A Quick Guide to Coffee

So you've reached a point in your life when you want to know more about coffee, eh? You've probably had some to drink and want to know what more there is to know. Or worse, you're one of those tea-only drinkers and want to know why there's so much of a fuss made about coffee. Well, you've come to the right place, kiddo.

What more is there to know about coffee?

Broadly, the things you will want to know about your coffee are as follows: If you know what you like in each of these categories, then you're all set. I'm assuming that you will want to make your own coffee. Nothing prevents you from procuring your cuppa from the nearest barista or fast-food joint, but where's the fun in that?


In case you weren't aware of the fact that coffee comes from beans, coffee comes from beans. Legend has it that an Ethiopian goat-herder found that his goats liked to chomp on the berries of a particular shrub. When he proceeded to chomp the aforementioned berries himself, he found he could stay awake far into the night. With the spare time on his hands, I'm sure he experimented some and found that if he roasted the beans inside the berries, then ground them up and added boiling water, he could charge an arm and a leg to future customers of fast-food joints. Thus was born coffee. Legend also has it that coffee was introduced to the Western world when the Austrian empire scored a rare victory over the Ottomans. The retreating Ottomans happened to leave a pouch of green beans in their haste to make way for the Hapsburgs. Perhaps the beans got roasted in some celebratory arson by the victors, perhaps they were roasted some other way, we will never know. However, the Austrians, ground the beans, added water and found they could parlay their celebrations well into the night. Having more of a sharing nature than the Ottomans, or perhaps forced into sharing because of subsequent wins and losses at conquests, the Austrians managed to introduce coffee to Europe.

Coffee beans are cultivated on virtually every continent. Beans from different regions tend to have different tastes and textures, unsurprisingly. Countries which are known to produce good coffee beans are: Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, India, Ceylon, Indonesia (Java, Sumatra), Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Hawaii and so on. Doubtless you have noticed that they are all tropical regions. The variations in the taste of each variety of coffee bean is a subjective matter. Often the differences are in the amount of acidity and latent tastes of berries and flowers.

When buying coffee, I recommend trying the coffee got from one bean. Like a wine varietal or a single-malt scotch, this coffee will have its own character. If you would rather go for a consistent taste as judged by other people, then buy a blended coffee. This coffee will be made by mixing the beans of several types of coffee. As you may expect, you will get a more consistent coffee, but with slightly less character.


The coffee bean must be roasted before it can be ground. Roasting, among other things, changes the colour of the bean from a pale green to some shade of brown. Roasting also releases the oils in the bean, which are responsible for the taste of coffee. The flavour of the coffee is best immediately after roasting; the flavour is lost progressively over time. Much of the flavour is lost when the coffee is ground and left for a while. That fragrant aroma in your kitchen cabinets is the aroma of the flavour leaving the coffee.

Roasting is a delicate process, the name notwithstanding. The coffee has to be roasted in such a way that the maximum flavour is released without burning the coffee. There are several styles of roasting, such as: Light, Viennese, French, Italian and Espresso. Typically, the darkness of the roast is the difference; in the list above, the roasts are progressively darker. Darker roast does not necessarily mean better coffee; it just means the roasting lasted longer, which increases the acidity of the coffee. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's not. As the name suggests, Espresso roasts are good for making espressos and cappucinos, but don't let that stop you from trying other roasts as well.


Finally, the time comes to grind the coffee and then consume it. When should you grind? Just before you're ready to drink it. Grind it earlier and you will lose a lot of flavour quickly. If you have the patience and the small amount of money it'll cost to buy a coffee grinder, I strongly recommend buying whole beans and grinding them yourself when you're ready. If you already got them ground (heck, even if they aren't ground, but have been around for a week or two), put the coffee in the fridge to slow down the loss of flavour. Make sure the coffee container is air-tight.

Should you buy pre-ground mass-production coffee? No. You don't know what beans are used; probably low-quality ones. They may well be blended as well. Also, they're ground already! They're losing flavour even as they lie on the shelves. What's that you say? Vacuum-sealed? That's no good, because the vacuum sealing process is too harsh for the beans to begin with. Oh, and don't even think about instant coffee. Who knows what that really is!

Okay, that diversion aside, how should you go about grinding your precious beans? You probably are not willing to invest in a huge machine that can grind in different styles. So, which grinder should you buy for the small amount of money you're willing to spend? There are really two types of grinders you can buy. In the first one, which I will call Wheel Grinder, you put the beans in the top and the grounds come out at the bottom. Typically, such grinders use two swiftly-rotating wheels to crush the beans. In the second type, which I will call a Blade Grinder, you put the beans in the top and the grounds stay at the top. Typically, such grinders use swiftly-rotating blades (much like a blender) to cut the beans. Now, needless to say, both have their pros and cons. The Wheel Grinder is gentler on the beans (if it makes sense to use that word when you're crushing them to powder), but does not give you good control over the granularity of the grounds. The Blade Grinder lets you grind as fine as you like, but can result in more unevenly-ground grounds, and is harsher on the coffee to boot. What do you do? If you happen to know that you like only American-style coffees which require coarser grounds, then buy a Wheel Grinder. If you like to make coffee in different styles which require different coarsenesses of grounds, buy a Blade Grinder.

A coarse ground results in bigger granules of coffee, which means less surface area for the water to touch, which means milder coffee. Finer grounds increase the surface area, thus allowing more flavour to come through. For strong coffees, such as espressos, decoctions or Turkish coffee, you want to grind very finely.


There are several methods for making coffee. Each produces a different style of coffee. My preference is for the methods that produce stronger coffee, but don't let me influence you. The styles I will explain are:
  1. American
  2. Italian (espresso)
  3. Indian
  4. Turkish
  5. Italian (boiling)
  6. French
Each style requires its own paraphernalia, so beware.


The American style of brewing coffee makes the weakest kind of coffee you can find. Sometimes, that's a good thing, as when you're trying to find some delicate flavours and aromas or you're trying to add coffee flavouring to some kinds of desserts. Usually, I find this coffee too weak to be truly enjoyable. However, if you want it, you want it, so forthwith... The first thing you need is a coffee maker, available at most grocery stores. The machine is essentially a water heater with elaborate plumbing to channel the heated water into a pouch of coffee. The water passes through the coffee grounds and collects, stained after its travel, into a pot. Pretty simple. Most coffee machines have an indicator to show you how much water to fill for how many cups (American-style, 12 oz cups) of coffee. If yours doesn't, fear not. Round yourself up 12 cups, fill them up with water and slowly upturn them into the flask for the coffee maker; that approach usually works to produce 12 cups of coffee. Okay, how can you improve on the brew? First, you grind the beans finer - the whole surface area thing. Next, you could use darker roasts. Keeping the pot on longer doesn't help at all because it's not like the water stays with the grounds longer. All you'll manage to do is burn the coffee, which will make it pretty disgusting. Aside from these, there's not much you can do to improve on an inherently weak process.

    Italian (espresso)

The Italian style of brewing coffee is also known as making espresso. Espresso is a strong, rich brew. Some people will drink espressos directly, while others will make lattes and cappucinos with milk and espresso. More on those shortly. The basic idea in brewing espresso is to force steam through firmly-packed, finely-ground, dark-roasted coffee. Each component in that sentence serves to make the end result stronger, darker and more flavourful. You will, of course, need a special machine - an espresso machine - to concoct this stuff. An espresso machine looks like a dangerous beast especially given its proclivity to compress and release steam at high pressures. However, with care and commonsense, you should be able to harness this beast to make you good coffee. A key component of the espresso machine is the flask which holds the water or steam. Typically, the flask is made of metal, and is subject to the usual problems with metal - reactions with chemicals in the water. You could use distilled or bottled water, but I'm too lazy for all that, so I use cold tap water. Once in a while, you have to clean the flask with a solution of one part vinegar and two parts water to remove the deposits. Just pretend you're making coffee with that solution except for actually drinking the results. Repeat the process two or three times, then do it with cold water and you'll have become an expert at making espresso. And oh, you'll have a deposit-free flask.

Okay, now how does one go about making something potable? First, you have to grind the coffee really finely - an espresso grind works best. Then, pack the coffee in the colander-like container that comes with the machine. Don't pack too hard or else the steam will never get through. Don't pack too loosely or you'll get dilute espresso. Pack, it just oh-so-right. My recommendation is to fill the colander loosely with the coffee and them tamp the coffee down to about half the volume. If you're making espresso alone, you should be able to make 3-4 shots in one of those small machines you can buy at a department store. If you're making cappucinos, the same machine will make only two drinks because your flask is not big enough to provide water for the espresso as well as the steaming process yet to be described. Once you tamp the coffee, lock the colander under the steam vents. Then, fill the flask to about two-thirds capacity with clean, cold water. Close the flask tightly - that's important for safety and good taste. Put the knob over to steam, turn off the steam vent (closing all escape paths for the steam, see?) and wait for a while. Eventually, the machine will start gurgling and hissing. If it explodes, you've gone too far. Crawl over to a phone, reach out with a bloodied hand and call emergency services. However, it doesn't have to go that far. Once the gurgling starts, roll the knob over to one of the espresso positions, usually, light, medium and dark. See what comes out. You should start seeing thick, sludge-like coffee. In fact, the coffee should be pretty foamy as well. If you don't see that, roll the knob back and let the gurgling continue for a few more seconds.

After the desired amount of espresso is collected, for lattes and cappucinos, pour some milk in the metal foaming jug. This jug is so necessary for making cappucinos that it's a shame it isn't sold with the espresso machine itself. If you haven't by this time, run out and buy one in time for your latte. The amount of milk you'll need will vary depending on how strong you like your coffee and how much you like foam. My rule of thumb is to fill it to one-third or one-quarter for two cups of coffee. Use full-fat or 2% milk. Fattier milk (cream, half-and-half) will make the foam fall under the weight of the fat. Lighter milk (1%, skim) will not have enough fat to sustain a foam. Making the milk foam is tricky. First the roll the knob back to the right position. Then, dip the nozzle of the foaming tube into the milk but not all the way in. Instead, you want the tip to be just below the surface level. Open the steam vent slowly at first and more as needed. The steam should escape with a hissing noise and start making very small bubbles, a.k.a. foam, in the milk. If it starts making big bubbles, the nozzle isn't in deep enough. If it makes no bubbles but just ripples the milk, it's in too deep. Turn the jug around a bit to get an even foam. As the milk foams, it'll rise, often right to the top of the jug. If it does, you've done well, especially because you remembered to keep pulling out the nozzle to keep it just below the surface of the milk-foam. Pour out your espresso, pour in the milk from the jug, top it off with foam and you're a maestro. For lattes, use more milk and less foam, for cappucinos, the coffee, milk and foam should be even.

One last thing before you kick back and enjoy a fine espresso - shut off the espresso machine! And wait for it to cool completely before unlocking the colander unless you like coffee-stained interior decoration. Let off the steam entirely from the tube before you do anything. I find the background hiss of a depressurising espresso machine the perfect accompaniment to a strong and well-made latte.


Indian coffee is a misnomer; most of India actually drinks pretty terrible coffee. Instant coffee is the norm, except in the south of India, where filter coffee rules. Filter coffee is what I mean by Indian coffee here. Never turn down an offer to drink some filter coffee in a South Indian restaurant, even if it happens to be a "cutting" - a shared cup - with a friend. Filter coffee is almost as strong as an Italian espresso drink, but made with far less threat to life and limb. To make filter coffee, you need, surprise, a filter. A filter is a two-storeyed vessel in which the top vessel has tiny holes drilled into its base. The method of operation is very simple actually. Fill the top storey with fine-ground coffee (not too fine-ground or you'll choke off the holes), add boiling water up to the rim and practise wearing a dhoti while the decoction collects in the bottom storey. When the decoction is ready, heat it slightly in a vessel, add almost as much milk and about 2 tsps. sugar per person. So far so good. If at this point you stop and serve the coffee, you'll have decent but not great coffee. In fact, you'll have matched the skills of most North Indians. However, what promotes the brew from North Indian swill to South Indian nectar is the aeration process. Mention aeration to the streetside coffee vendor in India and you'll get a blank stare. But be patient, and you'll see the same genius pour your coffee from a vessel to a tumbler and back again several times, each time increasing the distance and angle of trajectory of the coffee. This process actually aerates the coffee and brings out its flavour. It's an absolutely important step in the making of filter coffee and if you skip it, don't invite me. The end result should be a coffee with a head of big bubbles and a well of deep, satisfying taste.


Turkish coffee is also called Greek coffee, Lebanese coffee and perhaps other names as well. Suffice to say that it is approximately Mediterranean. Turkish coffee is like a really strong espresso, drunk with the grounds in it. What really happens is that the coffee is ground so finely that most filters are not up to the challenge of barring the way for the grounds. The fine grounds are heated along with water in a metal pot until the consistency of the beverage is that of dilute molasses. Beware, if you like sugar in your coffee, it's too late by now - you should have informed the server earlier. The superheated beverage is now poured out into aforementioned underwhelming filter to get a dark, dark liquid with some grounds in it. The uninitiated may chug and choke, but the connoisseur knows that leaving behind about a third of the contents of the cup means appreciating the coffee alone without champing on the grounds. A pod or two of cardamom brewed along with the coffee enhances the experience.

    Italian (boiling)

Big surprise, the Italians make coffee in two different ways. This method involves another kind of vessel. This vessel is two-storeyed, but unlike the Indian filter, the composition is reversed. Water is poured in the lower storey and fine-ground coffee in the top one. When the contraption is kept on a stove, water turns to steam, rises and condenses through the coffee for espresso. What you do with the espresso is up to you, but I recommend reading a few sections above for some hints.


The French use a special press for making their coffee, and I suspect they use the same one for steeping their tea as well. The idea here is to let the water sit with the grounds for a while, get acquainted and then get filtered out. I think the process makes for weak and bitter coffee.


For the most part, don't add anything to your coffee other than the tried-and-tested milk-and-sugar. Add even milk and sugar cautiously. Too much sugar defeats the flavour of the coffee and too much milk is just nasty. Substitute a little cream for a lot of milk only in the stronger coffees.

At this point, I should probably end this education, but I will admit to one small weakness in my coffee-drinking fanaticism - I happen to like adding a few things to my coffee.


Chicory is a bean used to bulk up coffee. It does modify the flavour of the coffee a bit, but if you're a middle-class South Indian or from New Orleans, you were probably weaned on coffee cut with chicory, so you get used to the taste.


Usually whiskey or brandy or Bailey's Irish Cream. Always to mild coffee such as some made in the American style. A spiked coffee is comfortable on an icy evening. I avoid any other alcohol in my coffee.


Sometimes, I'll have a little vanilla or hazelnut syrup in my coffee. Occasionally, I might go nuts and have orange, coconut or banana, but those are crazy, crazy days. Coffees with syrup are good for a change but beware that most syrups overwhelm the coffee. The well-meaning girl behind the counter who is generous with the syrups is doing you a disservice. I absolutely dislike it when the syrups grate against my throat. And as for the "specials" - the eggnog latte or the gingerbread latte - I could try them maybe once a year.


I am partial to a little chocolate in my coffee. It does change the flavour pretty sharply, but this is my enduring weakness. A Mocha - latte with a little chocolate - is one of my favourite drinks.


Nothing wrong with iced coffees. I dislike the American style of filling a glass with ice and dribbling some coffee into it. I prefer a glass half-full with ice and a good, strong latte with some syrup poured in. Perfect on a hot, summer afternoon!


Technically caffeine, is not an "additive" but a "subtractive"; it is removed from normal coffee. A popular misconception is that decaffeination reduces the flavour of the coffee - if it does, the reduction is so small as to be virtually indistinguishable. Perhaps explaining the process will help. Y'see, there's a process in our wide, diverse universe called superheating. It involves taking a liquid and heating it until it is ready to vapourise. At that point, instead of letting it turn to gas, we cruelly add pressure to it so that it is forced to stay a liquid (anyone remember Boyle's Law from school chemistry?). We continue heating the liquid some more and voila! superheated liquid. This process can be used on virtually any liquid - and there are boyishly-enthusiastic scientists who have tried. Not surprisingly, you can apply the same process on substances that are normally gases at room temperature. For example, if you take carbon dioxide at a low temperature (dry ice, really), pressurise it and heat it up to room temperature, you'll get liquid carbon dioxide instead of those dreamy cloud sequences. It turns out that superheated stuff has strange properties. Superheated carbon dioxide dissolves caffeine but otherwise leaves coffee alone. And since the process occurs at room temperature, you don't accidentally brew CO2-rich coffee.

So, what does all of this mean to you? It means that if you don't mind a small amount of chemical fingle-fangle, and you don't mind paying a little extra, and you absolutely must have a cuppa just before you plop into bed, get decaf coffee.


Another technical violation - you add coffee to a dessert, not the other way around. A strong batch of espresso is absolutely necessary for the Italian delight, Tiramisu. A well-made coffee-cake is all right too.


Anand Natrajan, nuts@anandnatrajan•com