Coffee demystified

Have you ever found yourself in line at a fancy coffee shop, hoping for an ordinary cup of coffee and completely flummoxed by the five-column menu on the wall? In this Starbucks age, coffee snobs abound; people are sure to tell you you’re drinking the “wrong” kind of coffee no matter what choices you make – and there are so many choices! It’s no wonder many people have stopped enjoying their cup of morning joe.

Fear not – coffee basics really aren’t that challenging. To begin, let’s start at the farm with the coffee bean itself. Coffee beans are actually the seed of a small fruit called a “coffee cherry” which grows in the tropics. As in wine and grapes, each coffee-growing region, type of coffee, and type of processing offers coffee beans with slightly different characteristics.

On the coffee farm, two things affect the flavor in your cup. First, the two species: robusta and arabica. Robusta coffee beans are inexpensive, but produce a harsh-tasting brew high in caffeine. Arabica beans are used in most premium coffees; they produce the smooth coffee most people prefer. Second is processing – how coffee farmers remove the fruit from the coffee bean. Wet-processing, where the fruit is washed off the bean, produces a coffee that is lighter and cleanses the palate. Dry processing, sometimes called “natural” or “unwashed” coffee typically happens in regions where clean water is scarce – for instance Africa or the Middle East. These coffees are full-bodied and smooth.

After you’ve decided which of these characteristics are important to you, you need to decide on the roast. Coffee beans start out almost the color of grass; the length of time coffee remains in the roaster determines the final color and flavor of the coffee. “Light” roast, while often inexpensive, can brew a harsh and acid cup. Coffee roasted to a rich brown hue called a “full city” roast, produces a balanced cup of coffee showcasing the characteristics of the individual beans. Dark roast coffee, sometimes oily in appearance, may be called “Espresso,” “Italian,” or “Viennese;” these coffees trade complexity in flavor for heavier body. Finally “French Roast” refers to coffees that are roasted nearly black; these are slightly sweet in flavor but retain none of the characteristics of the original coffee beans.

Your coffee grind (the degree of coarseness or fineness) should be based on the amount of time the coffee will be in contact with the water – longer contact = coarser grind. An ordinary coffeemaker with a flat-bottom filter should use a medium grind, while an espresso machine requires a very fine grind. While many people have strong opinions on the proportion of ground coffee to water, it is really a matter of personal taste. Many people start with three tablespoons for each 8 ounce cup of water (keep in mind that a “cup” on a coffee maker may be anywhere from 4 to 12 ounces; it’s best to use a measuring cup) It is also recommended that your water be as hot as possible, but not simmering or boiling (around 200 degrees Farenheit or just above ninety degrees Celseus)

After your coffee is brewed, you may combine it with milk to form the variety of coffee drinks you saw on the coffee shop wall. Cafe au Lait, also called Cafe con Leche or Mixto, is equal parts hot coffee and steamed milk. Most other milky coffee drinks are made with espresso, produced in a special machine that extracts the coffee very quickly under high pressure. A latte is espresso topped with milk and a small amount of foam, a cappucino is espresso and an equal amount of milk and foam, and a mocha is a latte with chocolate flavor added. You can add sweeteners and flavors to any coffee drink; in Italy, espresso is often brewed directly into a demitasse and sugar is “floated” on the top.