The Ultimate Coffee Guide, Coffee Basics, and More!
If you have a passion for coffee, you’re not alone. According to the National Coffee Association, 7 in 10 Americans drink coffee every week, and 60% drink coffee every day. As the popularity of coffee grows, more and more people are devoting themselves to learning coffee basics to craft the perfect coffee-drinking environment at home, investing in high-end single-cup coffee machines, and even designating elegant and functional home coffee stations. A home coffee machine has also recently become one of the top wedding gifts. In this coffee guide, you’ll learn the coffee basics, including the history of coffee, how coffee is grown, how to describe coffee, tips for the perfect brew, and more.
Television Host David Letterman summed up how many people feel about coffee when he said, “If it wasn’t for coffee, I’d have no identifiable personality whatsoever.” Whether you consider yourself a coffee connoisseur, a casual coffee drinker, or even an entrepreneur in the rapidly-growing coffee industry, this article is your ultimate coffee guide. [Read the companion blog post – 5 Coffee Bar Ideas for a Healthy Morning Routine]
Coffee Basics #1: What Is Coffee?
Coffee is the third-most consumed beverage in the world. Only water and tea are more popular. However, even the most devoted coffee drinkers may not know coffee basics. The history and science of coffee are fascinating and varied.
Coffee can be prepared in many different ways. Those methods include espresso, French press, pourover, drip, cappuccino, and lattes. (Want to create beautiful latte art at home? Stay tuned for a step-by-step guide!)
All coffee is made up of berries harvested from species of Coffea plants. There are more than 125 species of flowering plants in the genus Coffea, which is primarily native to tropical Africa. The coffee tree is covered in green, waxy leaves. The berries grow on its branches. Among the Coffea species, there are four main types of coffee beans: Arabica (Coffee arabica), Robusta (Coffee canephora), Liberica (Coffee liberica), and Excelsa (Coffee liberica var. dewevrei). Arabica and Robusta are the most popular worldwide. Arabica coffee makes up 60% of brews in the world, but they’re the priciest and hardest to grow. [Read: The 5 Best Nespresso Coffee Machines to Enhance your Home Coffee Bar]
To make roasted coffee, the seeds of the coffee fruit are first separated. Then the seeds are processed, dried, and milled. This results in “green” coffee. Roasting that green coffee transforms it into the brown beans that you find in coffee shops and the grocery store. The beans are then ground into fine particles and steeped in hot water. The final product is a robust cup of coffee.
Coffee Basics #2: The History Of Coffee
When coffee was discovered is not entirely clear. However, there is evidence that it was grown as early as the 15th century. Coffee has been enjoyed by civilizations for centuries.
There are plenty of tales of how the effects of coffee became known. One legend tells of a goat herder named Kaldi, who noticed that when his goats ate the fruit of a Coffea tree on his farm, they were full of energy and would not sleep at night. Kaldi then began making tea with the berries and drank it late at night to finish his evening prayers.
The cultivation and trade of coffee originated in the Arabian peninsula. Coffee was enjoyed both in the home and in “shops.” Later, by the 17th century, Europeans discovered coffee, and it quickly became the most popular morning beverage. Not long after, coffee gained popularity in the Americas. Today, after crude oil, coffee is the most sought-after commodity in the world.
Recent research has shown that, in addition to helping with wakefulness and productivity, coffee is proven to improve health and overall well-being.
Coffee Basics #3: Growing Coffee
As previously mentioned in this coffee guide, coffee beans are the seeds that grow inside the fruit of a coffee tree. In most cases, there are two beans inside these coffee cherries. However, a mutation in the growing process may produce what is called a peaberry, which means that there is only one bean. The coffee made from peaberry seeds is sweeter and denser than other kinds. It’s also best grown in warm, humid climates above 6,000 feet. In fact, the Kona Peaberry is produced and roasted in Hawaii and is among the most sought-after coffee beans. Hawaii’s climate is great for coffees like Kona Peaberry, accounting for about half of the coffee consumed here.
Cherry coffee beans are usually picked by hand by coffee tree growers, though coffee can be harvested by hand or machine. Strip picking removes all of the coffee beans from the tree at once, both ripe and unripe. After about nine months, the beans are ripe and ready for harvesting by selective picking. Trees also don’t mature simultaneously, so they can be gathered up to five times a year. An average tree produces one to one and a half pounds of coffee per year.
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Arabica vs. Robusta
Arabica and Robusta are the two most popular types of coffee.
The best Arabica coffee comes from high altitudes (4,000-6,000 feet above sea level), carefully cultivated soil, and a cool climate. Arabica trees yield roughly half as many beans with half the caffeine as Robusta trees. This is because the caffeine in coffee works as a natural pesticide. Arabica plants usually grow at higher altitudes with fewer pests, so they need less caffeine than Robusta plants. In addition to preventing weed growth, caffeine also attracts bees to pollinate. Arabicas are more expensive because they’re harder to grow and in high demand.
The second-most popular type of coffee, Robusta, is usually grown commercially on a large scale on plantations. Robusta is more affordable to grow and is used for most instant coffee. The plant that houses Robusta beans is significantly larger than that of Arabica. Generally, Robusta has a more bitter taste and is higher in caffeine than Arabica due to the greater need of the plant to ward off pests.
Coffee Basics #4: Processing Raw Coffee Beans
The method of processing a coffee dramatically affects how it tastes. Coffee cherries can be washed, semi-washed, or unwashed. A mechanical washing procedure removes the cherry pulp from the cherries. Decaffeinated beans are washed and rinsed repeatedly with a chemical solvent. This removes the caffeine. Beans with the majority of the caffeine removed appear shinier compared to regularly cleaned beans.
The cherry skins are removed for the semi-washed process. Each batch of beans is rotated and monitored regularly. This ensures it dries completely. Hulling machines remove the parchment covering the beans. This method enhances fruit flavors, resulting in a creamier mouthfeel, with the body of the coffee smooth and dense on the tongue.
Coffee beans are often sun-dried. Natural sun-drying means that the beans are left whole and laid out in the sun. This process takes between two and six weeks. The beans are raked and turned regularly. This helps them to dry evenly. The beans are hulled after they are dry. This removes the pulp and parchment. This is the traditional form of drying coffee beans and produces sweet and fruity profiles and a full-bodied coffee. [Read Air Fryer for Beginners (Ultimate Guide + 21 Air Fryer Appliance Tips]
Coffee Basics #5: The Meaning of Coffee Names
What do coffee names mean?
Many specialty coffees are labeled according to the region they are grown. After the country (or region) name, you’ll find a more specific region name (e.g., Costa Rican Tarrazu, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe), port name (e.g., Brazilian Santos), or coffee grade (e.g., Kenya). Knowing the country or region the coffee is from is essential for flavor profiles, ethical sourcing, and the type of coffee. Coffee labels can include the grade of coffee, a specific region, or other information.
Espresso is a shot of finely-ground coffee brewed under tremendous pressure in its simplest form. In terms of caffeine and flavor, espresso packs a powerful punch.
Single-origin coffees, also known as varietals, are straight coffees from a specific region. The word “varietal” often refers to the coffee flowers and fruits of the Arabica plant but is also used interchangeably with single-origin coffees. Estate coffees, grown on a single farm, are specific single-origin coffees and featured on the labeling for the particular region or farm. Coffee farmers make up the majority of single-origin coffee producers and usually provide the contact point for the exportation of the coffee to ensure the coffee stays single-origin.
Coffee Certifications & Labels
Understanding coffee certifications and labels are essential quality. They also indicate ethical standards regarding the environmental impact, worker welfare, and overall community advancement. Knowing which certifications and labels to look for when purchasing coffee makes selecting coffee easier to ease your mind that the quality is excellent and the source is ethically sound. A coffee guide on certifications covers four important labels: organic, Fair Trade, shade-grown, and Swiss Water decaffeination.
Organic certification ensures careful inspection of pest and weed management, quality of soil used, plants that are non-GMO, and that the process is environmentally beneficial for biodiversity and low carbon emissions.
More and more people use single-cup machines to brew coffee and espresso at home. There has been a rising demand for organic coffee pods with that trend.
Nespresso, for example, has a variety of top-quality machines that you can purchase to make coffee at home. They have created the AAA sustainable quality program, meaning that there are standards for quality, productivity, and social/environmental sustainability. This program ensures quality coffee and support for farmers and advances technology and practices for environmental sustainability.
This increasing attention to the process of producing commercial coffee is encouraging. As coffee continues to gain popularity, the impact of adhering to sustainable and ethical standards grows daily.
Fair Trade certification indicates that the coffee has met specific benchmarks throughout the supply chain to meet sustainability and labor standards. Purchasing Fair Trade coffee is more beneficial to farmers and workers in developing countries than choosing commercial coffee. The Fair Trade certification can positively affect poverty rates and child labor, maintains high working standards, and helps to protect the environment.
Coffee grown in cooler climates is called shade-grown. It also means no herbicides or pesticides were used. Shade-grown coffee is excellent for biodiversity, is bird-friendly, and works with the natural ecosystem. However, the certification for shade-grown coffee is not highly regulated. Therefore, you should still check for Fair Trade and organic labels.
Swiss Water Decaffeination
Unfortunately, the standard coffee decaffeination process uses a chemical solvent that is potentially toxic. The Swiss Water decaffeination process uses clean water only to produce decaf coffee that is 99.9% caffeine-free. This is the ideal method to look for if you want to avoid caffeine and avoid unhealthy and harmful coffee.
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Coffee Basics #6: Choosing A Coffee
As previously mentioned in this coffee guide, there are many factors to consider in terms of quality, flavor, and desired results when choosing a coffee. Reading this coffee guide on those factors will help you to pick the best brew. Different coffee origins result in other flavor profiles and feel, while various types of roasting also affect the qualities of coffee. The elements that you can think about are the acidity of the coffee, the body, and the level of roasting.
The roasting process can also determine the caffeine level, and lighter roasts hold onto more caffeine in the roasting process. They have a smoother flavor. Darker roasts often contain less caffeine but have a more robust, bittersweet flavor profile. The type of coffee you choose can be based on preference, preparation method, and even food pairing. Coffee basics to consider when selecting a coffee include flavor profile, acidity level, and body.
Flavor Profile By Origin
Earlier in this coffee guide, we covered the importance of the coffee’s origin and how it affects flavor profile. Coffee originating in Central and South America, such as Brazil or Honduras, has a light to medium body and is higher in acidity. Central American coffees are bright and fruity with described notes of citrus fruits. In contrast, coffee from South America is generally sweeter, usually described as having notes of chocolate and nuts (ex. Colombian coffee). These coffees are more balanced in the flavor profile.
Coffee originating in Africa has a heavier body, ranging from medium to full-bodied, with an acidity comparable to wine. African-origin coffees are complex in flavor. Some have notes of dried fruits while others have floral and bright citrus notes.
On the other hand, the Indonesian and Pacific. region coffees have a full-bodied flavor. They also have low acidity. Tasters report these as earthy, with notes of leather and wood. The low acidity provides a smooth coffee with savory notes, from tomato to green bell pepper to other nuts and dark chocolate notes. Sumatran coffee, described as zesty, is one of the most popular coffees in this region.
The acidity level is what gives coffee its unique flavor and sharpness. The most critical part of properly roasting quality coffee is balancing the acidity to create complex flavors. Acidity levels have a wide range, and the higher the acidity of the coffee, the sharper the flavor. Terms often used to describe coffees with high acidity are bright, citrusy, tart, and crisp.
The body is the perceived viscosity of the coffee weight on the tongue, also known as the mouthfeel. The feel of the body can be smooth, light, heavy, or creamy. Viscosity refers to the thickness of the coffee. Heavy-bodied coffees are rich and full, while light-bodied coffees are smooth and thin. Full-bodied coffees are more sought-after than light-bodied coffees in most parts of the world.
Coffee Basics #7: Grading Coffee
Knowing the coffee basics behind grading is an important way to determine the quality of the coffee. The grade provides information about the background on the processes used to create the coffee and the expectations around consuming it.
The measures for grading include bean size, bean color, and defects. All of those affect the roasting process and the quality. The grading process takes a sample batch of green coffee beans and evaluates them. This batch goes through a screening process. This decides the best grade.
The coffee industry has few regulations for selling coffee, so it is essential to know the grade of the coffee you’re purchasing. Purchasing specialty-grade coffee ensures the roaster and buyer that the coffee is high-quality and reputable. This is one of the most critical coffee guide basics to keep in mind.
For roasters, knowing the size of the beans helps determine which coffee to use when creating blends and the outcome of roasting. Coffee blends need consistency in size for roasting. A variety of sizes in coffee beans can negatively affect the grinding process as well, leaving the grind inconsistent and the prepared coffee unsatisfactory. Samples determine the size of a batch. Grade AA coffee is a blend of coffee beans ranging in screen size from 18.5 to 20. These beans are larger than usual. Grade AB coffee is a mix of larger and smaller beans, with a screen size range of 15-18.
The color of “green” coffee, which is not necessarily green in a color coffee guide, often determines the washing and drying process of the coffee. Honey-processed beans, also known as foxy beans, have a red and yellowish hue. The color also identifies any defects in the coffee, disqualifying the coffee as specialty grade. Color can also determine the roast of coffee. Lighter beans need less roasting.
Primary & Secondary Defects
Primary defects are imperfections of the beans that automatically disqualify them for a specialty grade. Beans that are black in color are rotten and can contain fungus, which is an immediate disqualifier, and yellowish-purple beans indicate souring. A large amount of insect bites or damage is also a primary defect. Any foreign matter such as sticks, many shells, or other items left through processing can harm the roaster and consumer, automatically disqualifying the beans for grading.
Secondary defects lower the grade of the coffee. That coffee is lower in quality. Secondary defects, however, are not a potential health risk. Immature beans, picked before they are ripe, are lighter in color. Malnourished beans have secondary defects. The beans won’t produce as much flavor and achieve a lovely brown hue when roasting, but they are not harmful. Beans with minor insect bites and few shells have a lower grade. However, they are not disqualified.
Coffee Basics #8: Your Coffee Guide For The Perfect Home Brew
More and more people are investing in home coffee machines, such as drip coffee makers, French presses, and single-serve specialty machines. As well as that, they are taking greater care to ensure that their coffee is of the highest quality. The following quick coffee guide for home brewing is a summary of the most important things to keep in mind when you’re your own barista!
- Purchase new coffee in whole beans and store the beans in an airtight container in a cool, dry location.
- To preserve freshness and longevity, grind coffee immediately before using.
- Using a burr grinder instead of a blade grinder will ensure far more uniform grinds for your coffee. Generally, when you grind too finely with too much water, the result is a bitter cup of coffee. Alternatively, a coarser grind yields watered-down coffee.
- Decide on your ideal brewing ratio. Depending on how strong you like your coffee, there are many brewing ratios. The most commonly used dose is 10 grams (approximately 2 level tablespoons) of coffee per 6 ounces of water.
- Pay attention to temperature. Brewing coffee with a water temperature range of 195 ℉-205 ℉ is best. If the water is too hot, the coffee will be bitter. If the water is too cool, it will lack good flavor.
- Use clean filtered or bottled water. Hard water contains a high concentration of minerals that can change the taste of your coffee.
- Serve coffee immediately after brewing, or keep it in a warm holding carafe.
- Follow brewing equipment guidelines for maintenance and cleaning.
- Finally, have fun brewing coffee at home! Design a dedicated coffee station where you store your coffee supplies, invite friends over for coffee, and really take your time to learn which type of coffee you like best. You deserve it!
There you go, Your ultimate coffee guide! Here’s a quick summary of what we covered:
- The drinking of coffee dates back centuries, and while much is still unknown about the origins of coffee, it indisputably has a long and rich history.
- Most coffee cherries have two beans inside. However, Peaberries have a single bean.
- The two most popular types of coffee grown are Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is a higher-grade coffee. Robusta is more widely available.
- The processing method significantly affects the taste of the coffee.
- Organic, Fair Trade, shade-grown, and Swiss Water decaffeination are important certifications to understand if you want to be mindful of the environmental impact of coffee, fair labor practices, and reduced chemical exposure.
There are also factors that affect the flavor of coffee: the origin, the acidity, and the body.
- Other than bean size, color, and flaws in the bean, grading also depends on bean shape, color, and flaws.
- New technology for home coffee machines and a wide variety of coffee available for purchase have allowed for more quality home brewing.
Although this article covers the basics of coffee, there is plenty of additional information on the history of coffee, the quality of coffee, and how to roast coffee. You may even be able to find a local group of coffee aficionados! Whatever your relationship with this delicious, energizing, and healthy beverage, you can be confident that you now have the ultimate coffee guide. Drink up!
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