Coffee Talk

Thank Goodness for coffee. The social aspect, the full-bodied comfort … how about the desperately needed caffeine? Since the ninth century when the coffea plant was initially discovered in Ethiopia, this beverage has been providing (wo)mankind with energy and social interaction.

But how much do you really know about the world’s third favorite beverage (behind water and tea)? Impress the cute barista at your local coffee bar by brushing up on some facts and terminology below. Also find some great home brew tips for the savvy gal on a savvy budget.

The Nuts and Beans

Coffee is harvested from the coffea plant, a native to subtropical regions such as Africa, Central America and Southern Asia. There are two species of coffea plant used for heavy commercial coffee production: the coffea aribica (Arabic) and the coffea canephora (Robusta). Coffea aribica is widely regarded to produce better tasting coffee, but coffea canephora is a more tolerant plant, with a much wider growing range. It will grow at low elevations, which makes it easier to farm and thus more commercially viable.

The coffea plant was initially discovered in the Ethiopian high country. As legend has it, a shepherd was tending his goats and noticed them feeling energetic after eating the leaves of a certain tree. The shepherd tried some of the leaves and fruit of the plant and realized it had the same effect of him. Thus coffee was born. It’s popularity spread quickly. From the Middle East it was brought to Venice via a trading route. It was introduced to Europe and then during the Revolutionary War when tea was hard to come by in the States its popularity spread over the Atlantic.

Cherished Cherries

In nature coffee does not at all resemble the beans we see in coffee houses and grocery stores. The coffee beans we see are actually seeds of the cherry fruit produced by the coffea tree. Coffea cherries turn a rich crimson color when ripe and ready to be picked. After they have been harvested they are brought to a processing facility where the outer skin of the fruit is stripped off. The beans are then fermented to ease the removal of the outer casing from the bean, and after this they are polished to remove the inner casing. What is left is a tough, green bean somewhere between a pea and a kidney bean in size and shape.

A Toast to the Roast

In their raw, green form coffee beans still have all the flavor locked inside. In order to bring it out, the beans must be roasted. The internal heat provided in this process aids reactions that change the chemical composition of coffee, giving it flavor and depth. There are several different ways to roast coffee. The lightest roast, called a cinnamon roast, is achieved by roasting the beans for only a very short amount of time. It is called a cinnamon roast because of the cinnamon color of the beans after roasting. The flavors in a cinnamon roast are not allowed to develop enough and taken alone this coffee can taste very bitter and acidic. Cinnamon roasts are sometimes used in coffee blends. The darkest roast available is the espresso roast. In espresso roasts the beans omit a lot of oil and turn a dark brown chocolate color.

The Grind is Fine

Once coffee beans have been roasted they are ready to grind and go! There are several different ways to grind coffee and each is specific to a preparation method. If you are using a commercial grinder it will usually have setting ranging from coarse to extra fine. A coarse grind is needed for French press coffee, while a medium to medium-fine grind works better for drip coffee machines. Fine and extra fine grinds are reserved for espresso and Turkish coffee.

Talk the Talk

Coffee is a multi-billion dollar industry with a specific terminology. Let’s review some common, American coffee house terms.

Americano — A drink prepared by pressing espresso and adding hot water.
Barista — An Italian term for the espresso master. In the United States it can be used to refer to pretty much anyone behind the espresso machine.
Breve — If someone requests a drink “breve” it simply means instead of milk they would like half and half or cream.
Cafe Latte — A beverage made by mixing espresso with hot milk. In the U.S. a typical ratio is two shots of espresso, 8 ounces of steamed milk and 2 ounces of foamed milk.
Cafe Macchiato — Contrary to common belief (caused mostly by the intense popularity of the Starbucks Caramel Macchiato, which is actually a latte) a macchiato is made when espresso is poured over foamed milk. Macchiato is Italian for “the markings,” and the title refers to the markings the espresso makes in the milk foam.
Cappuccino — Another beverage that combines espresso, steamed milk and foamed milk. In the mixture the ratio of foamed milk present in the beverage is higher. A standard American cappuccino is served with about half steamed milk and half foamed milk. However you can request a “dry cappuccino” which means more foam will be added, or a ” wet cappuccino” where less foam is used.
Crema — The golden foam found on top of a shot of espresso. A thick head of crema is the mark of an excellent pour of espresso. The foam is composed of the oils that form on the bean during the roasting process.
Drip Brew Coffee — This refers to coffee generated by placing coffee grinds in a filter and pouring boiling water over them. The water absorbs the flavor of the coffee and seeps through the filter due to the force of gravity while the coffee grinds remain in the filter, being too large to pass through.
Espresso — A very fine grind of coffee from very dark roasted beans. Traditionally espresso is prepared by forcing water through ground beans at a higher pressure than normal. The high pressure forces the water through fast, which means it picks up only the top notes and oils from this dark grind.
French Press Coffee — Another method for making coffee, where coffee grinds are placed in a plunger pot and boiling water is poured directly over the grinds. A plunging filter is then used to separate the grinds from the water. This results in a deeper flavor than drip coffee provides.

A Home Brew

Little short on cash? One of the easiest ways to save money is to skip your daily outing to the coffee shop and get your caffeine fix at home. Depending on what you drink this can save you $7 (for a daily bring-your-own-cup drip brew) to $25 (for a pre-work latte) a week. To make a good cup a coffee at home I recommend investing in a French press. They look elegant, don’t take up a lot of counter space and provide rich, deep brews. A good French press can be acquired for as little as $30. Once you have made this investment keep coarsely ground coffee on hand and whenever the mood strikes use about a forth of a cup coffee grinds for each cup of coffee you want to make.

Measure out your ground beans, pour very hot water over them in the plunger pot (French press) and wait for all the grinds to settle to the top. Give the grinds a quick stir and then fit the plunger on the top of the jug and press down. Let the coffee seep for five to six minutes.

For the coffee drinkers out there, there is nothing more satisfying than a good, freshly-brewed cup of java … enjoy!

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