Coffee 101

Bongo: Expanding the definition of quality!

Bongo expands the definition of quality to include factors of how coffee is produced, purchased and promoted to the important issue of taste. Our coffee is 100% organically grown, bought directly from small-scale farmer groups at prices above the Fair Trade price and marketed in a 98% pretention-free manner.

For many, coffee is simply an everyday pleasure or even necessity.

For those who grow coffee for their sole income, necessity takes on a whole different meaning.

We only buy organically grown coffee directly from small-scale farmer groups at prices above the so-called Fair Trade price because we learned a long time ago how our buying choices have real world-wide social and economic consequences.

Telling the story of our farmer partners explains how buying organic, Fair Trade and direct-source coffees has positive economic and environmental impacts around the world.

The more you know about what we do, the better we look.

Coffee is a $100 billion world-wide industry that employees 25 million people just in the growing process. More than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day, making it the most consumed beverage in the world.

Yet, despite these huge numbers, coffee-growing communities are among the poorest in the world. Further, many of the large coffee-processing plants discharge waste and chemical fertilizers into water supplies which of course do horrific environmental damage.

Because of all this, we only buy organically-grown coffee at prices above standard Fair Trade minimums directly from small scale farmer-owned cooperatives. This helps farmers to continue to own their own land, to support their families and to protect the environment.

Buying Bongo coffees supports farmers, the environment and small business.


History. 

Coffee is a rather simple commodity with a darn colorful history that has a surprising large impact on the world’s economy and (of course) an important (and sometimes necessary) part of many people’s days.

At various times, coffee has been considered a gift from the gods, a magical cure all, the source of all humanity’s problems and a commodity that perpetuates economic inequalities. Coffee is the second most valuable traded commodity. Thus, its history tells the story of development around the world.

Discovery.

Coffee was discovered around the Sixth Century in Ethiopia.  Legend has it that a goat herder led his flock to an uncharted part of a forest. There, Kaldi and the Goats discovered strange looking cherries. After tasting their first experience with caffeine, the goats were so excited, Kaldi reported that they started to dance. This is why Kaldi and goats are names frequently used in the coffee business.

Since Bongo World was started by a reporter, we dug further into the story. We soon realized that the true hero of this story was Kaldi’s dog (every goat herder has a dog, right?). We named him and our second café Fido after this heroic canine that history has too often over looked.

Coffee plants were eventually smuggled to other countries around the world. This is why the same basic plant now grows in about 70 countries. Parts of Africa, Asia, Indonesia and the Americas have proper growing climates for coffee: high altitudes, cool to warm tropical climates, rich soil and few pests. All coffee is grown between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.

Robusta & Arabica.

There are basically two distinct types of drinkable coffee that come from two distinct types of coffee trees:  Robusta & Arabica. While the Robusta market is bigger world wide, the Arabica (or specialty coffee market) keeps growing as a percentage of the overall coffee market. 

Robusta coffee are cheaper, are of lesser quality and (perhaps surprisingly) have higher levels of caffeine.  These trees are grown at lower altitudes (yes, Mountain Grown means something) and produce less pleasant tastes. These beans are for the mass market.  They are grown on large estates, picked by machine and roasted  lighter to retain moisture weight (because coffee is sold by weight).  Typically, they are served with lots of cream and sugar which masks the poor tastes.

All specialty coffee is Arabica – yet not all Arabica coffees are special. Quality depends on many things including how the coffee is grown, processed, roasted and brewed.

Arabica beans are grown at higher altitudes, hand picked and roasted for flavor rather than a concern of how much weight the beans will lose. These are the beans sold at all good coffeehouses.

The coffee industry has changed drastically since Bongo opened in 1993.  Back then we got away with having a commercial espresso machine and barely trained baristas.  Over time, a whole lot of science and craft has gone into specialty coffee to improve the production, processing and thus taste of coffee. And while we remain 98% pretention free, we now train and retrain our baristas in our industry-certified coffee training lab.

Roasting.

Arabica coffee is grown from basically the same plant in countries around the world yet tastes differently depending on how and where its grown.  Coffee readily absorbs flavors. This is both why coffee has been flavored with all sorts of stuff and why the beans naturally take on taste characteristics from the soil and climate from where they are grown. Thus, even farms next to each other can produce totally different tasting beans.  Some farms have been successful selling micro lots of particularly great tasting coffee grown on a particular part of their farm.

The beans are stripped out of the cherry and then dried at source.  In this state, the so-dubbed green beans are then shipped typically in burlap bags to roasters around the world.

Quality roasters like Bongo use skill and art to bring out the natural flavor of coffees.

Bongo’s staff experiments with time and temperature to find the perfect roast technique for each of its coffees.  These are constantly tweeked as even slight changes in atmospheric pressure and the amount of time beans are stored can change a coffee’s profile.

Single Origin vs. Blends.

A bag marked “single origin” simply means that all the beans came from the same place.  Single Origin coffees have a certain snobbery right now; companies promote it and consumers brag about buying them. Yet, like micro lots, there is as much hype as reality in terms of these being better quality coffees.  Some micro lots and some single origins are incredible --  and some have great marketing campaigns.  Higher price doesn't mean better taste.

Blends are created by mixing two or more varieties together. Our roasting staff samples lots of coffees, take detailed flavor notes and then experiments to find flavors that play nicely together.  This is how blends are created. 

We then name the blend based on our mood or what mood the coffee puts us in.  Mystic Brew came about because the taste was so mysterious and gave one of our staff members an insight into how the theory of relatively actually was a metaphor for how action heroes always have troubled personal stories. Charbucks was named because we accidently roasted a batch too long and our roaster bet another a dollar that people would like the result.  And our popular seasonal Harvest Moon was one of about seven our first roaster named after Neil Young songs.  There are standard blends like French Roast and Breakfast Blend that most coffee roasters produce. However, these don't have standard recipes.  Every coffee company has their own idea (their own recipe) of what should go in a dark roast like French Roast or is a proper wake-up brew.

Even Espresso fits this.  The word espresso really refers to the brew method where hot water drips through finely ground and compacted coffee beans.  Espresso typically means a blend the coffee company believes will taste great using an espresso machine.  Single Origin espressos have become all the rage.  Using one varietal for an espresso blend typically produces a smoother and cleaner taste – which some love, some don’t and some (who turn their espresso into lattes and such with lots of milk and sugar) can’t tell the difference.