Savoring a good cup of coffee
For millions, it’s the start of their day, or the means to get through that day. For others, it’s their social drink of choice. Hot or cold, sweet or bitter, flavored or plain, milk or black...coffee is deeply enriched in ours and many cultures spanning the globe.
Personally, coffee has become a lifestyle for me. From the first time I ever set foot in a Viennese-style cafe to this day, I find I prefer a quality cup with good conversation over a round of cocktails. I get giddy when I see a local cafe open with good atmosphere and seating, or when I find a good source for beans.
Where it started
The origin of coffee can be traced all the way back to 15th century Ethiopia. In the highlands, a legend exists of Kaldi. He was a goat herder who found his flock eating berries off the trees in the area. What made him take notice was due to how his goats were hyperactive that evening, and refused to sleep.
From there, Kaldi took berries to the abbot of the local monastery. The abbot experimented and thus created a beverage, which he found helped him stay awake for long hours of evening prayer. The abbot’s coffee concoction grew throughout the monastery and beyond. From there, it just spread like a virus.
Over the rest of the 15th and into the 16th Century, coffee became quite popular in the Middle East. Even the first cafes opened, thus elevating the beverage into as much a social drink as it is a stimulant. It wasn’t until the 17th Century that merchants brought roasted beans to Europe. Some religious leaders claimed it was satanic, but the way coffee and cafe culture spread over the world speaks to how much the naysayers were dismissed.
Where it comes from
Most coffee grown in the world comes from Africa, Central America, and South America. The beans are grown as berries (nicknamed “cherries”). After cultivation, they are put through either wet or dry processes to remove the fruit flesh to end up with the unroasted beans.
From there, the beans are roasted at some point in the path of producer to consumer. Sometimes it’s the plantation, or the distributor, or the retailer, or even the consumer. Coffee aficionados will shop for quality beans and prefer to do the roasting themselves.
The beans come in two species. Arabica is the favored breed, as the beans have a more fruity and sweeter taste, with a higher acidity. Robusta is more profitable for plantations, as they flourish more and resist disease and drought. However, their bitter flavor doesn’t resonate well with consumers. Usually you’ll find Robusta in any cheap coffee. It’s also used as a filler to stretch out a supply of Arabica.
How to get quality coffee
While we have endless choices sitting on the shelves of supermarkets everywhere, finding quality coffee can still be a challenge. I’ve tried too many available options that ended up being disappointments. Cups of bitter, burnt, horrible coffee not worth drinking.
Now I know we live in the age of loading up with sugar, milk, and even flavored syrups. However, I’ve found a good quality cup of coffee doesn’t need all that. It will taste wonderful just on its own, or maybe with a little milk. Here’s how I manage to find good quality coffee:
Choose Arabica: This is the easiest one to remember. Pretty much any quality coffee you will encounter will be of Arabica beans. You’re free to try Robusta (or blends) if you like things more bitter, but if you happen to stare at bags of coffee on the shelf and aren’t sure, just start with any that say “Arabica”.
Buy Local and Small: This is not some left-wing anti-corporate logic. I’ve tried many coffees from major producers and retailers, and they seemingly pale in comparison to when I buy a pound from a local cafe or producer who sell their own beans. I think it’s mainly that these small players are experts in coffee, and thus only will sell you high quality. You can’t go wrong consulting an expert.
Pick Your Roast Carefully: Are you someone who can’t seem to enjoy coffee unless it’s loaded with sugar, milk, and/or flavorings? That’s perfectly ok, but if you would like to try to cut out the added ingredients, consider looking into lighter roasts. The darker the roast, the more rich and harsher the flavor. I know that when I veered down to medium roasts, I find I drink my coffee with just milk. Even when I want a flavor added, I found I need very little syrup to bring a desired result.
Consider Roasting Your Own Beans: I normally don’t do this, but felt it was important to consider. Hardcore coffee aficionados often invest in their own roasting means and even source out their own unroasted beans. Personally, I find it to be a bit of a chore to go that far, and would rather trust the roasting to the local experts I’ll buy beans from.
Store It Correctly: This is paramount. Whether you buy roasted or unroasted beans, and even if you grind them beforehand or not, be sure to store your coffee in an airtight container made either of ceramic or glass. Plastic containers will slowly change the flavor of your coffee as you store it for long periods. Invest in a container that will preserve the flavor.
Now that you’ve found yourself some good beans, you still have to prepare them into the final beverage. Keep in mind there is no “correct” or “ideal” way to prepare coffee, just options. It’s up to you to discover which methods bring you the cup that’s ideal to your palette.
Before we can even get into brewing, you need to have your beans ground down. For the best flavor, it’s wonderful if you can grind just the beans you’ll use before brewing. However, even I do not have the luxury of time to grind before brewing, so I’ll grind my beans when I buy them. Even then, I’ve found you can keep much of the flavor if you store the grinds carefully.
How coarse or fine that you grind is up to you, mainly depending on your preferred method of brewing:
Simple boiling: I’d more call this method “old world”. Nothing to it. Just add a few spoonfuls of coarsely-ground coffee into a pot of water, boil, pour and serve. You’ll still see this in practice around Greece, Turkey, and other parts of the Middle East.
Steeping: This is my preferred method of making coffee. It’s also quite popular with coffee connoisseurs. It’s a technique similar to how one makes tea, with the ideal tool being a French Press. Simply pour boiling water over a few scoops of coarsely-ground coffee, let it sit for 10 minutes or so, then push the press down to separate the grounds from the finished coffee. So easy and so effective.
Filtration: This is the method most Americans are familiar with. In the old days our parents used a percolator. Now we have boundless choices in coffee makers that use filtration. Even the more modern line of single-serve coffee makers with “cups” use this process. If a machine isn’t to your liking, then try some simple filtration setups that allow you to filter coffee into mugs or pitchers. This is where medium-ground coffee is the ideal choice.
Pressure: If you drink espresso in any way, then you’re drinking coffee made through pressure. All those machines (from the consumer models to the big ones at Starbucks) make espresso coffee by shooting pressurized boiling hot water through finely-ground coffee beans. If a machine is too much, then I suggest a simple Moka Pot.
More to come
We covered a lot here today, but coffee is so much more complex to keep in one article. Stay tuned for future articles where I’ll discuss the social aspect of coffee culture, and even how you can bring the cafe to your own home for little money.