Ever since I tasted coffee, I’ve been a convert, and if you’re a coffee person, you’ll agree with me too. Although mine is not to the point of addiction, but I’m excited to savour its smell and rich taste each time I get the opportunity to. I still remember the first time I took coffee. I wasn’t exactly drawn to the taste. I mean, who is when they take coffee for the first time? Even with the sugar and cream, there was still a tinge of bitterness in it. However, there was something enchanting about the drink – it just draws you to itself, like a miracle.
I’ve been recently mesmerized about how something so simple, could somehow take over the world. So I decided to start with how coffee came to be. The truth is that nobody knows exactly how and when coffee was discovered. However, legend suggests a very interesting story. It is said that a goat herder on an Ethiopian plateau discovered that once his goats ate the berries from a certain tree, they were so energized and abnormally active that they wouldn’t sleep even at night. So he decided to investigate for himself by roasting and boiling the seeds from the berries, and that was how the first coffee ever was brewed, and then he went on to tell everyone about it. It is said that at some point, it was a drink only monks took until the miracle of coffee shops arose in the 15th century especially in the Arabian Peninsula. In coffee shops, they’ll enjoy the rich dark liquid while engaging in conversations. They’ll also do this while listening to music, playing chess, and watching performers. Soon, it got to Egypt, Istanbul (which was the capital of the Ottoman Empire at the time), Persia and Syria. It was said to have spread to these regions due to people traveling to Mecca for pilgrimage and getting acquainted with the drink.
Coffee shops then became known as a crucial center for the exchange of ideas and information. Little wonder that in today’s world, coffee shops are synonymous with tech experts working on a new idea, life changing meetups, and social gatherings that generally advance humanity.
By the 17th century, it found its way to Europe. Even the Pope loved it that he gave it papal approval, and by mid-17th century, there were over 300 coffee shops in London alone. Of course, due to increased alertness by those that consumed it, the quality and quantity of work improved. It was later adopted by the New World (now USA) in the late 18th century after a revolt caused by the heavy taxation on tea by King George III, where it became America’s officially preferred drink. Even Thomas Jefferson is recorded to have said, “Coffee – the favorite drink of the civilized world.”
By the end of the 18th century, coffee became one of the world’s most popular and profitable drinks having spread throughout the entire world. Did you know that after crude oil, coffee is the most sought after commodity in the world? Now you know.
Why do people love it so much?
About a billion people all over the world drink coffee every day. This means when you wake up in the morning to take a cup of coffee, just about the same time all over the world, people are sharing in that same ritual at the same time. Like the saying goes, different strokes for different folks, so is the reason why people love coffee.
- Some love it for the exclusivity that comes with it. It may be very common in some parts of the world, whereas in other parts, it’s associated with class – like something reserved for just the enlightened.
- Some just love the idea of being in a coffee shop, working on a project, preparing for a presentation and just soaking in the environment.
- For others, they love it because of the amazing conversations that happen over a good cup of coffee – that sense of community that comes with it. It’s something quite similar to what was happening few centuries ago when coffee shops were centers for information sharing.
- Some love it for it. They love it black, undiluted. While others love it with the cream and sugar.
The list could go on and on. Whatever your reason is for loving it, it’s a heck of a good reason, because any reason to love coffee is a good reason.
So let’s delve into the basics!
I remember the first time I went to a coffee shop to order coffee. I looked at the menu, and there were so many options with different price ranges that I became confused. And because the barista was waiting for me to place an order, so I just went for the fanciest name on the boar. That’s the story of a lot of people too. Sometimes, it gets confusing you know, when you enter into a coffee shop and there are so many options with names you don’t even know their meaning. It can become overwhelming. You ask yourself questions like: what do I order? Does the expensive coffee mean better coffee? Do I go for the cheaper one? How do I know the one that has more caffeine? Does more or less caffeine even matter? Do I get the light or the dark one? Which one has the better flavour and taste? And so in order not to look stupid, we just opt for anyone, not knowing if we’re going to like it, or not.
A good knowledge of the basics will help you know what you may like better as there are many components that influence the taste of a coffee.
This is the very basic. Many people do not know that coffee is actually made from a cherry. Personally, I didn’t know that too. It doesn’t grow on the plant in bean form. They are seeds of a cherry, and the type of coffee beans affects the taste too. There many types of coffee beans, but there are basically two that matter:
- Arabica: Arabica beans has a sweeter, fruity taste with hints of chocolate, nuts and berries. It has a high acidity resulting to a softer taste with tones of sugar. It’s gotten from Coffea arabica or simply Arabian coffee – a species of coffea believed to be the first ones to be cultivated. It originated from the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, before making its ways to Arabia where coffee as drink was born, and so was the name ‘arabica’. About 60% of global production of coffee is from this plant. Another thing to point out is that, Arabica is more difficult to grow and are more vulnerable to pests and weather conditions. This makes Arabica pricier than any other coffee.
- Robusta: Robusta beans however has a harsher, bitter, stronger taste with more caffeine and less sugar, actually twice as much caffeine as Arabica, and a ‘peanutty’ aftertaste. If you are into espressos (an Italian brew which we’ll talk about later) then, high quality Robusta coffee is sometimes preferred because of its depth of flavor. It originated in central and western sub-Saharan Africa, and makes up about 40% of global coffee production. It’s largely grown in the Eastern Hemisphere (mainly Africa and Indonesia), with the largest producer as Vietnam. They are easier to grow and yield faster. Most instant and cheap ground coffees are Robusta.
If you’re looking for something sweet, the Arabica is the way to go. If you’re looking for something strong, then Robusta it is. If you want something in-between, some coffee bags come with a mix of the two in various percentages (60,40; 50,50; etc.). It all boils down to personal taste.
The country it’s grown in:
It can be hard to imagine that the taste of coffee is also affected by the land it grows on, and the environmental conditions, but it’s true. I’ll use two countries to illustrate.
- Indonesia: Indonesia has low altitude, and this means more oxygen for the plants to grow on. This leads to more yield, and more turn overs. This could be the reason why companies such as Starbucks and Lipton grow their coffee and tea there respectively, due to their high demand.
- Ethiopia: This is a mountainous region, and because of their high altitude, there’s lower oxygen for the coffee trees. The trees are thereby forced to make energy a different route (via anaerobic respiration), and they do this by making lactate, which when broken down produces lactic acid. Lactic acid then impacts wonderful taste to the coffee. Coffee from Ethiopia is sweeter and has a more fruity taste.
Often the way the cherry is processed to reveal the seed determines how the coffee will taste. Coffee producers want to produce the best tasting coffee, which of course becomes the more profitable one, so they take great care in deciding the processing method to use. There are three main methods and all have different effects on the taste of the coffee.
- The washed processing: Most specialty coffee is made from washed processed coffee. This is because the focus is mainly on the seed and not what goes on outside it. So the outside is simply washed off to reveal the seed. Many believe that this method highlights the true character of a bean like no other process does.
- Natural/dry processing: If you’re looking for a fruity cup of coffee – something that’s sweet, not too strong, light in the mouth, then natural processed coffee is the way to go. Why? This is because the coffee cherry around the bean is allowed to dry with the bean thereby making it more injecting it with more flavor. This process is very common in Ethiopia coffee.
- Honey processing: Despite the name, this has nothing to do with honey, but when done right, it could taste as though someone put honey and brown sugar into your coffee. This processes is somewhere in-between washed and natural processing. It’s fruity, impacting some creaminess like the ones in natural processed coffees but doesn’t feel as exaggerated as the natural processing. This is very common in Costa Rica.
Have you ever seen a coffee bag, and it says, ‘light coffee’ or ‘dark coffee’. It’s simply a scale to show how long the beans were roasted in the oven (or how long the malliard reaction took place, for the nerds out there), and doesn’t necessary mean that light coffee has less caffeine while the dark coffee has more.
- Light Roast: This simply means the beans have been roasted or cooked less. If you’re looking to taste more of the original bean of the coffee, then go for the light one. It typically packs a punch and possesses a powerful flavor.
- Medium Roast: Somewhere in-between.
- Dark Roast: This means the beans were roasted more. It doesn’t necessarily impact the amount of caffeine in it. Here, the malliard reaction goes on longer, thereby injecting savory flavors. These ones are caramelized and chocolatey, the downside being that it does take away from the original taste of the beans.
Brewing Your Coffee!
Armed with all these information, let’s say you gone to the grocery store, and you because you want a sweet cup of coffee, you go for an Arabica coffee that’s naturally processed from Ethiopia with a medium roast. And now, you’re back home and it’s time to brew your coffee. Well, we’ve got you covered.
There are many ways to brew a coffee, however two are primary.
- The French Press: This is one of the well-known methods of brewing coffee, and it’s very simple. The French press works by total immersion. You do this by allowing the coffee and the water to sit with each other for a long amount of time (about 5 mins). This allows everything that is soluble in the coffee to dissolve well with the water. This will give you an oily cup of coffee with really nice texture.
- The Chemex, or pour-over cup of coffee: This completely different from the French press because it doesn’t involve total immersion, as the water and coffee only sit with each other for a few seconds. As soon as the water gets in contact with the ground coffee, it filters straight into the glass below, meaning that only the most readily soluble parts of the coffee are going to be dissolved into the water. Although you lose the texture and oil of the French press, however, you get an extremely clean and clear coffee.
These two represent two extreme points in coffee brewing, however, there are many more methods such as the clever dripper, aeropress, the bailetti moka pot, espresso machine, Keurig, etc. it all depends on what kind and texture of brew you want to make.
Time to order:
Now, you have more information that the average coffee consumer, and let’s say you’re at the coffee shop, and it’s time to place an order. Remember the story of the first time I visited a coffee shop and didn’t know what to order. Imagine you’re the one, and now it’s show time.
Well, coffee shops have over-complicated their menu, but the backbone of coffee drinks is just expresso and steamed milk. Everything else, whether it’s latte, cappuccino, etc., is simply a derivative of them.
- Black: As simple as it sounds. Ground coffee steeped in hot water.
- The Latte: Probably the most popular coffee drink. It comprises of a shot of espresso (2-4 ounces), and the rest is steamed milk and a touch of foam. If you like, it can be ordered with a shot of flavors like vanilla. It is the least intense drink.
- Cappuccino: This is simply a latte but with less milk and more foam. It’s like the mid-point coffee. Cappuccino has the illusion that its stronger than the latte even though the same amount of espresso is used. The reason is because there is less milk, so the coffee to milk ratio is much stronger, making it less diluted. It has that really thick texture on top because of the foam.
- Expresso: Usually used as the foundation of other drinks, but it can also be served solo. An expresso shot can be made with an expresso machine. A double shot of espresso is called a Dopio.
- Americano: It’s an expresso shot diluted in hot water. It has a similar flavor to black coffee.
- Mocha: Perfect for chocolate lovers. It’s a chocolate espresso with steamed milk and foam.
- Other drinks such as Affogato, Ristretto, Macchiato, Lungo, Galao, Cortado, Red Eye, Café au Lait, etc., mostly expresso and steamed milk.
- Then there’s the iced coffee; always refreshing. Some iced coffee drinks included Iced Espresso, Cold Brew (coffee beans steeped for between 6-36 hours), Frapucchino (iced coffee topped with whipped cream), Nitro (cold brew with nitrogen bubbles added), etc. Iced coffee in its simplest form is simple coffee with ice.
Now that you know your coffee, congratulations!
Is coffee really an energy drink?
So you’ve taken your coffee after ordering from a long menu filled with confusing names, and now you have this extra alertness, and you’re wondering, perhaps this is an energy drink. Well, coffee is a lot of things, but not exactly an energy drink. Yes, coffee doesn’t produce energy, what it does is that it prevents us from getting tired. It does this by tricking the body into thinking that its molecule called adenosine (because their chemical structure looks similar) which is responsible for the set of chemical reactions that makes us go to sleep. So the caffeine in coffee can bind to that receptor that adenosine is supposed to bind to, but instead of inhibiting adrenaline, it allows to body to keep making those as though adenosine was never released. Voila! Now you’re no longer tired!
The most expensive coffee in the world, and it’s cat poop.
It will be nice to talk a little about the coffee that is made from cat poop. Yes, you had that right. It’s called Kopi Luwak from the Sumatra region of Indonesia. So the Asian palm civet, which is a nocturnal cat that has its diet consisting primarily of fruits including coffee cherries, eats these cherries and after the cherries are fermented as they pass through the digestive system of the cat, they’re defecated, and then collected. I’m not sure who, but someone discovered that these coffee beans when cleaned and roasted, makes a better tasting coffee. This taste could be for a lot of reasons, ranging from the selection of the cherries eaten by the cats (the select the best and sweetest ones), to the enzymes that act on them while in the digestive system of the cats. However, the coffee is said to be less bitter and has a more fruity taste than the normal coffee.
The question shouldn’t be why coffee, the question should be, why not.