Coffee Primer

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


+ enlarge image 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.

What's in a Name?

The names of the beans normally do not refer to the kind of coffee plant they come from; instead, the name can refer to any of the following:

  • Origin: Quite simply, a name may designate where the bean was grown (Ethiopia, Colombia, Kenya, Yemen). Sometimes the name of the plantation is included in the coffee's name as well. Coffees can be designated as "single-origin" coffees -- that is, originating from one country only -- or "blends," a combination of beans from a variety of geographical areas. Generally, blended coffees produce more complex brews than single-origin coffees.
  • Roasting Style: Once at their destination, the green coffee beans are roasted (that is, heated in a large roasting drum to develop a desired flavor and color). Generally, the longer the beans roast, the darker their color -- and the stronger their flavor. Knowing how strong you prefer your brew will help you decide which roasting style you prefer.
  • Roaster's Preferences: Often, coffee roasters will put their own mark on a batch of beans, blending and roasting the beans according to the roaster's preferences. Often, names such as "House Blend" will tell you little; but the names sometimes give clues as to how the roaster envisioned the coffee to be enjoyed, such as "Eye-Opener Roast" or "Dessert Blend."

Coffee-Roasting Styles

  • French and Italian Roasts: Dark, heavy-roasted beans that are almost black in color and produce a strongly flavored coffee.
  • American Roast: A medium-roasted coffee, which produces a coffee that's neither characteristically light nor heavy.
  • European Roast: Two-thirds heavy-roasted beans combined with one-third medium-roasted beans.
  • Viennese Roast: One-third heavy-roasted beans combined with two-thirds medium-roasted beans.

Decaffeinated Coffee

Decaffeinated coffee beans do not grow on trees! They're simply regular coffee beans that have had the caffeine extracted from them, either through a chemical process that uses a solvent to extract the caffeine, or by a Swiss water method, wherein the beans are steamed and the caffeine-rich outer layers removed. Most coffee lovers agree that a good-quality decaffeination process will not take away from the pleasure, aroma, or flavor of coffee.

Choosing the Right Bean

So, how does all this translate into what's best for your cup? Because coffees grown in the same parts of the world can have similar characteristics, knowing your coffee's origins can help you decide if it will be one you like. Coffees from Africa are often imbued with the aromas and flavors of berries, citrus fruits, cocoa, and spices, while coffees from Latin America are known for their lighter body and cleaner flavors. Coffees from Southeast Asia are often full-bodied and smooth. Once you've got this overall picture of origins and roasting styles in your mind, honing your personal likes and dislikes involves the enjoyable task of trying a little of this and a little of that when you have a chance.

Caring for Your Beans

+ enlarge image Buy beans every week and store them in an airtight container to ensure freshness.

Whatever roast you choose, remember the dictum: "Fresh is best." Beans become stale one week after roasting, so buy only the amount you'll use within that week. If possible, buy your beans from a specialty shop that can tell you where and when the beans were roasted. If the beans were roasted halfway across the country, they're probably not very fresh. If the coffee is roasted at the shop itself, you're probably in good hands (provided the roaster is a well-trained professional). At home, store the beans at room temperature in an airtight container.

The Daily Grind

Most experts agree that coffee should not be ground until it is to be brewed. Ground coffee loses its freshness quickly -- so purchase your beans whole, and grind as needed.

For most purposes, small electric coffee grinders -- shaped like cylinders, with little whirring metal blades -- will work well. They cost about $20. Hand grinders may not grind the coffee fine enough for many coffee-brewing methods. The burr grinder has disks that cut beans into evenly sized pieces that drop into an attached container; this produces a more consistent grind, from coarse to fine. This type of grinder costs $50 to $80.

How fine you grind your coffee will depend on the coffeemaker you use; check the manufacturer's directions. As a general rule, coffee too coarsely ground tends to be weak in flavor, body, and aroma. Yet, if it's ground too fine, it can taste bitter and clog some coffeemakers.

Proper Technique

Each brewing method has advantages and disadvantages. No matter which roast and method you select, keep these points in mind:

  • Measure ground coffee for consistent results. If you like a bold cup of coffee, try 2 tablespoons ground coffee for each 6-ounce cup. Because coffee strength is a matter of personal preference, experiment until you find the perfect measure for your taste.
  • Start with fresh, cold water to make coffee. If your coffee tastes bitter or unusual, the water could be the cause. Highly chlorinated water, water treated by a softener, and hard water can all affect your coffee's flavor. A simple solution is to use bottled water. Consider water, like ground coffee, an essential ingredient in making a great cup of coffee.
  • If using the manual drip method, let the water come to a full boil; then take the kettle off the heat and pause for a moment before pouring the water into the coffee. The flavor compounds in coffee that taste best are released by water at less-than-boiling temperatures; 195 to 205 F degrees is optimal.
  • If using an automatic drip coffeemaker, do not leave coffee on the warming plate -- it can quickly develop a bitter, burnt taste. Transfer the coffee to an airtight thermal carafe to keep it warm.
  • About filters: For sediment-free coffee, paper filters are best, but some people prefer using fine-mesh gold-plated filters. These last a long time and also allow some sediment and flavorful oils to seep into the coffee, adding a character that some people enjoy.

+ enlarge image Use a carafe for brunches or other events where coffee is quickly consumed.

Filtered manual drip into an insulated container Freshly boiled water is poured through the coffee into a filter cone set on an insulated container. Advantages: The water temperature can be controlled, allowing for the release of coffee's desired flavor components, and the coffee stays hot in the container. Disadvantage: This method is less convenient than automatic drip coffeemaker.

Filtered manual drip into glass carafe Boiling water is manually poured through the coffee into a filter cone set over a glass carafe. Advantage: The water temperature can be controlled, allowing for the release of coffee's desired flavor components. Disadvantages: It's not as convenient as an automatic drip coffeemaker, and the coffee must be consumed immediately.

Filtered automatic drip Water is automatically heated, poured through coffee in a filter, and the coffee drips into a carafe or insulated container. Advantages: It's convenient -- some models even offer automatic timers. Disadvantages: The water temperature cannot be controlled and usually does not reach high enough temperatures to release coffee's best flavors. Coffee can develop a burnt taste if it sits on the warming plate.

French press (also called plunger or coffee press) Freshly boiled water is poured over coffee into a cylindrical carafe, then it infuses (like tea) for a few minutes. A plunger filter is pressed through the water, trapping grounds below. Advantages: Produces a richly textured coffee rife with natural oils. No paper filters are needed, and water temperature can be controlled. Disadvantages: Coffee must be consumed immediately. This method allows for some sediment in the brew; some people feel this adds character, and others find the taste bitter.

Electric percolator As water boils, the water is forced up through a tube and sprinkled over grounds in a filter cup. The percolator automatically repeats the process, repeatedly spraying the coffee over the grounds. Advantage: It's convenient. Disadvantages: The water temperature is not controlled, and coffee is recycled through the grounds, thereby creating "off" flavors.

Brewed coffee -- usually produced through a drip filter -- is perhaps the most common way to fill the American coffee cup. However, these specialty coffees are popular, too.

  • Espresso: Italian in origin, espresso is cherished for its hearty flavor and thin layer of silky froth (or crema) on top. Because of its intense flavor, espresso is served in demitasse cups, often with sugar. It is brewed by forcing hot water under pressure through finely ground coffee in an espresso machine.
  • Caffe Latte: This is primarily an American favorite. It combines one part brewed espresso to about three parts steamed milk, with a little froth (or foam) on top. Caffe latte is served in a latte bowl or a tall glass mug.
  • Cappuccino: Equal parts brewed espresso, steamed milk, and froth make a cup of cappuccino. Popular in both Italy and America, it has a more intense coffee flavor than latte and is usually served with sugar.

These coffees depend on an Italian roast that's been specially blended and ground to make espresso. Because it is made differently from drip coffees, you need an espresso maker if you wish to prepare authentic espresso at home. Many kinds of espresso makers are available, from inexpensive stove-top pots to expensive machines resembling those found in coffeehouses.

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