[An article I wrote on Dec. 22, 2009]
If one looks up volumes written on the subject of coffee, most likely they will take the form of table books or cookbooks with very little instruction, aside from a few attractive pictures of the drink, and perhaps some rudimentary tours of its various flavors, coupled with only a very few frustrating teasers of tips on how to make it. It is difficult to find any detailed exploration of coffee. In addition, aside from books totally centered on the subject, even the best breakfast books contain no explanation of the flavors of various types of coffee, nor do they explain the exact difference between espresso and cappuccino, brewed coffee or French press, or what are the costs and benefits of a Turkish grind.
This is very odd, seeing as how not only has coffee been one of the foundations of global civilization and trade as we know it, but also given the fact that the method of making coffee is the center of many disputes.
In Europe and America it has only a few hundred years of history, contrasted with hundreds of thousands in Africa, and yet as a worldwide commodity coffee is on the level of cereal grains and crude oil. Most of the modern workforce cannot start the day unless they have a cup of coffee. Indonesian students rise in the wee hours to have breakfast consisting of boiled bananas and coffee even from the age of eight. The coffee industry currently employs millions. All this, and yet finding information about it is still a matter of trial and error. When looking through my head for the recipe for my perfect cup of coffee, I find many points which I have had to acquire myself over years of consumption.
First of all, one should never buy pre-ground coffee unless desperate. Buy bags that contain whole beans, since once ground the flavor of coffee begins to dissipate almost immediately. If you’re one of those people lucky or rich enough to have your own grinder, then don’t grind more coffee than you need immediately. If you are like me and prefer more economical methods, have the store grind it for you and store it in Tupperware or some sort of airtight container. Never store in the refrigerator, for I have found that actually saps the flavor quicker, even if inside a container. When buying, never buy coffee beans that appear very oily or have an unpleasant aroma—that means they have been on the shelf for far too long. Some of the more corrupt, Machiavellian or otherwise hassled coffee house employees will still try to sell you these, but I have once or twice had employees refuse on principle and tell me the truth—that the beans were more for display and were several months old.
One should buy African or Latin American coffee beans. Obviously there are different kinds of coffee. Here in America the coffee is so weak one could look down through a full cup and read Ezra Pound’s poetry at the bottom. Meanwhile a cup of European coffee would have your average American dancing on the ceiling. From what I’ve tasted the ones grown in Africa and Latin America, and not say, Southeast Asia, are the strongest and possess the freshest taste. Coffees from Kuna or Hawaii are also very exotic-tasting. The biggest exporters of coffee worldwide are Latin American countries such as Brazil and Columbia, followed closely by Vietnam, whose coffee is simply infamous for being so foul that is has to be drunk with condensed milk. Any coffee has merit to it—Southeast Asian and Vietnamese coffee is economical and can be strong, but there is not much good flavor to it. Most coffee served here comes from Brazil, but I have gone out of my way to buy African coffees, which are usually the most intense.
As a general rule of principle, coffee should not be made in huge quantities, since that makes it harder to measure how many spoonfuls of grounds to put in the filter. This is not an absolute rule however, since I myself posses a 12-cup brewer. Coffee should be made in a glass coffeepot always. Coffee made in one of those heat-insulated tanks is always the most flat and tasteless stuff, while instant pre-ground coffee like that distributed to the workplace tastes of preservatives and cheap artificial flavors. Mound the coffee grounds gently and evenly in the filter basket, leaving no paper on the bottom exposed. Do not compact the coffee or press it down—you want the maximum exposure of water to the surface area of the grounds.
The pot and the cup should be very clean beforehand. I know there are some coffee drinkers who prefer to never wash their favorite cup or their pot, thinking that it somehow makes the coffee taste better. The problem is that all coffees are not the same, and built-up oils will definitely affect the flavor you taste if you decide to try a new species. Believe me, three-week-old traces of dried, stale coffee are not the flavors you want mixing with your freshly-bought Kenyan.
Of course the coffee should be strong and not weak. Why drink coffee if you’re not going to drink it? One should always take the cup to the coffee pot and not the other way around. The coffee should be freshly hot at the moment of being poured into the cup, and one should keep the coffee cooking until the moment it is poured. That said; do not let the coffee stay on the eye longer than is necessary to keep it hot, as leaving a pot on for several hours will noticeably rob it of its flavor.
Drink out of a mug or tall cup, not the flat, wide-mouthed type, since the mug holds more and the wide, stylish cups make the coffee go cold before finishing half of it. Pour the coffee into the cup first, before any sugar, milk or any other additives. It would be better also, unless you are desperately ravenous for a taste of coffee right this moment and cannot wait to cool it with milk, to blow on it and take a sip of black coffee before any additives in order to get the full, raw taste. Some people prefer to stylishly put sugar or milk in first, which hardly makes sense, since until you’ve poured the coffee you can’t know what amount of each to put in. In addition, there seem to be a great deal of people who prefer to dump milk or cream in their coffee before any sugar. The reason for this escapes me, since milk cools down the coffee and makes any sugar added afterwards that much harder to dissolve. Better to add any sugar first, while the coffee is still black and hot, so that it can dissolve quicker, and finish off with milk or creamer and a thorough stirring.
Health effects must be addressed here, since most of the population, while remaining somehow firmly convinced that tea of all sorts is simply wonderful for you, have no such conviction when it comes to the verdict of coffee. Let me stress that time and time again it has been found that coffee, caffeinated or not, has no link to heart disease, stroke or hypertension, even with those drinking more than four to six cups a day. No link has been found between it and high blood pressure, nor with high cholesterol levels. Coffee does not make you gain weight unless taken with a huge amount of sugar (which obviously can be said for any sort of food whatsoever) nor does it help you lose weight. No link with cancer has been found at any site on the human body either, except to lower the risk of colon cancer, for obvious reasons.
It is worth paying attention to such details as the grind of one’s coffee beans, so one can make sure to squeeze out the right number of strong cups that the purchased amount ought to represent. The typical drip grind is the very coarse grind you will find in most instant and pre-ground coffees. This makes the coffee about the size of small pebbles, and makes for a weaker brew. The finest grind of all, even finer than espresso and only available upon special request at coffee houses, is the Turkish grind. It grinds the coffee down so fine as to look like black powder, and render it so light that a sneeze in the wrong direction could be disastrous.
Different methods of brewing need different grinds, but there is no absolute rule of course. It also depends on how strong you want your coffee to be. A finer grind will expose more surface area to the hot water and give much stronger flavor, but oversaturation and bitterness can result. Coffee made for a regular drip brewer, unless one is a seasoned vet, should be about the roughness of table sugar. Espresso requires an extremely fine grind, only one notch in coarseness above the Turkish.
The “French press” is a glass pot with a lever that cooks coffee out of beans the same way tea is steeped out of tea leaves. The French press has no strainer or filters to separate the grounds from the water, only a lever that pushes the grounds to the bottom. This lets it infuse with the water properly. You will want to grind your coffee very course for this method. If you grind too fine, not only will you have unreasonably strong coffee, it will also be impossible to push the lever down and press the grounds to the bottom if the grind is too fine and you’ll end up drinking powdered grounds.
A French press is a must for someone who likes their coffee very strong, but it must be mentioned that it would be easy to abuse this method. A few cups of French press coffee will send the average drinker to a wide-eyed, hand-shaking state of caffeine high. The taste is simply exquisite however, since the French press does not filter out the oils and fats of coffee beans, while your paper filters and drip-brewers absorb them. Hence the oil spots on the top and the deeper, richer flavor. A French press should be enjoyed in moderation for all except those who wish to explore a yet-unforeseen level of horrendous caffeine addiction. That said, a French press is a well-kept secret that can be requested at almost all coffee houses, and is usually very cheap, though they never seem to put it on the menu.
A lot of these tips are controversial among coffee fanatics, including the question of whether sugar should be added to coffee at all, since coffee is meant to be bitter, but these disputes only highlight how commonplace and passion-inducing the whole art and practice of coffee-drinking has become.