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Soluble Sophistication for Coffee

By Dr. Terry Mabbett

Dr. Terry Mabbett looks into the evolving sophistication of soluble coffee and how one soluble manufacturer is focusing on single origins.

Roots of Arabica coffee are deeply set in the ancient soils of the Ethiopian Highlands and the Boma Plateua of Sudan. But “The Queen of Coffees” is now grown throughout those favored parts of the world tucked between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where hills and mountains shoot up into the sky to pierce the clouds at 6,000 feet or more. Only here, in the ‘Shangri-La’ conditions of volcanic soils bathed in clear cool water and aired with a fresh, clean atmosphere, will Coffea Arabica bushes bear to their full potential in yield and quality.

Dispersion and dissemination of Arabica coffee from its birthplace on the Horn of Africa created a swathe of Old and New World origins from the verdant slopes of Central America to the heady heights of east Africa. Dozens of top class Arabica origins, including Jamaican Blue Mountain, Guatemalan, Colombian, Hawaii Kona, Kenyan and Sumatran, stand side by side. Although they are equal, they are different. They are separated only by the unique and distinctive flavors and aromas that come from specific combinations of soil and growing conditions, ripe cherry chemistry, washing, fermentation, drying and curing of the beans.

Movement of Arabica coffee cultivation from northeastern Africa, into other parts of the tropics, is often credited to European explorers and buccaneers from Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and Britain. However, this remarkable evergreen berry-bearing bush -- in name -- suggests Arabs where the first to spread the seed. Indeed they were growing, preparing and drinking coffee across the Middle East and beyond long before Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, on the first great voyage -- heading west instead of east -- to reach India.

Some time between AD 575 and AD 850, the coffee plant found its way into the Arabian Peninsula (southern Arabia and Yemen) from Ethiopia, and gave birth to the increasingly rare and highly prized true Mocha coffee. Baba Budan, a Muslim pilgrim, is credited with introducing Arabica coffee into the Mysore hills of southern India long before the British East India Company was established on the sub-continent. Also, Arabs introduced Arabica coffee into Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) long before the first European invasion by the Portuguese in 1517.

However, the string of New World origins stretching from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica in the north, through Guatemala and Costa Rica in Meso America, and deep into South America through Colombia and Brazil, owe their existence to a variety of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and British explorers and colonists. East African highlands spanning Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda were one of the last areas to receive the ‘magic’ bean, in spite of close proximity to the ‘origin of origins’ in Ethiopia. The seeds first arrived in Kenya in 1893 with a clear Arabian pedigree from Aden (Yemen) via Zanzibar.

As the 20th century dawned, Arabica coffee was being produced right across the tropical regions of the globe, but the fruits of the trees and their fine brews and infusions were still the preserve of the few privileged. Only those with the ‘where with all’, the leisure time or servants could indulge in the time-honored process of making and drinking ‘real’ coffee.

A Solution Required
Coffee drinking could only be brought to the masses by inventing a formulation that would release its flavor, aroma, body and color into the cup simply by pouring in hot water. The solution to soluble coffee was via a somewhat ‘Anglo-American’ event, focused on an Englishman called George Washington living in Guatemala. Carrying the same name as the first president of the United States (and probably the same ancestors from the ancient village of Washington on the coast of Northeast England), he noticed that the residue on the spout of his sterling silver coffeepot carried the taste of real coffee. As is usual with most British inventions, it stayed just that. It took the colossal consumer demand in the U.S. to make soluble coffee an instant success. Millions of U.S. servicemen fighting in World War I were some of the first beneficiaries of the instant success of soluble coffee.

As with all massed-produced products, there is a tendency and a necessity to cut costs and corners for long-term commercial viability. If this happened to soluble coffee by design or accident, if indeed at all, it is with the coffee origins used to make the powders and granules. Soluble coffee has traditionally been made with ‘rough edged’ and harsh Robusta coffees, or anonymous signature ‘unwashed’ Brazilian Arabicas. But all that has changed as single origin washed Arabica is increasingly used to manufacture sophisticated soluble coffees with all the character of the ‘real thing’.

Swiss Finesse
Producing soluble coffee from high-class, single origin Arabica beans takes special skill and patience, and Haco the Swiss manufacturer of soluble coffee is a prime example of how the instant product takes time to perfect. Although Haco is quite happy to describe their wide range of soluble products as instant coffees, it is the first to admit they can only be achieved by meticulous processing of first class natural green coffee origins.

Haco is a pharmaceutical to food manufacturing company, with its roots back in 1922 as a co-operative society manufacturing medicines, including an anti-malaria drug. Down through the decades it was transformed into a leading food manufacturer increasingly positioned as a technology specialist, which has clearly been central to its success as a leading manufacturer of soluble food products, such as instant coffee.

Notable technology milestones include a new method of coffee decaffeination in 1930, by eliminating harmful residues. Also, they were the first company in Switzerland to start industrial-scale production of freeze-dried coffee in 1969.

Spray Drying and Freeze Drying
Haco manufactures spray dried and freeze dried soluble coffee products.

Spray drying - coffee extracts are atomised in warm currents of air within large spray-drying towers. They are then dried to form instant powdered coffee products. To enhance solubility, the powder formed is fed into agglomerating plants for treatment with hot air and steam, to produce a coarser grain of coffee with particle size, shape and color close to that of true granules.

Freeze-drying - coffee extracts are frozen into a thin sheet of ice on a cooling drum at minus 40°C for grinding into grains of the desired size. The frozen grains are spread over special flat beds and transferred to a vacuum chamber to experience extremely low pressure that allows the water content (in solid ice form) to sublimate. Sublimation is the vaporization of water from its solid, ice form without first passing through the liquid state. This represents an especially gentle and subtle form of drying that preserves and conserves the valuable aromas and flavors in the coffee extract.

Coffee with Character
Haco produces a wide spectrum of soluble coffees within industrial and consumer ranges. Many of the 30+ formulas within the consumer range, and manufactured mostly by the freeze dried method, are in response to the recent and rapidly spreading change in instant coffee drinking to pure origins representing the finest coffees from across the world.

Anticipation of the coffee drinking experience is as important as the experience itself, and Haco satisfies this demand with ‘real life’ descriptions of its single origin range of genuine washed Arabicas, produced for the real coffee connoisseur. So real, in fact, that you can almost imagine you are there on the slopes where the origin is grown and in the farms where it is cured. For example:

Blue Mountain - 100% premium Jamaican coffee, from washed Arabica Blue Mountain beans; harvested from the fresh green slopes of this Caribbean Island to provide good body and a strong aroma.

Kilimanjaro - offering the taste of pure Tanzanian Arabica grown in lush tropical foothills and overlooked by the heady heights of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Ethiopia - 100% Ethiopian coffee from the country where it all began, and providing the typical taste and acidity of beans from the ‘cradle of coffee cultivation.’

Guatemala - from Guatemalan Arabica beans to give full body, an aromatic and flowery taste with low acidity, indeed all the excitement of a classic New World coffee origin.

Mandheling - 100% Arabica coffee beans from the sultry island of Sumatra, in the Indonesian archipelago with full body, a very decent aromatic taste and low acidity that both soothes and stimulates the after dinner palate.

Kenya - full body, aromatic and flowery taste and highly pronounced acidity giving all the character and sparkle expected from true Kenya Arabica.

Columbian - from Columbian Arabica and not disappointing with full body, pronounced aromatic character and fine fruity acidity.

Hawaii Kona - a special coffee from the exclusive islands, a 100% pure Hawaii Kona to produce a mild and an extremely aromatic product.

Alongside these sophisticated coffee products - all from single origin washed Arabica beans and exclusively freeze dried - is an equally exciting range of instant coffees manufactured from strong tasting Asian Robusta beans. According to Haco, they offer a very attractive price/performance ratio. The range includes freeze dried and spray dried products, including Mocafino Decaf, a decaffeinated product from non-washed Robusta and designed to retain its natural earthy taste with strong and bitter notes.

Haco is presently constructing its first soluble coffee production plant outside Switzerland. The Haco facility, currently under construction on a 2.4ha site in Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia is expected to start full production by next year. Stephen Blackburn, general manager and project director of Haco Asia Pacific, said the plant will start producing coffee extracts first.

Tea & Coffee - October/November, 2005

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