How peaberry coffee became the hottest new cafe trend

Kevin Farrell

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We’re no stranger to a good coffee trend as a collective nation. While, sure, we can all appreciate a solid cup of drip at a diner counter or office break room, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t like to stretch our wings every now and then and try something off the beaten path. Why, in just the last year we’ve fortified our java with butter and broccoli alike – though not at the same time. Mushroom coffee? We’ve made it. Paleo turmeric coffee? We’ve tried that too. There isn’t much that we aren’t open to when it comes to coffee, except for maybe a splash of cockroach milk. It’s in that spirit that we bring you the latest, greatest coffeehouse trend: the peaberry bean.


OK, I’ll bite. What’s the peaberry bean?

To really understand what makes peaberry brew special, we need to back up a little first and explain how the coffee bean grows. A “normal” coffee cherry – the fruit of the plant that grows around what we commonly refer to as the bean – contains two seeds. Together, the pair form a round whole, but in order to do so, they are both completely flat on the side where they touch, like two halves of a small ball. After the cherries are harvested, these seeds are eventually roasted and shipped off to cafes, where they will be ground and brewed into coffee.

Peaberry beans, on the other hand, have the unusual distinction of coming from cherries that produce a single bean at their core. Because there is no equal, opposite partner to share the innards of the fruit’s precious space with, no pressure is exerted upon any particular part of the seed. As such, a peaberry seed grows into a single, round shape with no flat side. These seeds are notably smaller than their “normal” counterparts, and have a look that is awfully reminiscent of a pea. Hence the name peaberry.

Got it. Where do these round “peas” come from though?

Peaberries are actually just the result of a fairly common genetic mutation in both the arabica and robusta coffee plants. About 5% of all coffee cherries produce peaberries. Because they are visually identifiable as the mutated bean, coffee growers have long been in the practice of separating the peaberry cherries from the rest of the normal, flat-sided double beans. The rabid interest in peaberry as a specialty coffee throughout much of the world is a relatively new phenomenon, but coffee producers had already been segregating peaberries for decades, owing to their unique needs during the roasting process.

Why does any of this matter? What does the shape have to do with the final product?

Imagine one of those cartoon campfire scenes, where our hero rabbit or mouse is tied to a spit just above the flames, trying to formulate a plan while being slowly rotated above the embers. The villain, slowly spinning the handle, says something about wanting to cook his prey evenly on all sides. It sounds kind of silly, but roasting coffee is actually a bit like that. Beans are spun and brushed and swept in enormous ovens, exposing every bit of their precious surface area to the licks of flames in order to produce a roast that releases the oils and flavors as uniformly across every bean as possible.

Peaberry aficionados argue that the asymmetrical shape of most coffee beans make, by their very nature, a truly even roasting process impossible. They argue that regular coffee beans, no matter how much sweeping and turning they are subjected to, will often end up lying on their flat side and roasting unevenly. Peaberries, being almost perfectly round, avoid this issue. And because of their smaller size, they require less time in the roaster, and thus escape without accruing the slightly burnt, bitter notes that so many people taste when they have a sip of black coffee.

So how does it taste?

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Пиберри. Это особый тип кофейного зерна. Мы получаем такое зерно, когда вместо двух зерен внутри кофейной ягоды формируется только одно. Само слово “пибери” происходит от сочетания “pea” - с английского “горох” и “berry” - “ягода”. Кофейное зерно действительно похоже на горох. Такая трансформация зерна из плоского в круглое не считается дефектом, а скорее естественной мутацией. Кофейный куст за счет типа опыления часто подвергается различным мутациям внутри вида. Зерно круглой формы, похожее на горох, может встречаться в любой стране - Колумбии, Кении, Эфиопии, Танзании. Из всего количества кофейного зерна в мире 5-10% составляет тип пибери. На одном кусте может расти и плоское и круглое зерно. Из-за другой геометрии, площади поверхности и физических свойств пибери отсеивают и обжаривают отдельно. Так абревиатура зерна часто обозначается на пачке буквами PB и продается отдельно. Этим умело и часто пользуются в маркетинговых целях. Так в Австралии или Америке есть отдельные кофейни, которые работают исключительно на таком зерне. Но добавляет ли это исключительности напитку? Для этого нужно отследить зерно на раннем этапе развития. Природа обычно перестраховывается и закладывает до четырех зародков кофейного зерна в ягоде. Аналогию можно провести с каштаном - мы часто видим неразвитые и несформированые маленькие каштаны внутри плода рядом с большими 1-3 семенами. По физическим характеристикам зерно пибери тверже, меньше, плотнее, что требует особого подхода в обжарке. За счет круглой геометрии такое зерно обжаривается быстрее. Кофейный эксперт Кеннет Дэвидс утверждает, что концентрация веществ в зернах пибери выше, так как оно формируется по-другому и заполняет всю ягоду. Без сомнения, это влияет на вкусовые особенности кофе, но все изменения происходят в рамках вида и не выделяют пибери в отдельный сорт. Любого рода мутации в кофе могут как усилить так и ослабить вкусовые качества базового сорта. Можно утверждать, что качество пибери прямо зависит от качества базового сорта, но в то же время зависит и от случая - природа может решить и не в пользу пибери. Поэтому, искуственно завышенная цена пибери не всегда имеет обоснованные экономические причины. ������������

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Coffee brewed exclusively from peaberry beans is lauded for its smooth and sweet taste. People say it tastes juicy and bright, and even a bit like honey. Critics often make the comparison that peaberry coffee is akin to a single-malt scotch. Sure, any old whiskey will do the job when your goal is to take the edge off of a bad day, but when you want to truly savor and appreciate a drink, you’re going to reach for the good stuff.

Whether or not your palate is finely attuned enough to pick up the nuanced distinctions between various coffee varietals and roasts, peaberry coffee has one other thing going for it that makes a noticeable difference that even rookies can usually pick up on. Because coffee producers train their teams to recognize the peaberry cherries, the coffee that will eventually be made from them is the product of handpicked careful selection. In a culinary world that values words like artisanal, small-batch, and shade-grown, peaberry coffee pretty much meets the gold standard just by way of the unique, parallel harvesting process it goes through compared to normal coffee. The difference isn’t difficult to taste.

How can I get my hands on it?

Peaberry coffee goes by a couple of different names, and knowing them will make it a little easier to find this relatively rare variety. If you see chalkboard signs or bags advertising “snail” coffee, that’s peaberry. Coffee featuring actual snails remains – at least at this particular moment – an untapped industry. Caracolillo, caracol and caracoli coffee all likewise refer to peaberry coffee. Hawaii and Tanzania share the distinction of possessing the most advanced peaberry coffee industries, though again, approximately 5% of all beans are afflicted with the mutation, no matter where they are growing. Still, if you’re looking to get a bag of beans shipped out to you, those are the two places I would recommend you begin hunting.


Kevin Farrell

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