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Coffee is arguably the world’s most beloved beverage. In the United States, more than fifty percent of adults over the age of eighteen enjoy coffee every day. It is estimated that as coffee lovers, we spend over $40 billion on coffee every year, and this is just in one country alone. It is safe to say that we are a population of coffee enthusiasts.
The thing is that most of us take coffee for granted. We buy it, brew it, pour it and then drink it down. We might know what we like in a cup of coffee, however, we might not have much working knowledge of the brew beyond that.
Now is the time to change that. The coffee experience only grows richer and more enjoyable when you have hardcore knowledge to back it up. Whether you are sipping on your first cup ever, or you are third of the day, we ask you to take a few minutes, sit back with your brew and take a crash course in coffee basics with us.
Answering the Question, “What is Coffee?”
We know coffee by the unmistakable smell and color of the perfectly roasted bean. The bean that has become such a staple in our daily lives comes from a genus plant called Coffea.
Within this genus of plants, there are roughly 6,000 species of shrubs. Of these, less than one hundred are coffee plants, only two of which, arabica and robusta, make it into most coffees.
Coffee is actually a fruit, that when ripe has a red, cherry-like appearance. Within each little fruit is nestled two seeds. It is these seeds, which we affectionately call coffee beans, that will eventually find their way into your favorite brew.
Almost all the world’s coffee is grown in tropical and sub-tropical regions called the coffee belt. This region is gifted with rich soil, altitude and the perfect climate for growing the highest quality coffee beans on earth.
The top ten coffee producing countries in the world are:
What happens once coffee fruit from these countries is grown and the beans are harvested?
We might be biased, but we feel that what comes next is one of the most fascinating processes in the world.
Digging into the Coffee Bean Process
There is an incredible number of factors that affect the specific notes and flavors that you pick up on with each sip, or gulp, of your favorite coffee. Every part of the beans life influences the characteristics of the bean. The region that the beans are grown in is of great significance when determining overall characteristics, however fine-tuning the flavor profile starts with the method used when the beans are processed.
There are two ways of processing coffee beans. “Processing” is the word we use to describe the act of removing the beans from the ripened fruit. There are two ways that this can happen.
With this method, the ripened beans are processed using special equipment that washes the fruit away from the inner bean. As with everything, there are pros and cons to this process.
First, wet processing requires an investment in equipment and natural resources that not all coffee farmers have access to. One could also argue that wet processing is more of a strain on the environment. On the other hand, wet processing is faster, and allows the farmer to process more beans and therefore increase their profit and provide a more substantial income for their workers.
Flavor-wise, wet washing produces a cleaner taste; however, some argue that the flavors are underdeveloped and far less complex than dry-processed coffees.
Dry, or Natural, Processing:
With this method, the ripened beans are picked from the shrub and spread out to dry in the sun naturally. As the fruit dries, its ruby colors turn to a dark brown and the skin thickens in the process. Once the fruit reaches this point, it can be removed easily from the bean.
The downside of natural processing is that it does not work in all regions. Regions that are humid and damp have difficulty with this process because it requires arid, dry heat from the sun. Too much moisture means that the fruit will mold and rot. Not exactly what you are looking for in your coffee. However, in regions where beans can be processed naturally, the flavors are incredible.
As the fruit dries in the sun, the bean absorbs some of the natural flavors of the fruit. This provides a coffee bean with layers of flavor and complexity. Natural processing is also simpler and less costly to smaller farmers, and reduces the strain on the environment.
Roasting 101: Pop, Crack and Beans
A raw coffee bean is green, grassy and completely unidentifiable as the coffee that we love. There is an art involved in the process of taking those green coffee beans and creating them into something that is delicious and full of complexity. This process is called roasting.
Coffee roasting is simply the act of applying heat to the coffee beans until darken and begin to release their natural oils. It is the process of roasting that brings out and highlights the natural flavor characteristics of the bean, and there is a right and wrong way to roast depending on the bean itself. It is fair to say that coffee roasting is both an art and a science.
Coffee beans are roasted until they reach an internal temperature of anywhere from about 350°F to 580°F. The higher the internal temperature of the bean, the darker the roast.
The coffee roasting process is often described in terms of “pop” or “crack.”
As beans are roasted, the increase in temperature results in the bean cracking, or popping. The point that this happens the first time is called “first pop”, and this is when the bean expands and water and oxygen escape the bean. The second time this happens is naturally called “second pop”. During the second pop, carbon dioxide is released from the bean.
Lighter roasted coffees are heated until just after the first pop, while darker roasted coffees are heated until after the second pop.
Is there really a difference between the roasts? Absolutely! Here is a great chart that illustrates the differences.
Coffee Brewing Basics
Once you have your favorite fresh roasted beans in your hands, the only left to do is grind and brew, right?
Well, yes and no.
It can be as simple as grinding, scooping it into your coffee maker and pressing a button. After all, machine brewed coffee is a classic.
But why limit yourself when there are many other ways of brewing a great cup of coffee. With a little experimentation, you might discover a new favorite.
Curious about the different coffee brew styles and techniques?
Here’s a rundown of reach.
This technique uses a combination of pressure and water to extract flavor from the ground coffee. With this method, a smaller amount of water and a finer grind is used, resulting in a cup, or shot, of coffee that is thicker, creamier and more bitter than a standard cup of brewed coffee.
You don’t need barista training to create a pressure brewed drink or to make an espresso at home. Home espresso machines have turned the once mystical art of espresso crafting into something that can be expertly done by even a novice coffee drinker.
If you like the idea of something smaller, and a bit more rustic, a Moka pot creates an espresso-like brew using the same pressure concept on your stovetop.
>> Check out our espresso lover's variety box!
Drip and Pour:
This is probably what you think of when you envision a cup of coffee. A brew that is not water, but not as thick as espresso, perfectly brewed through a filter device. Your standard coffee maker falls into this category, as dose the currently trendy pour-over method.
Trust us, we don’t use the word trendy with any negative connotations. Pour-over coffee is popular because it combines art and experience to create a fantastic brew. Pour over coffee involves placing the ground coffee in a filter, and then pouring the water over the grounds the brew.
Sounds simple, but there is a methodology to it. Some people choose to set up their own pour-over system at home, others choose one that has already been crafted and has a solid reputation, such as the Chemex.
>> See our pick for the best pour-over coffee maker!
A term more commonly used to describe the process of brewing tea, steeping produces a wonderfully rich and flavorful brew.
The most popular method of steeping is the French press. The desired amount of grounds is placed in canister, along with the hot water. After a period of steeping, the filter device is pushed down to strain the grounds from the coffee and trap them in the bottom.
>> See our pick for the best French press coffee maker!
Boiling or “Cowboy” Coffee:
Like your coffee strong, rustic and no-nonsense? If so, coffee boiling might be your coffee brewing soul mate.
Coffee existed long before the fancy brewing devices and gadgetry that tops kitchen counters today. Cowboys on the range didn’t bring their electric coffee maker with them, so what did they do instead? The simplest thing possible.
The combined water and coffee in a pot, boiled it and then drank it down. The only precaution is that you want to take care when pouring your coffee and do so slowly. This will help keep the grounds in the bottom of the pan rather than floating in your cup, although it is inevitable that a few will escape.
The perfect cup of coffee doesn’t need to be steaming hot. In fact, it can be iced down and refreshingly sip-able. Cold brewing is both the hottest and coldest brewing trend today.
Cold brewing uses cold, filtered water in a slow brewing process that can take hours to complete. The result is a smooth, luscious coffee drink that breaks convention and tastes great.
>> See our pick for the best cold brew coffee maker!
Recognizing Great Coffee
What makes a great cup of coffee will differ among coffee lovers. Some like a light, fruity coffee while others desire a rich, dark brew full of spice and chocolate. Whether you are on either one of these ends of the spectrum or somewhere in between, there is a list of characteristics that are inherent in every cup of coffee on some level.
When you sit back and sip, these are the elements that you experience through a variety of your senses.
- Aroma: The scent of the coffee the floats through the air and dances in your nose.
- Body: The “weight” of the coffee in your mouth. This is more mouthfeel than physical weight, such as the difference between a standard brewed up of coffee, and an espresso.
- Flavor: This is obvious, but in terms of drinking coffee, it is the initial flavor impact as it hits the tongue.
- Acidity: This word is used to describe the fruitiness or sour components of coffee.
- Sweetness: When coffee is roasted, the sugars in the coffee become caramelized. A light roast coffee will be sweeter because the sugars are closer to their natural state, where a dark roast coffee is going to taste more caramelized and rich.
- Aftertaste: This is the word used to describe the residual flavors left in your mouth after swallowing your coffee. It is here that you will notice some of the subtler notes of each bean.
Is knowing all this necessary to enjoy a great cup of coffee?
Learning a few things about your favorite drink can enrich your experience and make you more appreciative of everything that goes into your cup of coffee, however, from the farmer to the roaster, to you, the brew master.