One of the strange things about the past few months in my life, is that I’ve accidentally become a barista (not a very good one). I only know the basics, but hey, if you need an espresso, I can probably wrangle something out of the machine that is drinkable.
I’ve also seemingly without meaning to learned quite a bit more about coffee in the past year or two than I ever set out to do. So here are some of the basics of coffee.
1. The Bean
I picked up most of this knowledge from the locals in Indonesia, the fourth largest producer in the world, in August 2011. Here’s what I’ve learned, the beans are actually the pit of a fruit on a coffee plant. There are pretty much only two types of beans available to the average coffee drinker Arabica or Robusta, the biggest difference between them is their caffeine content. The more caffeine you want, the more robusta you need. However most people seem to agree that Arabica has a better taste, which is why most coffee roasters (we’ll get there) mix the two together in an 80/20 or 70/30 combination.
Most coffee berries are handpicked in order to remove the flesh of the fruit and retrieve the seed for roasting. That’s one of the reasons why a quality coffee is going to cost more than $5 a pound. The beans are then processed in either a wet or dry method, the dry method is cheaper and therefore more common. The way a bean is processed is (not surprisingly) going to affect the flavor.
2. The Roasting
This is the area, I’m most fuzzy on since I’ver never hung out with a coffee roaster. But generally this step is carried out by a company in the U.S. Let’s focus for a second on one of my favorite Utah roasters, Caffe Ibis. They buy their coffee from a grower, ship the raw beans to Logan, then roast them to taste at their business before they send it out to their cafe and shops for consumers to purchase.
There are several different types of roast and each roaster may choose to call them by different names. However if Sweet Maria’s home roasting guide is anything to go by, the lightest roast is usually called a City roast, next is the Full City roast, then there’s the Vienna roast and finally the French roast. As the beans get darker, the flavor will become more bitter and the coffee taste stronger.
3. The Brew
If you’ve ever drank more than one cup of coffee, you know how different a drip coffee is from an Americano. The simple fact is every step of the coffee-making affects your java from growth to grind. So whether you grind and roast at home or pick up a ground bag from the grocery store flavors will change. Connoisseurs recommend grinding at home, and they probably roast their coffee at home too. But lazy people like me, buy pre-ground coffee because the last thing I need in the morning is whirling blades of finger death. My one piece of advice for any coffee that’s nicer than Folgers, please for the love of all that is hot, black and right keep the beans or grounds in an airtight container.
As for the actual brewing process, make sure you have a machine that does two things well. It gets the water hot! (Like just under boiling hot.) And it’s slow! Every pot of drip coffee should take at least five minutes to brew. As for that little espresso machine, it also needs to be HOT and SLOW. (Not as slow since it’s just a little bit each time, but still slow enough to make sure the hot water absorbs the flavor and caffeine of the beans.) It also helps to be good at packing the grounds smoothly with somewhere between 30 and 35 pounds of pressure.
Coffee is like a fine wine or cheese (or any food) where its origin strongly influences taste, of course, the picking process, roasting, grinding and brewing also affect the final product. The key to the perfect cup is knowing your likes and dislikes, which means drinking lots of different coffees from different roasters and farmers to find out where on the over caffeinated spectrum you prefer your brew.
For me and my SLC life, it’s Caffe Ibis’ Full City roasts with a toss up between Highlander Grogg and Organic Highland Sumatra. What’s your perfect cup?