Coffee Primer

Making the perfect cup of java ain't no jive. Here's how.
Knowing Beans About Beans

Flavorings such as spices,
liqueurs, nuts, chocolate, and
vanilla are sometimes added to
coffee beans.

For the coffee aficionado, understanding all the subtleties that make a great cup can be as captivating as knowledge of good wines is to the wine lover. Fortunately for all of us, however, achieving the perfect cup is easy once you're familiar with a few basic coffee-making concepts.

Know Your Beans

When you walk into a specialty coffee shop, a coffeehouse that sells coffee beans -- or even a grocery store with a wide variety of whole-bean coffees -- you'll probably spot an enticing display of coffee beans. Usually, they'll range in color from light to dark brown, with names like French roast, Ethiopian, espresso roast, and even designations such as "house blend" and "Christmas blend." Knowing a little bit about the origins of coffee beans and how they're harvested, roasted, and named can help you choose the bean that's right for your cup.

What's a Bean?

A coffee bean is actually the seed found in the red fruit (called a "coffee cherry") of a tropical evergreen shrub. This shrub can grow up to 30 feet in height. Coffee plantations thrive near the equator (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn), primarily in Africa, the Americas, and Southeast Asia. As with most plants used for food and drink, the growing environment -- amount of sunshine, type of soil, climate, and water -- contributes much to the flavor. Once coffee is harvested (a painstaking process that involves picking the coffee cherries by hand as they ripen) and processed, the beans -- which are at this point green in color -- are shipped off to their destinations to be roasted.

Types of Beans

With all the different monikers on the beans you buy at the store, you may think they are from different species of coffee plants. However, most of the beans you can purchase today come from only two species of coffee plants: coffea robusta and coffea arabica. The coffee most Americans grew up with (the kind most often found in cans in supermarket aisles) is generally made from coffea robusta, as are most instant coffees. While the robusta plant's hardiness and high yield make this a less expensive coffee to produce, coffee experts have described its flavor as "harsh" and "one-dimensional." On the other hand, coffea arabica, which grows at higher altitudes than robusta, produces coffee that connoisseurs often describe as "rich" and "complex." Specialty coffees -- those served at coffeehouses and sold at specialty coffee shops -- are generally made from coffea arabica.

Continued on page 2:  Choosing the Right Bean