coffee latte on table with spoon

Obsession or Addiction?

To say that Americans love coffee is like saying humans need air to breathe. We run on coffee. Our lives depend on it. We are so obsessed with coffee that we’ve created an entire cottage industry of t-shirts, mugs and hashtags to express our obsession. Some consumers have no problem spending five dollars or more for a designer cup of coffee, yet complain that the price of a dozen eggs is up to six dollars. I confess that sometimes I get excited to go to bed at night and fall asleep as quickly as possible because I’m looking forward to having coffee in the morning. I think that’s called addiction, but I’m not a doctor.

So why is coffee so special, and why can’t we live without it? Coffee has been stimulating humans since the 11th century. Coffee has been present throughout some of the most memorable and influential moments in human history. The process coffee goes through to get from the cherry to your cup is more complicated than the average coffee lover is aware of. Oh, and it’s fermented!

jar of coffee beans

Label Your Cup

Before this article, the most I thought about coffee production was: the grounds go into the filter, then into my coffee maker, then into my mouth, and ultimately to my brain where it turns me into a functioning human being. I sat down with Jesse Bladyka, program coordinator and roasting director at Flying Goat Coffee, located in both Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, CA. He enlightened me about the various layers of the coffee industry. It was as eye opening as a double shot of Cuban espresso. Jesse’s knowledge of the coffee business is as broad as his passion for it. We began our discussion with the use and application of industry jargon, like “fair trade,” “sustainability,” and “organic.” The way Jesse and Flying Goat owners, Phil Anacker and Maura Harrington, choose to run their coffee buying program doesn’t place as much emphasis on these terms.  They are a certified organic roastery, but not 100% of their coffee is certified organic. “We do believe in the overall picture of certified organic, we just think there are some exceptions to the rules,” explained Jesse. The FGC team acknowledges that not all carefully produced coffees can be certified, and not all certified coffees are carefully produced. FGC doesn’t choose to buy coffee based on certifications because a lot of the small farmers they like to support cannot afford to, or do not qualify for those certifications.

As far as sustainability is concerned, Jesse believes this is one of the most misunderstood terms in the coffee business. “Sustainability is a process, a goal, not an achievement. It involves looking not only at the environmental aspects of how a coffee is grown, but also the social and economic impact that our decisions have on the communities that produce coffee.” Jesse continued to explain that all we can really do is look for ways to have the least amount of impact possible and to look at it from a “livelihood” perspective. The goal is to encourage sustainable practices, but also improve the livelihood of everyone from the coffee farmer, to the person drinking the cup. FGC likes to use the term “relationship coffee,” when referring to their coffee buying program. It’s important to them that the farmers, importers, exporters and buyers are all trying their best to do the right thing and to be transparent about how they operate. “We’re interested in giving the very best coffee experience in Sonoma County. We do all of this work to improve our supply chain so that we can continue to give that quality experience. We are a part of a group of great companies working together to make progress in the specialty coffee industry.”

barista behind coffee bar

It’s All In The Process

When it comes to the production side of coffee, we as consumers think about the roasting and the brewing as being the most important steps. But the fermentation process that coffee goes through is extremely important and delicate. There are two common ways coffee can be fermented. There is washed coffee and naturally processed or semi-washed coffee. Here is an oversimplified description of the two fermented processes.

With washed coffee, the coffee cherry is picked, and de-pulped. What is left is a sticky material called mucilage, which is put into a clean tank where is it left to sit and ferment. During the fermentation, all that microbial activity gets to working on the sugars that are left on the protective layer of what is now the bean and helping to loosen the mucilage. Depending on the climate and the microbial presence, that process can take anywhere from 12 to 48 hours. The “washed” term refers to the breaking down of the mucilage in order to get that clean bean. The bean is dried once the mucilage has been removed. This process introduces the least amount of fermentation flavor.

Naturally processed coffee or semi-washed starts off the same way as washed coffee. The cherries are harvested, but with this process the goal is to leave the mucilage on the bean while the coffee is drying. This process has a much more noticeable effect on flavor. Naturally processed coffee tends to have more body and less acidity. To gain further knowledge, I met up with Darren O’Brien, director of coffee and production at Taylor Maid Farms Organic Coffee and Tea in Sebastopol, Ca. He set up a cupping for us to taste them side-by-side. The “cupping process” is what buyers do when tasting coffees they are considering purchasing. It helps detect flaws and nuances in the beans. Check out our video with O’Brien at Taylor Maid as we compare washed vs. semi-washed here:

Historically, the most uniform and high quality beans are washed, and reserved for specialty markets, while the naturally processed beans are usually lower quality and get blended into massive bags of coffee beans from farms all over a particular region. The natural process is known as the original method used and calls for more hand labor than other processes. But recently, there has been a revival of the natural coffees joining the specialty market. Both Flying Goat Coffee and Taylor Maid offer naturally processed coffee. The Taylor Maid sample I tried tasted like blueberries! According to both Darren and Jesse, this berry-like flavor is typical of naturally processed coffees. There are now coffee producers that are trying to control this process for more consistency. Not only can the naturally processed coffee effect changes from bean to bean, it is also easy to over ferment, and fermented flavor is considered a defect in coffee. It takes a lot more work to make naturally processed coffee, which, when it comes out right, tastes so delicious.

When Jesse and I talked about fermentation, he brought up something interesting that I believe adds to the uniqueness of coffee. He pointed out that with other fermented beverages, like wine, the winemaker has so much control. They can control the yeast and can barrel taste as often as they want in order to measure the effects of the fermentation on the flavor of the product. Then that wine gets bottled, aged and sold. With coffee, not only does the producer have no control over the yeast in the fermentation, they also cannot periodically roast and brew the beans throughout the fermentation process to taste test. What makes coffee so special and precious is that once the coffee is bought, roasted, brewed and consumed, it’s gone. You cannot age it or preserve it to have in the future. Moments when you have had a spectacular cup of coffee, whether alone in deep thought or over a memorable dialogue with someone special, will remain a memory, never to be experienced with that coffee again.

Outside shot of Flying Goat Coffee in Santa Rosa

Coffee In Culture

Not only does the processing aspect of coffee add to its wow factor, but also culturally, coffee has had a huge impact on human history. There is an Ethiopian legend (the birthplace of coffee) about a goat farmer who noticed his goats eating cherries one day. The goats began to act crazy and dance. This legend is credited for the discovery of the coffee cherry. Flying Goat Coffee is named for this legend. When discussing coffee culture with Jesse he pointed out that, “If you follow coffee throughout history, as it was distributed around the world, you see revolutions and intellectual gains.” Before the 17th century, booze was the safest thing to drink in Europe. When coffee became a staple beverage and people started drinking that in the morning instead of alcohol, people started making progress and provoking thought. “Coffee and coffee houses were instrumental in creating the civil society climate that brought on the American Revolution,” Jesse explained. He also shared that the role of the “coffee break,” was instrumental in the U.S Labor movement in the early 20th century as well. During the 1960’s counterculture movement, coffee shops were a safe place for artistic expression, poetry, music and theater. Darren O’Brien, who is also an accomplished musician, said that coffee reminds him of musical expression, and allows him to feed his artistic craving. Coffee is a stimulant some may call a drug. Regardless, it has been bringing people together since the dawn of its existence. Nowadays, coffee shops are some of the last remaining gathering places where people get together, face to face to catch up, discuss life, share stories and mold relationships. Jesse feels that, “We are so tied to our phones, our computers, our individual careers and the internet, that it sometimes feels like there is no need to engage with anyone anymore. For our generation, coffee is a great reason to get together, exchange ideas and influence our personal lives.”

Taylor Maid Farms sign

Hard Work and Love In Every Cup

I may have answered my own question about why are we so obsessed with coffee. There are many reasons. The end product that we enjoy has been through an artisan process. Common belief in the coffee business is that human hands have touched a coffee bean an average of twelve times by the time it reaches your cup. Jesse shared this idea with me and laughed that the thought can either really gross you out, or make you feel ok about paying five dollars for a latte, considering how many people worked to make it for you. Another reason we love coffee is because the flavor is so unique. The multiple processes it goes through gives coffee its bang! That steamy, warm, nutty flavor, paired with that well-known aroma gives us a reason to get out of bed!  We’re also obsessed with coffee because, let’s face it, it’s a stimulant. It makes us feel good, it motivates us, and it promotes conversation, which in turn connects us as human beings. To sum it all up, coffee is a necessity, coffee is fermented, coffee is delicious. Coffee is life.


  • Dona Braniff Roughley says:

    i really enjoyed reading your coffee article.. I love my coffee… I’ve been noticing at the grocery stores, reading the small print on ALL offered for sale cans and bags of coffee, that just about every coffee out there is arabica…. I am old school COLOMBIAN BEAN GROWN IN COLOMBIA…
    I found one old company that still sells this… And only one grocery store near me that sells this brand…..
    MJB 100
    Percent Colombian..
    Others claim they are….. Read the small print….ARABICA.
    Can you find this brand near you?? I felt you really do good research…maybe you know something about this?? I’d like you to try some…tell me what you think.. I even take it up a notch… Brew in an old style stove top coffee pot.. Makes such a huge difference in taste.
    Anyway, I am your cousin Jessica’s Aunt Dona..we met a few times.. If you can’t find MJB. Let me know….. I will send you some.. The grocery I buy it at is a local family owned chain…STATER BROS. so cal only.. I’m pretty sure..
    Curious what you think, taste, find, share….or just tell me no thanks….my feelings won’t be hurt… Either way… Wanted to share with you.. Hugs..

    • Emily Somple says:

      Hi Dona,

      Thanks for your interest in the article. I’ve never had that particular brand before but I’m glad you’ve found one that you love. That’s what its always about.

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