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We are beginning to understand the science of coffee

Jane Hanks talks to award-winning coffee roaster (torréfactrice) Anne Caron about the bean-to-cup process

Anne Caron is the first woman to be named Best Coffee Roaster in France. After the death of her father, Sylvain, she took over the Maison Caron which he had founded in 1974 at Châtillon, Hauts-de-Seine.

She is passionate about her job, and says it is time we all knew a little bit more about what makes a good cup of coffee.

What does the job of coffee roaster, torréfacteur (or torréfactrice for a woman) involve?

There are several parts to the job. First, you have to select the beans, then roast them and then advise your customers about the best way to use that particular blend to make a good drink.

We use a similar vocabulary to wine, talking about Grand Crus, body, descriptions for describing flavours, but it remains the poor relation, with less interest in it.

However, it is fascinating and there are very many different elements involved and the way each stage is carried out is essential to the end product.

Only 2% of coffee drunk in France is produced in a non-industrial way and once you have tasted that kind of coffee you will understand the difference. Everyone should try a really good coffee.

There are 700 independent torréfacteurs spread around France, so you should be able to find one. It is more expensive, about twice as much, but the difference should be greater as the work that goes into it is far more than double.

Where do you start?

First you have to select your coffee beans and the plantations they come from. I visit mine twice a year. They are all at high altitude because that is where the best coffee grows. When the beans are picked it is important that only the ripe ones are selected – not under-ripe, and not over-ripe, but just perfect.

Our coffee is hand-picked, but machine-picked can be satisfactory as long as only the ripe beans are picked. There are two beans in every fruit and they have to be separated from the rest of the fruit. For this there are two methods: the more expensive humid method and the dry method. Both are as good if they are done well, but give different results.

Where does your coffee come from?

We use beans from four places for our signature coffee, the Café Caron. There are le Huehuetenango beans from Guatemala which bring strength and character. The trees grow in volcanic soil at more than 1,500 metres altitude. 

Le Moka Sidamo beans from Ethiopia bring a roundness to the taste, El Capitan from Nicaragua add a touch of acidity and we have beans from the Cerrado region of Brazil, where the beans ripen slowly and evenly and which give a good balance to the blend. 

We have other coffees, which come from just one plantation, for example from Colombia.

What happens when the beans arrive in your premises?

First we have to assess the quality of the beans and decide what we want to get out of them, whether we want our final blend to be fruity, acidic or strong and what balance we are aiming for.

The temperature, the length of time, the intensity of the roasting – all are important factors. The darker the end result, the more robust the flavour and the lighter it is the more acidic it will be.

There are a huge range of parameters to take into account. We have identified between 800 and 1,500 factors which make up the coffee taste. It is extremely subtle.

The world of coffee is full of magic and today we are beginning to understand what happens to the bean as it is being roasted. It is very exciting as more and more research is being done into the chemistry behind the different reactions, and we are beginning to understand the science of coffee.

Why do you think there are so few women coffee roasters?

Traditionally coffee roasting businesses were looked after by couples. The husband would look after the roasting and the women would do the selling. However, women make very good roasters. They are more subtle in their approach and question themselves more, constantly asking how they could do better.

I have just taken on a woman from Le Havre and she is very good. I would love to see more women in the business.

Do you drink coffee?

Of course. It is my passion. I drink coffee up until 2pm every day, but no later, otherwise I would drink too much. I never buy a coffee in a bistrot. Even good coffee can be ruined by using the wrong machine to make it in, and sadly, most often either the coffee or the machine tends to be bad.

If you have to add sugar to your coffee to get over the bitterness, then, that is not a good coffee.

You do a lot of work to help the producer. Do you think we pay enough for our coffee?

Producers are not paid enough for the work they do. I admire the work that the fairtrade labels do, but they do not guarantee a top quality coffee, so instead we have decided to put in place a scheme each year to help our own producers.
Guatemala is a very poor country and there we have financed a school in the province of Jalapa in an area where there is very little education available for children. We have also put in an irrigation project in a coffee plantation to encourage farmers to stay with coffee and not to be tempted to grow more lucrative but less commendable crops.

And in 2012 we built a medical unit close to the plantations. This year, we hope to help put in a co-operative system for coffee producers.

Where do you sell your coffee?

We sell a lot of our coffee direct to businesses selling coffee, we have a boutique in Paris and we sell via the internet. In our shop we also sell products flavoured with our coffee, such as chocolate and caramels.

We also run workshops either for amateurs who want to know a little more about how to make a really good cup of coffee or for the increasing demand from professionals who want to learn how to become a professional barista.

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