A cup of coffee is not just a welcome pick-me-up — there’s a whole culture based around the bean that plays a huge part in many people’s lives. This Shanghai Daily column offers an introduction to coffee culture: from bean varieties to famous producing areas; from brewing to tasting to terminology; from the drink’s history to up-to-the-moment city cafe choices. So make yourself a cup, relax and read on.
Kenya AA is one of the most popular items in any hand-drip menu, beloved by many coffee connoisseurs. But as they savor a cup, few stop to consider the code meaning of “AA” or whether other Kenyan coffees have similar enigmatic alphabetical additions.
The answer is an emphatic “Yes!” AA’s joined by the likes of AB, PB and, slightly confusingly, you can even have a cup of T.
So what do they all mean?
Each coffee growing country has its own grading system, and in Kenya AA is a grade — one of nine by bean size — rather than a type of Kenyan coffee.
But the biggest beans don’t necessarily taste best. For while a batch of impressively sized Kenyan beans may be graded AA they may only get 4 or 5 points out of 10 in quality. That may be why a Kenya AA coffee you had wasn’t as good as expected.
Nonetheless, Kenya AA beans often command a fairly high price on the market.
Coffee beans are usually handpicked twice a year in Kenya, from October to December and May to July.
After milling, they are carefully sorted according to size, color, shape, and density.
To make the Kenya AA grade, a coffee bean must be just a little larger than 7.2 milimeters in diameter and grown higher than 2,000 meters above sea level.
It’s widely recognized that the larger the coffee bean, the more oil — the essence for the special flavor and aroma of the brewed coffee — it contains.
Usually, Kenya AA brews up a complex, smooth-bodied, and very bright cup with little or no bitterness and sometimes a winey aftertaste.
However, it is not uncommon for the slightly smaller Kenya AB bean to be rated higher for flavor.
For example, Kenya Makwa AB roasted by Klatch Coffee was rated 96 out of the 100 points, ranked 4th in leading coffee guide Coffee Review’s list of the Top 30 Coffees of 2014, the highest-placed Kenyan coffee on the list.
Professional coffee tasters, or cuppers, often argue over whether the quality of roasting, grinding, and brewing is at least as important as bean size.
Stirring the alphabet soup of Kenyan grades reveals an array of coffee possibilities.
Kenya PB means Peaberry beans — when a single coffee seed, instead of the usual two, grows inside a coffee cherry.
Kenya C beans are light or small coffee beans from Kenya AB grade.
And Kenya E — where E stands for elephant — is a grade below C in the system. Here, two coffee seeds are joined together in one coffee cherry, compared to the two separate ones usually found.
Meanwhile, Kenya TT coffee beans are sorted out by air extraction from Kenya E, Kenya AB and Kenya AA by lighter density, while Kenya T is the smallest beans, with many rejected or light beans or chips of coffee beans from Kenya C.
Much of Kenya’s coffee is sold in weekly government-run auctions take place at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange during the harvest seasons.
However, in recent years, some agents and farmers have also traded directly on the open market.
Coffee cupping — or coffee tasting — is the practice of observing the taste and aroma of brewed coffee, while the tasters themselves are known as cuppers.
A cupper can be anyone with a nose for coffee, while the professionals are called “master tasters.”
A cupper judges a cup of brewed coffee on five criteria: body, sweetness, acidity, flavor and aftertaste.
Certificate programs for coffee tasters are available at professional, bodies such as the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).
Where to Drink
With just five tables — three indoors and two outside — Cafe del Volcan is the smallest independent coffee shop in Shanghai I’ve visited.
Opened in 2012, it offers a selection of espresso-based drinks and single origin coffee brewed with a hand-drip or French press coffee maker.
On first sight it gives the impression of an elegant European street coffee shop, with an emphasis on takeaway.
However, its cozy atmosphere makes it stand out, and you will feel like you’re visiting the home of a neighbor who knows how to make a decent cup of coffee.
Stepping inside, you are confronted by an impressive menu on the wall, with some pleasant surprises, including affogato — espresso on ice cream for a summer treat.
It has a wide range of espresso- based options — including Italian and American West Coast.
Also listed are seven single origin coffee beans from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Guatemala and China’s Yunnan Province.
Kenyan coffee at Volcan is not AA grade, but rather PB. But it’s from the same region, Makwa, as the 4th ranked coffee from the Top 30 Coffees of 2014. Kenya Makwa PB has a sharp fruity aroma with a lively tangy taste.
The cafe also directly sources green beans from the award-winning Faldas del Volcan — “slopes of the volcano” — coffee estate in Guatemala that has been managed by the same family for 120 years and inspired the cafe name.
Even though it’s small, the cafe still has space for a coffee roaster beside the counter, with a roasting factory located in the Shanghai suburbs.
And it’s a sweet treat that every cup of coffee sold in Cafe del Volcan is accompanied by a free cookie.
But if that doesn’t satisfy your sweet tooth, there are further options on its dessert menu. The walnut chocolate pie is a yummy treat, and has more walnuts than you would expect in a pie. It also works well to smooth the acidity in Kenya coffee.
Cafe del Volcan runs free coffee tasting workshops, demonstrating differences between single origin coffees from different countries, at different roast levels and brewed in different ways. And for something frothier, there are classes for learning the art of making the perfect latte.
If you plan a visit, pick your time wisely to avoid a long wait for a table!
This is a traditional Italian drink where a hot espresso shot is poured on top of a vanilla gelato or ice cream scoop — a cooling treat in summer.
Peaberry, also known as caracoli, is a coffee bean that develops alone within a coffee cherry, which usually contains two beans. Peaberry beans can occur in coffee of any origin. They are often separated from the rest of the harvest and sold as a special category. In most cases, they fetch a higher price due to their rareness.