Knowing Your Beans: The Kashrus of Coffee


Bedouins savor it thick and rich out of small ornate cups. Some like it black, while others must have cream and sugar. The adventurous will try one of the many flavored coffees available, while the purist would not hear of it. No matter how you enjoy it, coffee remains one of the most popular beverages on the planet. The per capita consumption of coffee in the U.S. alone approaches 30 gallons a year.

In recent years, the varieties of coffees available has grown at an astounding pace. Gourmet coffees, flavored coffees, French roasts, espressos, lattes; one almost needs a dictionary to make sense of what has become a culture unto itself complete with its own language.

What do all these names mean? Is all coffee kosher? Can I buy a cup of coffee at a non-kosher restaurant? Relax, sit down, grab a mug of mocha and join us for a journey into java to discover what exactly goes into a cup of joe.

Legend has it that the uniqueness of coffee was first experienced in the Middle East. An Arab goat herder named Kaidi noticed that his animals were more jumpy than usual. Upon further investigation he discovered that they were eating the berries of some bushes that were growing wild in the field. After sampling some himself, he was soon as hyper as his herd.

Legend or not, the fact is that coffee is native to the Kaffa (coffee) region of Ethiopia. The Arabs began cultivating it in the sixth century. The first coffee was named Mocca for the Red Sea port, Al Mukkah, where this valuable commodity met the world. Plants were smuggled from there by the Dutch who founded the fabled coffee plantations of Java. Today, Africa and South America lead the world in coffee production.

The genus Coffea includes many varieties. Of those, only two have commercial significance. Ninety nine percent of the world’s coffee production is from C.arabica and C.robusta. Arabica, which is grown mainly in Central and South America, are considered the highest quality beans and are usually more expensive. They grow best in high altitudes (“mountain grown,” as the famous ad line says) and produce a very flavorful and aromatic coffee. Robusta beans originating from Africa and Asia, can withstand harsher temperatures and conditions than most. The trade considers Robusta to be less flavorful and aromatic and are used in instant and less expensive coffees. Interestingly, they produce a cup with twice the amount of caffeine than Arabica.

Coffee harvesting is a labor intensive process. Since the coffee cherries, as the fruit is known, ripen at different times, all picking must be done by hand. The trees must be visited three or four times during the year to insure that all the fruit is harvested when fully ripe. An experienced worker will pick about 200 pounds of coffee cherries daily. This will yield around 50 pounds of green coffee beans which will in turn produce about 39 pounds of roasted coffee.

After harvesting, the beans, which are actually the fruit seeds, are separated from the fruit. Depending on the region, this is accomplished using one of two methods. The first process, called the wet method, uses a machine to strip away the skin and pulp. The beans are then fermented in water. The enzymatic reactions that occur in the tank loosen whatever pulp is still left which is then washed away. In more arid areas of the world the dry method is used. This involves leaving the ripened fruit on the tree or spread in the sun for several weeks to dry. After drying, a hulling machine removes the skin and pulp. Further processing removes the silverskin, the thin covering remaining on the bean. The green coffee beans are then sorted, packed and shipped worldwide to coffee manufacturers known as roasters. Being that coffee beans are inherently kosher, and water is the only substance the beans have come into contact with until this point, no kashrus concerns exist.

Roasting is the key step in the manufacture of coffee. Timing is everything in this delicate operation. If the roast is too short insufficient amounts of oils influencing flavor and aroma will be released. If allowed to go too long the beans will burn. This is also the explanation of the different roast terms you might have seen. The terms City roast or French roast refer to the color of the roasted beans. The longer the roast the darker the bean. The shorter the roast the lighter the color. Obviously, this will also affect the taste of the final product.

The procedure starts by placing the green coffee beans in a hopper. The hopper pours the beans into the roaster. The roaster, which has been characterized as a cross between a clothes dryer and a popcorn popper, consists of a large rotating drum inside a heating chamber. The temperature of the pre-heated roaster is around 400 F. About five minutes into the roast the beans will begin to lose moisture and change color. Five minutes later the beans will have doubled in size and almost reached their optimum color. At this point they are fed into a large revolving tray called a cooling car in which they will darken further.

After cooling, the beans are placed in a holding bin. From here they will either ride a bucket elevator to the grinder and packaging line or be placed into the flavor mixer. The roasters’ primary concern is achieving optimum flavor and aroma. For this reason they are punctilious in making sure nothing is added to the beans during roasting. Again, kashrus is not a concern at this point.

Instant coffee was first produced at the beginning of this century. It wasn’t until the 1930’s, though, that it went into large scale production. This was done in response to an emergency situation in Brazil. It seems that the coffee growers in this South American nation were threatened with economic collapse due to huge surpluses of green coffee beans. Rather than destroy the beans to keep prices from bottoming out they enlisted the help of the Nestle company who had been successful at making powdered milk. The drying technology was applied to liquid coffee and a few years later Nescafe was born.

Today, instant coffee is processed one of two ways.

  1. Spray Drying – This entails forcing an atomized spray of very strong coffee extract through a jet of hot air. The liquid evaporates leaving behind dried coffee. An interesting but little known fact is that coffee loses much of its aroma due to spray drying. As aroma is all important to the resulting flavor of the coffee, most manufacturers will spray a coffee oil on the powder to add back some of the lost aroma. This is known as aromatizing. In another attempt to make the instant coffee as much like real ground coffee as possible, the powder is put through a heating process which causes it to clump. It is then ground to resemble real ground coffee. This is called agglomeration.
  2. Freeze Drying – Freeze dried coffee is produced by freezing liquid coffee and then placing the product under a vacuum enabling the frozen liquid to vaporize without passing through the liquid phase. This is known as sublimation. Since coffee produced through these methods is manufactured at dedicated plants, they present no kashrus problems.

Coffee purists decry what is thought to be the modern practice of flavoring coffees with everything from hazelnut to Irish cream. The truth is, however, that adding flavors to coffee is an ancient practice going back to the time when things such as cardamon and black pepper were used to spice up the morning brew. In any case, flavored coffees are here to stay.

There are two traditional ways to get a somewhat bitter cup of coffee to taste like hazelnut cream or one of the many other flavors available. Either you flavor the bean or you flavor the actual cup of coffee. In either case the process is rather simple.

  1. Flavoring the bean – As was mentioned above the beans are flavored after roasting. Flavoring prior to roasting would be worthless since the flavor would be destroyed in the roaster. In larger operations about 300 pounds of beans are flavored at one time. The beans are placed in the flavor mixer soon after roasting and having cooled to about 100 F. The beans will easily absorb the flavor at this point and as they cool further the flavor will be locked in. A liquid consisting of a flavor and a carrier is added and the mixture sets for about ten minutes. The amount of flavor used depends on the particular flavor desired, but it is generally around two to three percent of the total batch.
  2. Flavoring the cup – This is the method preferred by some of the popular coffee house chains. They feel that flavoring the actual bean excessively distorts the taste of the coffee. Instead they add flavored syrups directly to the individual cup.
  3. Flavor Filters – The newest method employed is flavoring the coffee as it passes through a flavored filter. One company manufacturing these specialized filters is Sorbit Separation Technologies, which is under Star-K certification. The “Brewmate” filter features a layer of absorbent charcoal in combination with a metal-trapping mineral, and a layer of a selected popular flavor “sandwiched” in filter cloth or paper overlays. Designed for use in drip coffee makers, this ingenious product cleans the water in addition to flavoring the coffee.

We have now come to our first kashrus issue. Flavors are complex chemical products which contain various ingredients, some natural and others artificial. There are more than three thousand flavor ingredients to choose from in formulating a flavor. Some are clearly not kosher. To complicate matters further, food labels are only required to mention that flavors were added without listing the specific flavor. Based on this it is easy to see why all flavored coffees must be kosher certified.

Decaffeinated coffee is produced for those who desire a little less kick in their cup. Decaffeinated coffee has had about 98 percent of the caffeine removed. Currently there are four methods used to decaffeinate coffee. They each share the same basic steps. Before roasting the beans are heated and rinsed several times with a solvent that removes the caffeine. Then they are dried to remove the solvent. The difference between the methods comes down to which solvent is used.

  1. Methylene Chloride – This solvent is used by the majority of the decaffeinating companies. This method, which is also called the direct method, is considered to produce the best tasting coffee as it dissolves the caffeine and not much else in the coffee.
  2. Indirect Method – Also known as the European water process, this method rinses the coffee with a mixture of water and methylene chloride.
  3. Swiss Water Process – Favored by the health conscious due to lack of chemical usage, the caffeine is removed with only activated carbon filters and water.
  4. Natural Process – These methods employ solvents other than water that occur in nature. Hence the designation natural. The Ethyl Acetate Process and the Supercritical CO2 process are part of this group.

The second kashrus problem stems from the natural process of decaffeination. As noted above, ethyl acetate is one of the solvents used in this method. This chemical is a combination of ethanol and acetic acid. As grain is one of the primary sources for ethanol, coffees decaffeinated using this method would not be kosher for Passover.

Coffee shops are sprouting up all over. Can you purchase a cup of coffee there? What about buying at a rest stop or in a non-kosher restaurant? Finally, what are the kashrus considerations when it comes to coffee vending machines?

There are a number of issues to deal with when it comes to buying a cup of coffee in a shop or other non-kosher establishment. The first issue to address is the coffee itself. Plain black coffee can typically be ordered without too much of a problem. The one proviso is to make sure to get it in a paper cup. (Incidentally, paper cups are a far better choice than styrofoam cups as you avoid the non-kosher zinc stearate present in most styrofoam cups. For more information on this subject, see the article about kosher plastics on our website here) This must be done to avoid using keilim, utensils, that might have been used for non-kosher or washed with non-kosher dishes. You should also use only plastic spoons as the metal spoons have the same problem as the china cups or mugs. Those who are careful to drink only cholov yisroel, dairy products produced with a Jew present at milking, will of course realize that the milk cannot be used. Creamers, both dairy and non-dairy, require kosher certification as they might contain non-kosher stabilizers, as well as dairy ingredients such as casein. Sugar is fine without a hechsher.

Another question to address is the status of all the coffees with European sounding names. Cappuccino, Café au Lait, and Café Latte all share frothed milk as an ingredient in one form or another. Again, this is a concern for those who are careful to drink only cholov yisroel. The other concern is the steam wand used to froth the milk. At times, we have found that the wand is used to froth other non-certified beverages. One should ensure this is not the case before ordering the aforementioned drinks.

The other Italian inspired coffee, Espresso, which is the main ingredient of the aforementioned drinks, really refers to a method of brewing coffee. This method usually employs a pump-driven machine that forces hot water through very finely ground coffee at high pressure. This produces about an ounce of thick intense coffee known as a shot. If drunk alone without any additions it presents no kashrus concerns.

The last issue is whether you can walk in the door or not. This problem stems from the halacha of marris ayin, the appearance of wrongdoing. This din states that a Jew is prohibited from doing things that others might interpret as violations of halacha. What are the guidelines as far as coffee is concerned? Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, Rabbinic Administrator of the Star-K, is of the opinion that if the restaurant is known mainly for the traif, non-kosher, products it sells, McDonald’s, for example, then going into such a place would constitute marris ayin. An establishment like a coffee shop or highway rest stop that sells many kosher and non-kosher items and is not known for a particular traif product would not be problematic.

However, if you are looking for a flavored coffee, depending on the shop you are in, the following kashrus concerns regarding the coffee must be addressed.

  1. Flavored Beans – If the shop brews their coffee using flavored beans you have a problem. Most shops that serve flavored coffees will have a machine dedicated to brewing only flavored beans. All beans of this type are brewed in the same machine and it is very likely that beans flavored with non-kosher flavors are being brewed in the same equipment used for kosher flavored beans. Therefore you should only purchase flavored coffees that are brewed in machines dedicated for the use of kosher certified flavored beans.
  2. Flavored Syrups – If the shop flavors the cup with a syrup, as we said before, all flavors require a reliable hechsher. If you’re in luck and the syrup has a reliable certification you too can enjoy a gourmet coffee.

Can you or can’t you buy coffee from a vending machine? In a perfect world the machine would only vend black coffee and there would be no kashrus concerns. In the real world however, things are not so simple. Most machines vend several types of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and even soup. In the older machines where many items were served through the same nozzle it was fairly clear that you could not purchase coffee from such a machine. The modern machines however are computer controlled and are very advanced. One of the big improvements is that each item has its own tubes and serving nozzels. Unfortunately, though, unless you know that this particular type of machine has separate mechanisms throughout, you cannot be certain that the items are not mixing or being dispensed from the same nozzle as a non-kosher item. Therefore, it is not recommended that you purchase any beverage from a hot drink machine without intimate knowledge of how the machine operates.

Before we end it must be noted that regarding Pesach ALL coffee must have a kosher for Pesach certification. In summary we can say that with a bit of care one can enjoy this popular and ancient drink with confidence in its kashrus.

The author wishes to thank the following individuals
for their assistance in the preparation of this article:

Rabbi Shmuel Heinemann, Kashrus Administrator, Star-K Kosher Certification,
Mr. Donald M. Schoenholt of Gillies Coffee Company,
Mr. Nick Constantinideo of Eagle Coffee Company,
Rabbi Michael Orelowitz of C.Y.T., Inc.
Mr. Donald Clark.

Star-K Certified Coffee Companies:
Coffee Beans
Coffee Lighteners