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From the college student pulling an all-nighter, to old friends sharing
a leisurely hour or two in a favorite café, to the host’s
and hostess’s perfect ending to a perfect meal, coffee plays an
important role in many of our lives. As a second-generation Norwegian-American,
I first became familiar with coffee in my Norwegian immigrant grandmother’s
kitchen as I watched her prepare her “egg coffee” in the traditional
way: Mix a raw egg and a little water with freshly-ground coffee beans,
add to boiling water in a metal coffee pot, boil for a few minutes, then
add a little cold water so that the mixture will settle on the bottom
of the pot. This method of “cooking” coffee, as it was called,
produced a thin, translucent, delicate golden-brown beverage, which was
served at every social function. In the traditional Norwegian culture,
when an older teen is served coffee for the first time, it symbolizes
that the adults in the young person’s life recognize and respect
his or her growing maturity. Although I now prefer dark, heavy, opaque
coffee and I no longer eat eggs, I will always have special memories of
my grandmother’s fragrant egg coffee and the love of family that
these memories represent.
The History of Coffee
According to popular folklore, the Galla tribe of ancient Ethiopia became
aware that they got an energy boost after eating a mixture of animal fat
and ground-up red berries from the wild Coffea arabica tree. Although
Europeans first discovered Coffea arabica growing in what is now Yemen,
there is botanical evidence that it originated on the high plateaus of
central Ethiopia, where it still grows wild. Coffea arabica could have
been brought back home by Arabian traders in Ethiopia, or could possibly
have arrived in Arabia via Persian invaders by way of Ethiopia. Regardless
of how they got there, coffee trees of likely Ethiopian origin began to
be cultivated on plantations in Arabia. Arabians also began the practice
of removing the beans from the skin and pulp of ripe coffee berries and
boiling the beans in water, creating a beverage that they called qahwa.
This was soon followed by another creation, the public coffee house. By
the end of the 1600s, the preparation of coffee consisted of first roasting
the raw beans over a fire, then crushing them and boiling them in water.
Also by this time the enthusiastic popularity of coffee and coffee houses
had spread from the Middle East and Turkey to parts of Europe, England,
and what is now the United States.
In fact, one reliable source states that in 1668 coffee replaced beer
as New York City’s favorite breakfast drink!
How Coffee Grows
From Australia to Zimbabwe, coffee can be grown anywhere that climate
conditions permit. Coffea arabica is the most important species in the
worldwide coffee industry. It grows best in a climate that is free of
frost, in a well-watered, well-drained soil that is fertile and that is
ideally of volcanic origin. It loves moderation both in rainfall and in
direct sunlight; too much or too little of either will produce an immature
crop or no crop at all. The coffee tree is mainly self-pollinating, producing
delicate, fragrant white flowers followed by unripe green berries. As
the green berries ripen and become a red color, the beans contained within
them gradually grow and mature. In climates where there is year-round
even rainfall, white coffee blossoms, green coffee berries and red coffee
berries all grow on the same tree at the same time! In six or seven months’
time, the beans are ready for harvesting; one coffee tree can produce
between one and twelve pounds of coffee each year. In the wild, the trees
grow to a height of fourteen to twenty feet, but when cultivated, they
are generally pruned to a height of about six feet to encourage heavy
bearing of fruit and to make the harvesting process easier.
Not all of the berries on a coffee tree ripen at the same rate, so the
best and most preferred method of harvesting beans is to individually
pick only the ripe red berries (called “cherries” in the coffee
industry), leaving still-ripening green ones undisturbed. This slow, selective
process of repeated picking assures the best product for the consumer
and the best price for the grower. After the green-colored coffee beans
are removed from the ripe berries, they are then husked, cleaned, and
prepared for purchase.
Roasting Coffee Beans
Raw, green coffee beans must be roasted in order to bring out their distinctive
flavors. During the roasting process, during which some of the caffeine
is lost, the beans darken in color, water is extracted from them and some
of their natural sugars are caramelized, transforming these sugars into
flavor oils unique to that particular kind of bean. A popular misconception
is that the darker the bean, the more caffeine. In reality, it is just
the opposite. Since caffeine is lost during the roasting process, it is
actually the lighter the bean, the more caffeine.
There are a variety of roasting styles; the length of time a bean is roasted
and the temperature at which it is roasted determine the roasting style.
Some popular roasting styles are: New England (light brown; surface of
the roasted bean is dry to the touch), American (medium brown; dry surface),
Viennese (medium dark brown; possible oil flecks on surface), French (moderately
dark brown; light oil on surface), Espresso (dark brown; light to heavy
oil on surface), Italian (dark, blackish brown; oily surface), and Dark
French or Spanish (very dark brown, almost black; very oily).
Varieties of Coffee
The individual taste characteristics of a particular coffee are determined
not only by the way in which it was roasted, but also by the country in
which it was grown. Here are some outstanding examples: Mexican (light
and acidy); Guatemalan (acidy, smoky, rich); Costa Rican (hearty, rich,
robust); Haitian (mellow and sweet); Colombian (full-bodied, acidy, rich);
Venezuelan (low acid, sweet, delicate); Yemeni (balanced, chocolate undertones);
Ethiopian (very winey, light-bodied, acidy); Kenyan (winey, full-bodied,
rich); Sumatran (rich, smooth, full). There are as many coffee choices
as there are coffee preferences; you need only taste and sample until
you find the one that is exactly right for you.
If caffeine is to be removed from the coffee bean it must be done while
it is raw and green, not after it has been roasted, and there are three
main processes for accomplishing this. The solvent process
(also called the traditional, the European, or the conventional process):
Beans are soaked in hot water and with a solvent are stripped of their
caffeine. Most specialty coffees that use this process are decaffeinated
in Europe, and the preferred European solvent is ethyl acetate, which
naturally occurs in fruit. The Swiss water process: Beans
are soaked in hot water; using activated charcoal filters, caffeine is
removed from the water. The sparkling water process:
Caffeine is removed by a soaking and washing method using water and compressed
Storing and Grinding Your Coffee Beans
For superb home-prepared coffee, try to buy only one week’s supply
at a time of freshly-roasted whole beans. Put the beans in an airtight
container and store it in an area that is cool and dark. As long as the
freshly-roasted beans are stored in this manner, they will retain their
full flavor for about one week’s time. Grind only as many beans
as you need for immediate use. There is a huge assortment of coffee mills
and grinders on the market, so shop around, ask around, consult a good
specialty coffee seller, and do some research to find the one that best
suits your needs.
Different Brewing Methods
A few popular methods of brewing coffee are: French press
(Finely-ground coffee is placed in a clear glass cylinder-shaped pot,
hot water is poured over it, and a tight-fitting plunger is inserted in
the top of the pot and allowed to remain there for a few minutes while
the coffee steeps. Then the plunger is pushed down to press the coffee
grounds to the bottom of the pot, where they remain undisturbed while
coffee is poured from the pot). Drip (Finely-ground coffee
is placed in the upper compartment of a two-compartment pot, the compartments
being separated by a metal or ceramic filter. Hot water is poured into
the upper compartment, and the resulting brewed coffee passes through
the filter into the lower compartment). Automatic Filter Drip
(Finely-ground coffee is placed in a filter that is usually made of paper,
the filter is put into a holder that rests on top a glass decanter, cold
water is poured into a chamber on top of the appliance, a switch is pressed,
and brewed coffee is dispensed into the decanter).
Popular Specialty Coffee Drinks
Coffee brewed by a method in which hot water is pressure-forced through
a densely compacted fine grind.
One-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, one-third milk foam.
Caffe latte (Italian), Café au lait (French), and Café
con leche (Spanish)
Strictly speaking, these are three different cultures’ names for
the same preparation: One or two shots of espresso and three times as
much frothed milk. However, in the United States, or at least in this
part of the United States, Café au lait also means brewed coffee
mixed with steamed milk, and Caffe latte also means espresso and steamed
milk topped with a little froth.
Brewed coffee with one or two shots of espresso added.
One or two shots of espresso in hot water.
One or two shots of espresso, chocolate flavoring, steamed milk, froth.
Your Favorite Coffee
Learning more about coffee is as easy as visiting a library or bookstore.
I especially recommend three fabulous books by Kenneth Davids: Coffee,
A Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying, Home Coffee Roasting, Romance
& Revival, and Espresso, Ultimate Coffee. So slow down for a moment,
sit and relax, savor your favorite coffee, and smile and watch the world
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