blackburn Estate released three coffees grown in different areas of their estate. (1) ‘Shade’, grown under trees. (2) ‘Sun’, grown directly exposed to the sun. (3) ‘Tembo’, grown along a corridor on the estate that allowed wild animals to cross. These microlots had a similar flavour to other coffees on his estate﹣but with distinctive differences. ‘Sun’ was lighter with great aftertaste and notes of gooseberry and kiwifruit, ‘Shade’ had a good body and good aftertaste with notes of papaya and orange, and ‘Tembo’ was lighter with reduced aftertaste and notes of grape and lemon.  By separating the growing areas on his estate, Gehrkin was able to experiment with the conditions for growing and processing his coffee.
That’s a perfect example of single origin and why it's important for those of us brewing coffee.


The aim of processing is to go from moist coffee cherries, each encasing two seeds, to becoming dried seeds (which we call beans), all the while avoiding uncontrolled fermentation. Typically, coffee is either processed without water (dry, natural) or with water (wet, washed). The main categories of wet-processed coffee are: pulped natural, semi-washed, giling basah, and fully washed. Figure 1.2 gives an overview of how most coffee is processed, however there are many more ways of processing green beans than there are countries that produce it. The method of processing has a marked effect on the flavour of the coffee. Typically, the longer the fruit stays on the bean, the more ‘complex’ – some would say ‘uneven’ – the flavour will be. 

Figure 1.2 Processing Overview

Packaging and storage

Traditionally, coffee was packaged in burlap or jute bags and much of it (including some great coffee) still is. As romantic as this packaging is, it leaves the coffee vulnerable to changes in moisture as the beans travel from tropical climates through temperate zones, and then either dry or soften when they arrive in temperate or tropical zones. Shipping containers should have silica moisture absorbers inside, but many don’t. To prevent damage to the beans in transit and while stored, quality beans should be packed in GrainPro bags or be vacuum-packed. Coffee kept in humid countries should be stored in climate-controlled storerooms.

Roasted coffee should be packaged in bags that provide an adequate barrier against air and moisture and be vacuum-sealed. The beans need to be packed immediately after roasting.

Coffee beverage quality is made up of three things: raw product, education and equipment. Of the three, the most important is the raw product: the green beans. Every year brings in new methods, gadgets and trends for brewing coffee, but the greatest factor to ensuring an increase in quality for coffee is the price differentiation between speciality coffee on one hand, and commodity and certification coffee on the other.

Speciality grade

The Speciality Coffee Association of Europe humbly offered up a call-to-arms with this definition of speciality coffee in 2014:

Speciality coffee is [...] a crafted quality coffee-based beverage, which is judged by the consumer (in a limited marketplace at a given time) to have a unique quality, a distinct taste and personality different from, and superior to, the common coffee beverages offered. The beverage is based on beans that have been grown in an accurately defined area, and which meet the highest standards for green coffee and for its roasting, storage and brewing. 

It’s an overly complicated way of saying “Great tasting, single origin coffee” but they obviously felt the need to define 'speciality' in opposition to 'commodity'.

To get those distinct tastes and delicious aromas into the cup, each person in the coffee chain is in some way responsible for preserving its quality. With each step in getting coffee from the plant and into the cup, there is the potential to degrade the beans’ quality. It’s not enough for the beans to have come from a famous coffee estate. If speciality greens get wet during transportation, or the roaster does a poor job of roasting them, or the roasted beans are stored for months on end before they eventually reach the cafe, or the barista underextracts the grinds, then those great beans have passed on, they have ceased to be, expired, are no-more, bereft of life... it is ex-speciality coffee!

Speciality grade beans are a good beginning, but speciality green coffee isn’t speciality coffee until it has been roasted and prepared and still manages to switch on the olfactory bulb (we’ll get to this later) of the customer drinking it.

Identifying speciality coffee

Some of the old fifth-stage roasters stepped up and became sixth-stage roasteries, but most didn't. Most of the coffee touted as speciality on the market is nowhere near as good as the marketing material claims it to be. When coffee quality is the product of green beans, roasting and preparation, how can we be sure that it's not our driech preparation that's preventing the sun from shining out of our coffee cup? Assuming that the coffee has been stored properly, there are two ways: cupping, which we shall deal with in Section 2 of Chapter 4, or by chewing on a bean.

Before you put that bean into your mouth; if it's oily on the surface, it's not what we're looking for here. Some people like coffee this way, and that's fine, but oil on the surface is indicative of aggressive roasting that would burn the delicate flavours that we crave in speciality coffee.

Take a coffee bean and chew it. If the bean is too hard and feels like you're chewing a small coffee pebble, the coffee was likely under-developed in the roast. If the bean is too powdery and tastes ashy, then it's likely that it has been over-roasted. If it has some level of acidity and you get some nice flavours when you breathe out through your nose, then you may have beans that have the potential to make a decent cup of coffee.

Don't rely on just one bean as your sample. There's always a chance that you grabbed the one corpse out of a bag of vitality. Try a few to make sure. If there's no life in the beans, then it's pointless trying the exercises in this book. Go out and grab another bag, perhaps from another roaster.

Roasting (2)

The resulting flavour that we get after roasting coffee is dependent on a combination of equipment, methodology and packaging.


Equipment for roasting ranges from a simple wok and a stick to huge continuous roasters where whole shipping containers are upended and 20 tonnes of coffee beans are roasted at a time. In speciality coffee, most types of roasting machines are either drum or air roasters of 60 kg capacity or less. The critical thing is for the machine to be able to change the rate of heat application to the bean pile at any time and to be able to do this consistently from one roast to another.


Different roaster operators have different ideas of how to roast and what variables to play with. These range from the blindly prophetic “the beans tell me what to roast” to the methodical “test and adjust”. Here’s what I know: methodical roasting works. Using a methodical approach and a number of test batches, it’s possible to roast the coffee to adjust its acidity, sweetness and bitterness, enhance the aromas preserved within the beans, and play with mouthfeel, body and aftertaste.

Good coffee roasters use the same methodology that good baristas use when dialling in the grinder. When we receive a new type of bean we ‘best guess’ a roast based on the bean’s size, the varietal and the altitude at which it was grown. Like a chef altering the roasting time for a piece of meat depending on its cut and weight, we also use a different variable for each of the beans’ variables. This is called ‘profile roasting’. Once we’ve roasted the beans, we try them, just as a barista does after pulling an espresso shot﹣the difference is that it takes the roaster days, rather than minutes, between roasting and tasting. Good coffee roasters think about the flavours that they get from the beans and what they'd like to accentuate or remove, then they change the most likely variable to bring this result about and roast some more. 

Once they have developed a profile for a bean (see Figure 1.3), they roast in exactly the same way to ensure consistency. They will have to adjust the profile depending on the weather and continue tasting the coffee after each roast because the profile will need to change as the beans age, but, in the main if they stick close to the original profile, they'll to get similar tasting beans. 

Figure 1.3 Roasting by Profile.

Figure 1.3 Roasting by Profile.

As roasters come to use better beans, they tend to roast lighter to highlight their origin flavours. These light roasts can be great, but they need proper development to avoid tasting green and vegetal. Well-roasted beans are essential for your job as a barista. If the beans come from the roastery with repeated roast defects, let the roaster know. If they can't fix it, it might be time to seek out a new roaster.


After the beans have come out of the roaster, they need to be cooled and packed as soon as possible. Packaging ranges from paper bags, through triple-layered laminar plastics to tins or jars. Packaging is the container that helps us transport units of coffee, but it also needs to preserve the coffee. Barrier bags that can be vacuum packed and sealed to protect the coffee from oxygen is the best option currently available. 

Preparation (3)

Preparation is the last domino that we need to fall. Get this one wrong, and all the other factors lined up for achieving great coffee will have toppled for naught. The best way to get the most out of the coffee we’ve been given is by using the same method of testing and adjusting – as speciality growers and roasters do. We brew coffee using a ‘best guess’ recipe, and test it by tasting it. We then manipulate the preparation to get the best flavours according to our own taste. This is a simple scientific method: changing one variable at a time before repeating a test in order to discover a better solution. 

That's the beans and the roasting done. Now it's time to look at the third part of the trinity; the preparation. Before we start playing with variables, we’re going to have a look at what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ when we brew a cup of coffee.

Key Learning Points

  1. Most coffee served in even the best restaurants is poor quality commodity coffee.  
  2. A lot of information on the Internet is about commodity coffee. Handle with care: it is often sponsored by the industry and is therefore biased. 
  3. The sixth-stage of coffee is all about the grower, roaster and barista working together in the pursuit of achieving exciting flavours. 
  4. Single origin coffee comes from an individual grower or a small cooperative. It is not generic country coffee.
  5. Coffee beverage quality is made up of three things: raw product, education and equipment.
  6. Speciality coffee is high grade, single origin coffee with pleasant flavour characteristics.
  7. We need to use scientific methodology to attain, improve and retain the best flavours from the coffee beans. 

Review of Speciality Coffee

Question 1

Which of the following options is a difference between fifth and sixth stage coffee?

  1. Expiry date vs. roasted-on date
  2. Traded through London vs. New York
  3. Generic vs. single origin coffee
  4. Cappuccino vs. flat white

Question 2

What do we mean by “sixth stage coffee”?

  1. The barista, roaster and grower work together to get the best flavours
  2. The customer comes first
  3. The finest grades of coffee in the world
  4. The best coffee, roasted in the best way and prepared by the best baristas

Question 3

What are the two best methods of packing speciality green coffee?

  1. Grainpro bags
  2. Jute Sacks
  3. Loose containers
  4. Vacuum packed
  5. Klabin bags

Question 4

What is the best method for packaging roasted coffee?

  1. Heat-sealed with a zipper bag
  2. Vacuum packing
  3. Tri-laminate barrier protection bags
  4. Kraft paper bags

Question 5

“Most coffees are sold according to grades or sizes and are an aggregate of beans from growers across regions or even entire countries.” Choose the answers that describe these beans.

  1. Generic
  2. Commodity
  3. Speciality
  4. Single origin

Question 6

What are the main categories of wet processed coffee?

  1. Pulped natural
  2. Natural
  3. Dry
  4. Semi-washed
  5. Giling basah
  6. Fully washed

Question 7

What is the best method for roasting coffee?

  1. Sight evaluation
  2. Scent evaluation
  3. Profile evaluation
  4. Temperature evaluation
  5. Accurate measurement through methodical testing and adjustment

Review 1.1 Answers

Question 1 

Correct answer: C

Question 2

Correct answer: A

Question 3

Correct answer: A, D & E

Question 4

Correct answer: B

Question 5

Correct answer: A & B

Question 6

Correct answer: A, D, E & F

Question 7

Correct answer: E


Continue to Thinking About the Brew