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:
Each style requires its own paraphernalia, so beware.
- Italian (espresso)
- Italian (boiling)
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.
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
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.
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
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.