The Perfect Brew for You: All About Coffee
By Peggy Kiefer
Is there anything more attention-getting in the morning than the aroma of freshly ground coffee brewing in the kitchen? Many Americans, who seem to enjoy coffee more than any other beverage, feel they can’t start the day without their cup of “Joe.” But I wonder how many of these avid coffee drinkers think of the long history of coffee and the many steps it takes to get this tantalizing drink into their cups.
Legend has it that we can thank a herder named Kaldi and his goats for our morning wake-me-up. The story goes that a lonely goat herder in the province of Kaffa in Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia) was looking for his wandering goats. It had been a long day and he was tired and wanted to get the goats back home and have supper with his wife. In the distance he heard the goats bleating and scampering about. When he followed the sounds he saw them happily munching on some unknown small reddish berries. They were more energetic than he had ever seen them, and he decided to try these strange berries himself.
When the herder tasted the red berries he found them not very flavorful, but tender and juicy. Inside the red shell were two small green seeds. They were tough, but he crushed them with his strong teeth. After a few seeds, he was feeling energetic and wanted to frolic with the goats.
Kaldi loaded his pouch with the berries and took them home after forcing the goats away from their new treats. His wife agreed with his enthusiasm about this wonderful discovery. He took the berries to a nearby monastery and as the legend goes, the monks became more energetic and diligent after enjoying the red fruit with green seeds. From the monks it is believed the demand for kaffa spread into the Old World. So we can thank some adventuresome goats, an appreciative herder and some monks for introducing us to what we now know as coffee.
Books have been written about the spread of coffee’s popularity. From its beginnings in the Arabian Peninsula, mainly around the city of Mocha, (note the name), Yemen, where it moved to the Old World, Europe and eventually the Americas. We could go on, but suffice it to say that from the 1400s through the 1800s, the love of coffee became firmly implanted as the drink of choice of millions.
How did coffee become established in the New World? It is reported that some seedlings came from Louis XIV’s “mother tree.” But it is also widely believed that 90 percent of the coffee trees in the Americas came from a single plant stolen in 1723 by a French naval officer.
In its early days, the common name for coffee was mocha, or Kaffa, from the place where the beans originated. Mocha is now, of course, associated with the combination of chocolate and coffee. We also sometimes call a cup of coffee a cup of “Joe.” This comes from a man named Joe Daniels, who was secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1921. He outlawed alcohol on ships when he took office and ordered that coffee, not grog (rum and water), be the beverage on all U.S. Navy ships. The coffee was called a “cup of Joe” by the sailors and the name stuck.
When visiting an organic coffee plantation in Panama recently, I was surprised to learn that there are many steps from the planting of the coffee seed to the dark, aromatic drink in the cup.
Step one is when the coffee seeds are planted on giant plantations, smaller estates, or even on the smallest of properties. They are then pre-germinated indoors in nurseries. Six months to a year passes before the seedlings can be transplanted into the fields. The coffee plants need lots of rain to flourish. The ripe red berries are then picked and pulped, so that only the seeds are left behind. The fresh seeds are either planted right away or can be dried to be planted at a later date. Once planted, they are carefully irrigated, fertilized and protected from diseases and pests. Banana or rubber trees are often planted nearby to protect the seedlings from the sun.
Coffee seedlings are planted at sea level up to 7,000 feet. It can take a year before coffee berries are fully ripe and ready to be picked. And it can be very frustrating for growers that coffee berries may ripen on the same tree at different times. On most farms the coffee berries are picked by hand. The picker needs to check the plant three or four times in a season. On very large coffee plantations a harvesting machine is used. The machine however, picks all the berries, which means some of them are not ripe and are discarded.
After picking, the beans have to be extracted from the berries. Since they are encased in five different layers, it is a time-consuming process. The sorting, cleaning and roasting processes come next. An optional step is to decaffeinate some of the beans.
“So, this is all well and good,” you think, but how do I choose the right coffee for me?” This is a tough question due to many types of beans and taste preferences. Most coffee beans are grown in countries in South and Central America, Africa and the Middle East, although some excellent coffee comes from New Guinea, Vietnam and Hawaii.
So how about your taste preference? Do you prefer a mild, medium, mellow, fruity, smooth, bold or flavored roast, or perhaps a combination of two or more of those? Most coffee drinkers want to avoid a stale, bitter, thin, coarse or acidic flavor. Your final choice of coffee will most likely be determined by many tastings of different roasts, blends and types of beans.
Once you have chosen the perfect coffee for you, getting a coffee grinder and maker is the next important decision. Who knew there were so many different choices of how to grind and brew coffee? There are the manual and electric drip pot, the old fashioned percolator, the coffee maker plus grinder, coffeemaker plus thermal carafe, the plunger pot, vacuum pot and espresso machine. Whew, so many choices.
Once you have chosen the coffee maker, how about the correct grind? From a very fine grind in an espresso machine, to a coarse grind for a percolator, this again will take experimentation. Grinding your own beans will produce fresher coffee, but it is often simpler to buy it already ground or have it ground for you.
If you keep some simple points in mind, the chances of enjoying your perfect cup of “Joe” will be improved.
1. Buy the freshest, highest quality beans of the blend you have selected.
2. Just before brewing, grind the beans to the correct consistency for your chosen coffee maker.
3. Use filtered, or good fresh, cold water. Don’t use softened or distilled water.
4. Use the right amount of coffee to your taste. Usually that would be about two level tablespoons of ground coffee for every six ounces of water, but you can adjust as you experiment with the strength and flavor.
5. Use a clean coffee maker. Cleaning it regularly by running a cycle with white vinegar and then flushing it out twice with fresh cold water helps ensure a clean pot and fresh coffee.
6. Brew only as much coffee as you need. Reheated or old coffee goes bitter. The best coffee will be consumed right after brewing.
7. If you do want to save brewed coffee, pour it into a pre-warmed thermal carafe to keep it hot without the reheating of a traditional coffee maker.
8. When pouring the flavorful brew into your cup, hold the carafe or pot a few inches up from the cup. This will aerate the coffee to distribute the flavor and oils.
After all this, hopefully you will enjoy the perfect cup of your favorite beverage. If this sounds like too much trouble, head for your favorite local coffee shop!
Peggy is a free lance writer who lives in Annapolis and San Diego and is an admitted “coffee snob.” She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.