It’s the start of many a person’s day; the end to an exquisite meal; an accompaniment to a rich dessert, a snifter of brandy, a fine chocolate: coffee.
Coffee is thought to have originally been discovered in Southern Africa, where, around 600 A.D., tribesmen of Ethiopia ground the berries and rolled them into balls with animal fat to eat as a pick-me-up on long journeys. According to the National Coffee Association, USA on-line, legend says coffee beans were actually discovered by goats. The herders noticed the increased energy in their flocks, and followed the goats to the source. They wanted some of that.
Eventually coffee seeds made it to Arabia, where the people began using coffee as a beverage, steeping the beans in water. Not surprisingly, coffee was thought of as a restorative as well as a delicious beverage. Although it had been fermented to produce a wine-like drink, this was the first coffee was used as the beverage many people enjoy today.
The coffee trade thrived in Arabia for several hundred years where those entrepreneurs kept the business to themselves. Eventually, according to The Coffee and Tea Cookbook, Revised Edition by Kristie and Thomas Katona, a Muslim pilgrim smuggled beans to India, where the first coffee plantation was started (Katona, 2004). From there, seafaring men introduced coffee beans to the West Indies; they migrated on to Central and South America, where many plantations were established. On the European front, Venetian tradesmen were probably responsible for introducing coffee to the rest of Europe (Katona, pg. 2).
Coffee in the U.S. became the beverage of choice, of its type, after the Boston Tea Party (December 17, 1773), when tea from England was boycotted. Beer was pretty popular too, as well as a plethora of loaded drinks.
Thousands of people like a coffee fix first thing in the morning. Some enjoy it with sugar and cream; some with flavorings created for just that: flavored coffee. Hazelnut, French Vanilla, and Irish Cream are a few of many flavors available. There are those who like only sugar, or only cream, or those of us who are purists and like their coffee “black,” meaning without embellishment.
Then there are those who hate the taste but want the caffeine… they are the sweetener-milk-flavoring-whipped cream types. They want their morning cup of coffee to taste like anything but coffee, so they mask the flavor with heavy embellishments.
At the end of a rich, satisfying meal, a cup of hot strong coffee — or espresso, poured over thin ribbons of lemon peel with a spoonful of raw sugar —is a nice finish. Served with a sweet, perhaps, such as raspberry-filled butter cookies, or a piece of fine chocolate.
A grown-up dessert of coffee with a scoop of coffee ice cream and a dash of crème de cacao keeps the kid in us satisfied in a whole new way. Thick, sweet, dark Turkish coffee can be enjoyed with a serving of nuts and dried fruits. Decaffeinated is a good choice for those who don’t sleep well at night when sipping too late in the day.
Choosing a coffee is a matter of taste. Choices are dark, medium, and light roasts, which is dependent on how long the beans have been roasted. A main component for a good cup of coffee is to make it as close to serving as possible. Freshly made is when the flavor is best, no matter what roast is used, or what is added to it.
Below are listed a few simple rules for great coffee:
- Start with clean equipment.
- Use good quality beans.
- The beans should be ground specifically for the coffee maker to be used. Freshly ground is ideal, but not always practical; newly ground is best if used within a week.
- Use fresh, clear water. Distilled is best—it doesn’t have to be anything fancy; run it through a pitcher-type water filter to remove the taste of chlorine and minerals that can affect the taste of brewed coffee.
- Use the right proportion of coffee to water.
- Serve coffee as soon as possible after making it.
To clean equipment, refer to the coffee maker’s instruction manual. It should tell the basics in how to wash (and dry) the maker, including which cleaners should and should not be used. There are cleansers specific to cleaning the inside of a coffee machine, using either the brew cycle, or on some models, the cleaning cycle. The cleaning cycle on my electric coffee maker takes longer than brewing; the solution sits awhile to remove mineral and residue build-up. I use one part white distilled vinegar to three parts water as the cleaning solution. After it’s done, I wait until the coffee maker is cooled off a bit, then run clear water through to get rid of any taste the vinegar might leave.
Good quality beans can be found at popular coffee houses, or in the supermarket. The brand one likes is subjective; the relative freshness and quality depends on sales turnover and the ability of the roaster to use the best beans with the best equipment and expertise to roast the beans. A smaller coffee brand may be limited; a mass-marketed general coffee company may use a combination of beans to give the best flavor for the best price. Go with what you like, keeping in mind that a small coffee company may need your help of testing its beans; but the coffee may sit on supermarket shelves longer.
The coarseness or fineness of the grind depends on which a specific coffee maker requires to extract the most out of the ground beans without becoming bitter, or too weak. Refer to your specific coffee maker’s guidelines, or inquire at the local coffee shop. If the incorrect grind is used, the result will either be watery coffee (too coarse, the water for the maker runs through too quickly) or bitter (too fine, the water takes too long to get through the coffee, resulting in undesirable bitterness from the oils).
Good clear water, with as few additives — natural minerals or otherwise — is essential for a great cup of coffee. Just think: coffee is mostly water. So the largest component is going to add unwanted flavor if it’s present. Coffee is a strong element; but its purity of flavor can be tainted by chlorine, minerals from hard water, fluoride, etc. A simple distiller, such as a pitcher with a filter, can make all the difference.
Just as the right grind for the right pot is important, the amount of water to coffee is important. Six ounces is the standard measurement of a cup, according to the National Coffee Association, USA, using 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground coffee per six ounces as a good guideline. If one likes it stronger, add more coffee grounds; weaker, use less. Espresso uses a much higher ratio of coffee grounds to water; the coffee is also ground finer because it is expressed at a faster rate and higher pressure than other coffee brews. This helps the water to pass through and extract as much as possible from the ground coffee in the short contact with the water, or steam. Espresso is concentrated; it is usually served in very small portions, 1 U.S. fluid ounce for a shot, according to SeattleCoffeeGear.com.
The most important way to enjoy a cup of coffee is to not delay serving it. After going through the trouble and steps to brew a perfect cup, enjoy it immediately. If that isn’t possible, the best alternative is to pour the freshly brewed coffee into a thermal jug or server made for that purpose. It won’t be nearly as good in even ten minutes; but it will be kept hot for a long time so the coffee doesn’t have to be reheated, or worse, sit on a burner. Both of these methods can give coffee an unpleasant, burnt taste because it can become overheated. Also, evaporation occurs in the process, intensifying the flavor — not in a good way.
There is always cold brew. Cold brew is made by pouring cold water over ground coffee and letting it steep for several hours. The result is a coffee concentrate that can be used as is, or with the addition of water and/or ice to create the strength you like. Cold brew is especially good for iced coffee. I suppose you can heat it to have a cup of hot coffee, reasoning that since it hasn’t been heated, it won’t taste burnt (keeping careful watch of course as it heats). I don’t know, I haven’t tried that yet.
I made what was called Japanese iced coffee this summer which is brewed by pouring hot water over the coffee grounds into a mug filled with ice. I experimented to get the right strength and came up with a really good cup of iced coffee without much effort. It’s worth checking out.
To recap: if you’re a coffee lover, use the best ingredients (as one should in making anything enjoyable), the right proportions, and drink it fresh. The results will be a great cup (or pot) of coffee every time!