Coffee. Many of us can’t imagine our lives without it. I, for one, can’t fathom rolling out of bed in the morning without the smell of freshly brewed coffee to wake me. And I’m not alone.
According to a study by HuffPost, more than half of coffee drinkers would rather skip their morning shower than forego their daily dose of caffeine.
So, it’s safe to say that coffee is a big part of our lives. But what do we know about this drink, besides what we read on the local coffee shop menu? Is there more to coffee than “dark”, “medium” and “light”?
The short answer is: “Absolutely!”. The longer answer might surprise you.
What is it?
Although “bean” is in the name, in reality, coffee beans are the seeds of a type of berry called a “coffee cherry”. The coffee cherry gets its name from its striking resemblance to (you guessed it) cherries. While smaller than an actual cherry, the coffee cherry is similar to its namesake in more ways than one.
Like real cherries, coffee cherries are green when unripe, turning a brilliant shade of red– or sometimes deep purple –when reaching maturity.
Like cherries, coffee cherries also grow on trees. Well… sort of.
There’s still some disagreement among botanists when it comes to classifying the coffee plant. This is because coffee plants range drastically in size. Some species only grow to the size of a bush, while others can reach up to thirty feet in height.
Due to the coffee plant’s indecisive nature, some botanists insist that it is more of a shrub than a tree. The issue is still hotly debated.
Another way the coffee cherry resembles its namesake is in its classification. Like the cherry, the coffee cherry is a stonefruit, meaning that it contains a seed or “pit” at its center.
It might even surprise you to know that, while it doesn’t taste like a cherry, the flesh of a coffee cherry is 100% edible. The flavor of the coffee cherry is often described as “sweet” and “pleasant” and is even purported to contain more antioxidants than blueberries!
But here is where the resemblances end.
If you’ve ever eaten a fresh cherry, you know the sweet flesh is what you’re after, while that flavorless, rock-hard pit is what you want to avoid. When it comes to coffee cherries, the opposite is true.
The pit of the coffee cherry is what is commonly called the bean, and it’s what everyone is after. At harvest, the bean is extracted, and the flesh of the cherry is often discarded or repurposed as fertilizer.
So, in summary, the coffee bean is a bean (but not really) from a cherry (but not really) that grows on a tree (but not really). Confused yet? Well, hold on tight, because there is still plenty more to this unusual fruit that we’ve yet to discover!
Coffee: A Brief History
The answer to the question “Where did coffee come from?” isn’t as simple as you might think.
According to historical records, coffee drinking first comes onto the scene in Yemen during the 15th century. Back then, the Sufi consumed coffee to stay awake for their religious rituals, but the practice gradually spread outside of the Religious circles.
From Yemen, the drink made its way across the rest of the Middle East and into Northern Africa and soon became a major export of the region.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that coffee arrived in Europe as an import from the Middle East. The first coffee house opened in Rome in 1645, and from there exploded in popularity across the western world.
Today, coffee houses commonplace in Europe as well as the rest of the world. And, while some of those same countries that supplied coffee beans to medieval Venice supply our beans today, coffee production today looks a little different than it did back then.
Major Coffee Producers
Fast-forward to the modern age and coffee is now the second most traded commodity on the planet! Every year, more than 19 billion pounds of coffee beans are produced worldwide! But the Middle East is no longer the top producer.
These days, Brazil is on top when it comes to coffee production, and it’s not even a close race. In 2020 alone Brazil produced over 3.5 metric tons of the bitter bean! To put that number in perspective, Vietnam comes in second place with a little over 1.8 metric tons.
That’s only slightly more than half of Brazil’s output. Meanwhile, Ethiopia who once lead the world in coffee production only turned out about 440,000 metric tons.
Overall, South America now accounts for over 60% of global coffee production, due in large part to its abundance of subtropical and high-altitude climates, providing the perfect conditions for coffee beans to thrive.
While they won’t tolerate too much cold or hot weather, coffee beans thrive in rich soil and well-defined seasons. Countries like Brazil, Honduras, and Columbia provide these ideal conditions and produce some of the finest coffee beans on the market as a result.
Coffee Types: The Big Four
South America can’t do it all, however. When it comes to growing different types of coffee, it turns out that some regions are better-suited than others.
There are four main types of coffee: Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa. All four of these types have distinct flavor characteristics and require specific growing conditions.
To understand what makes these coffee types unique, let’s take them one at a time:
Arabica is the most common type of coffee, and probably the one that you’ve had the most. If you live in North America, it’s even possible that you’ve only ever had this coffee, mainly because of how heavily marketed Arabica is to American consumers.
Arabica is known for its sweet, delicate flavor, and is typically less acidic than the other coffee types on this list. Because of its agreeable flavor, the coffee is highly sought-after by both casual and sophisticated coffee consumers.
While Arabica is common, it’s also notorious for its delicate nature. The plant demands a fair amount of pruning to grow well and is prone to all sorts of diseases. This makes growing it a pain, especially when it comes to large-scale farming.
This drives the price up. But because people can’t seem to get enough of Arabica’s sweet, mild taste, they’re more than willing to shell out the extra cash.
Arabica thrives in high elevations and wet conditions. It’s no wonder then why Brazil is the top producer of Arabica when considering its abundant acres of mountain peaks and rainforest.
Perhaps the most appropriately-named coffee, Robusta is known for its strong, often bitter flavor. While we’re not as familiar with this coffee in the states, Robusta is widely consumed across the Middle East and Africa. Some people prefer it to other coffee types because of its exceptionally high caffeine content.
It’s Robusta’s caffeine that makes it easier to grow. High amounts of caffeine act as a natural bug repellent protecting the coffee plant from insect-transmitted diseases. This makes the coffee is easier to produce in larger crops than Arabica, which means a bigger paycheck for coffee farmers.
Vietnam is the top producer of Robusta, with around 95% of this particularly potent species accounting for its annual coffee production.
Because of Robusta’s resilient nature, it thrives in Vietnam’s humid climate, whereas more delicate coffee types would suffer from diseases that tend to thrive in hot, wet conditions.
So, where is all this Robusta going? Much of it is shipped out to the UK, the Middle East, and Africa, where consumers are prone to like their coffee on the stronger side.
But in North America, Robusta is sometimes added to Arabica to produce more budget-friendly blends. So, odds are, if you buy cheaper coffee, you’ve likely tasted Robusta once or twice.
At one time, Liberica was a pretty big deal. Largely grown in Southeast Asia, Liberica was once the Philipines’ biggest export. But steep economic sanctions imposed on the country by the United States spelled the end of the coffee as an export, ultimately resulting at the end of Liberica as a major commodity.
These days, Liberica is hard to come by. But, if you do happen upon this coffee, don’t miss your chance to try it! Liberica has a floral and fruity flavor many coffee connoisseurs can’t get enough of!
Last but certainly not least, Excelsa is a coffee highly sought after by many serious coffee drinkers. Even scarcer than Liberica, Excelsa is grown in only a handful of remote regions in Southeast Asia.
This coffee is noted for its slightly tart and fruity taste, as well as its complex blend of light and dark flavors. This unique mix of flavors makes it a standout among the other coffee types. It’s a must-try (if you can get your hands on it).
Coffee: How it’s Made
So, now we know what coffee is, its history, and what types there are; but exactly how does it go from the tree to your cup?
After the harvest, coffee beans go through a rather lengthy processing period. This process includes: extracting the beans from the cherry, removing the pulp, and drying and hulling the beans.
After all this, a few beans from each batch are taste-tested for quality before they’re finally ready to be shipped off for roasting.
The roasting process transforms those green cherry pits into the beautiful, deep-brown, and fragrant beans we know and love. Coffee beans are roasted in a roasting machine until their internal temperature reaches the exact temperature of the desired roast and the fragrant oils locked inside the beans come to the surface. Then the beans are quickly removed and cooled to preserve their flavor.
Once they’re roasted, the beans go through a process called degassing. After roasting, coffee beans release gasses such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide. And, while these gasses aren’t dangerous for us to consume, they can harm the taste of the coffee.
During the degassing phase, the coffee beans are kept in a cool, dark place until nearly all the gas has been released. This takes anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on whether the coffee is a light or dark roast. Then they’re packaged up and sent to the consumer.
Coffee Roasts– Which One is For You?
So, now you know how the coffee gets to the shelf. But what kind of coffee do you buy?
First off, no roast is any better than the other. It’s all according to your tastes, and the best way to find out which roast you prefer is to start trying them! But, to help you figure it out, let’s do a quick rundown of the four types of roasts.
1. Light Roast
If it’s caffeine you’re after, a light roast is your best bet. Light roast beans contain the most caffeine because they’re roasted for less time and at a lower temperature than other types of beans.
Not only does this allow the coffee beans’ caffeine content, but it also lends the coffee a more fruity, floral, and acidic flavor. Light roast is sometimes known as blonde roast or blonde coffee.
2. Medium Roast
If you want a more balanced, smooth taste to your coffee, then you’ll probably want a medium roast. Medium roast beans are a little more bitter than light roast, but the overall flavor is less pronounced and more balanced.
3. Medium-dark Roast
If you enjoy medium roast but would like something with a little more depth and richness of flavor with less acidity, then medium-dark roast is a great option.
4. Dark Roast
While dark roast boasts the lowest caffeine content, it may be the boldest in flavor. Often described as smoky, bitter, or burnt, some people might find the taste of dark roast off-putting. But, if you like your coffee stronger than most, then dark roast is probably for you.
Single Origin Coffee vs. Blends
Now that you understand the importance of roasts and what they do for the flavor of your coffee, let’s take a look a look at the differences between single-origin coffees and blends.
Often, you’ll hear self-proclaimed coffee connoisseurs claim that single-origin coffee is better than blends. This isn’t the case. While single-origin coffee is more sought-after for its unique flavor qualities, some coffee drinkers prefer blends for their consistency and complex flavor profiles. In the end, it comes down to what you prefer.
To help you understand what single-origin and blends offer, let’s take a closer look at what makes them distinct.
It may not surprise you to learn that single-origin is exactly what it sounds like: coffee harvested from a single location. And I’m not just talking about a single country or even a single town.
While some coffee companies are loose with their definitions of single-origin, true single-origin coffee comes from the same farm and belongs to the same batch.
As a general rule, the more specific the coffee supplier is about their single-origin coffee, the better. The bags of high-quality single-origin coffee will often tell you the name of the farm and the altitude where the coffee was grown.
So, why is this information important? For single-origin enthusiasts, the thrill of drinking single-origin coffee is in discovering the subtle flavor variations from batch to batch.
Because each batch of single-origin is harvested at a different time, under varying conditions, the flavor is never the same twice. So, each new bag of single-origin is an exciting discovery. You never know what you’ll get!
Single-origin also boasts bolder flavors than those you’ll find in blends. Because the coffee beans in single-origin come from the same harvest, their unique flavor characteristics are magnified, creating robust and exotic flavor profiles. If you drink single-origin, you may discover flavors you never expected from your coffee!
However, these characteristics also mean that single-origin is highly unpredictable. If consistency is something you value in your coffee, you may want to avoid single-origin batches.
Also, exotic flavors aren’t always a positive thing. You could find some single-origin flavors less than desirable, or downright gross! And considering the high cost of some single-origin coffee, the risk of spending serious cash on coffee you might not even like might outweigh the reward of discovering unique flavors.
So, let’s weigh the pros and cons of single-origin coffee.
- Unique flavors
- Exciting and unpredictable
- Potentially unpleasant
Unlike single-origin coffee, blends are a mix of different coffee types. Depending on the blend, these coffee types might come from different places within the same country or several different countries. A common misconception about blends is that they’re somehow lesser in quality than single origin.
This couldn’t be further from the truth! Even for the most seasoned coffee drinker, there are several reasons why you might choose a blend over a single-origin coffee.
In terms of consistency, blends are unbeatable. Coffee companies create blends to provide consumers with the most complex, unique coffee possible while keeping it consistent. Unlike single-origin, blends are an exact science, with each batch following the same ratio of beans.
Not only does this ensure consistency in flavor, but it also ensures that the coffee is balanced. This means that even if you get the occasional bad-tasting bean, the flavor of the other beans will balance it out.
The consistency of blends means that you can find the exact flavor you want in your coffee, with the assurance that each time you buy your favorite blend, you’re getting the same experience.
But beware: not all blends are made equal. Another reason some coffee companies choose to go with blends over single-origin is to cut costs. By combing several types of coffee in a blend, you companies can focus on selling a single product for bulk prices.
This makes sense from a business perspective, but some companies tend to cut corners in their blends, mixing in cheaper, lower-quality beans to maximize profits. For this reason, you want to be careful when selecting your blend. If the price of a blend seems too good to be true, most likely, it is.
So, what are you looking for when choosing a blend? To understand what makes a good blend, there are three flavor components to consider:
- High Notes: This generally refers to the acidic, floral, fruity notes found in lighter roasts. Beans best known for these flavors often come from places like Ethiopia, Kenya, or other areas around North Africa or the Middle East.
- Mid-Palate: This is the flavor component you notice first when you take that first life-giving sip. It’s what makes up the overall flavor of your coffee.
- Sweet Base Notes: This is what people mean by the body of the coffee. The beans responsible for this flavor are the darkest in the mix, providing those sweet, toasted, chocolatey notes you get with bolder roasts.
Finding your ideal blend means finding a nice balance between these three flavor components. This can take some time, as there are tons of blends out there. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming!
Finding your perfect blend can be fun and exciting. And the good news is, once you find the blend you’re looking for, you can rest assured that the flavor will remain consistent with each new bag.
So, let’s weigh the pros and cons of coffee blends.
- Balanced flavor
- More affordable
- Possibly lower-quality
- A little too predictable
The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to blends vs. single-origin coffee is that you don’t have to choose! Both have their strengths and weaknesses.
When it comes to my daily cup of coffee, I prefer blends for their reliable consistency. But I also keep a bag of single origin in the freezer for those times I’m in the mood for something a little different.
Coffee Around the World
Often, a coffee’s country of origin is displayed on the bag. Here are a few of the countries you’re likely to see, and what they mean for the flavor of the coffee:
Brazilian coffee is among the most well-known coffees. Famous for its agreeable, smooth flavor and rich, nutty aroma, Brazilian coffee sets the standard for how a well-rounded cup of coffee should taste. Brazilian coffee is also notable for its low acidity.
If you like prefer a little zing to your coffee, it’s hard to beat Colombian blends. The flavor of Colombian coffee is complex and exciting. Expect fruity and nutty flavors, with hints of sweet chocolate and bright bursts of citrus.
For many serious coffee drinkers, it doesn’t get much better than Ethiopian. Many consider Ethiopian coffee among the best in the world. Its flavor and mouthfeel are highly complex, with notes you simply won’t find in coffees from other parts of the world. Fruity, floral, acidic, sweet– Ethiopian coffee has even been described as boasting wine-like notes.
Guatemalan coffee has a mild, full-bodied flavor. If you like the fruity, tropical notes of Colombian coffee, but would prefer something a little more toned-down, with the toasted, nuttiness of Brazilian coffee, Guatemalan is a great middle-ground.
While it’s a little less well-known in the United States, Indonesian coffee is worth mentioning for its unique flavor. Look for earthiness in this coffee, tinged with smokiness and spices.
The overall taste is exotic and enticing. Indonesian coffee is rich and full-bodied as well, making this a well-rounded coffee perfect for those who want something a little different in their cup.
The complex, floral flavor of Kenyan coffee is similar to Ethiopian in some ways. But, make no mistakes, this coffee has its personality. Bright citric and savory notes will come through in a quality Kenyan blend. It’s a great coffee if you want something a little more exotic. Kenyan coffee is also highly regarded among coffee enthusiasts.
Another popular coffee out of South America, Panamanian coffee is well regarded for its high quality and pleasant taste. If you take your coffee with milk, you’ll find that Panamanian coffee’s chocolate and honey flavor and medium body pairs well.
If it’s a bold, full-bodied flavor you’re after, you can’t go wrong with Vietnamese coffee. Its dark, rich flavor and notes of whiskey, vanilla, butter, and mocha make for some of the best dark-roast coffee around. Because the majority of coffee grown in Vietnam is of the Robusta variety, expect a higher caffeine content as well.
Coffee: How do You Take it?
When it comes to the different ways to prepare coffee, the possibilities can seem overwhelming at first. But, they don’t have to be! Exploring coffee preparations can be fun and interesting (not to mention delicious!). I could fill a book with all the coffee preparations from around the world.
For now, let’s take a look at a few of the more common preparations, so you’ll know what to expect next time you go to the cafe.
Some may take their Americano with an extra shot or two to give it that extra kick. In general, with Americano, you can expect a flavor similar to your standard cup of coffee, if somewhat stronger.
One of the most popular coffee preparations, espresso is for those who don’t mind a little kick to their coffee. Espresso is made by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee, resulting in a concentrated coffee drink, with a big punch.
A single shot of espresso delivers 4 to 5 times the amount of caffeine as a standard cup of coffee! So, if you need a pick-me-up and enjoy the intense taste, espresso is the way to go.
The traditional Cappuccino is made up of three parts: one part Espresso, one part steamed milk, and one part foamed milk. With a cappuccino, you get that caffeinated kick of espresso, while the intense flavor is tempered by the sweet creaminess of the milk.
Many coffee drinkers prefer this preparation over traditional espresso for this reason. Adding a little sugar also allows the brighter notes of the espresso to come through.
There is a little confusion around the differences between the latte and the cappuccino. When it comes to ingredients, the two drinks are almost identical. However, there are two important distinctions to make. The ingredients of a cappuccino are layered, while a latte is blended.
This creates a difference in both consistency and flavor. The latte is a little smoother than a cappuccino. Unlike a cappuccino, a latte is also topped with whipped foam.
Simply put, cafe mocha is a latte with added chocolate and sweetener. Sometimes cocoa powder and sugar are used in its preparation; other times, simple chocolate syrup is added.
The chocolate pairs well with the steamed mile and brings out the natural cocoa flavor of the coffee, making this a perfect choice for those looking for more of a sweet coffee treat.
While you’re not likely to grab one for your daily commute, the Affogato is a simple and delicious indulgence made with espresso and vanilla ice cream. Some variations also include a shot of amaretto for an added kick.
The simple combination of ice cream and coffee goes together as if the two were made for each other. The vanilla brings out the coffee’s floral notes while the cream enriches the coffee’s deep chocolate flavor. Overall, the affogato makes for an excellent dessert for any coffee lover.
If you like the idea of a cappuccino, but you want a little more of that espresso flavor, then the macchiato is for you. The macchiato is simply a shot of espresso topped with a couple of teaspoons of frothed milk.
The milk takes a little of the edge off of the espresso’s harshness, while not distracting from its flavor overall. The result is a refreshing drink with a bold personality.
Breve coffee is somehow similar to cappuccino. It also contains one or two espresso shots and steamed and frothed milk. However, the kind of milk used is different. Breve coffee uses half-and-half milk (called breve), which is a blend of whole milk and light cream. This results in a thicker and richer flavor than your usual cappuccino.