Coffee connoisseurs don’t make beans about what they drink. They know their grounds and they expect that the crew serving up their espressos, lattes and regular old cups of Joe to know the basics, too, but where to start?
It all begins with the beans. Of the commercially grown coffees, there are two species: Arabica and Robusta. Although Robusta beans can be grown at lower elevations and contain as much as twice the caffeine of Arabica, it only makes up about 25 percent of the coffee produced worldwide. Robusta beans are considered less desirable and are often reserved for instant coffees and coffee flavorings. Arabica is almost universally considered the better variety and makes up about 75 percent of commercially grown coffee. These beans grow only at high elevations in equatorial latitudes and require distinct rainy and dry seasons and very fertile soil.
Although there are only two species of coffee, there are hundreds of varieties. The first characteristic that distinguishes one variety of coffee from another is its geographic origin. Almost a quarter of the world’s coffee crop comes from Colombia and Brazil. However, coffee is grown around the world in the often volcanic, equatorial regions of Central and South America, the Caribbean, Central Africa, India, Indonesia and Hawaii. Much like wine aficionados, coffee connoisseurs often will develop a preference for one region over another, yet there is no quorum regarding which region is best. And like wine, a high price does not necessarily translate into high quality.
The next bit to tackle is the roast. Caffeine is broken down by heat so the roast type will determine not only how caffeinated the beverage is, but also how flavorful.
Light roast coffees contains more caffeine than their darker, more flavorful counterparts. Most mass-produced American coffees are light roasts.
Medium roasts are much sweeter and fuller bodied with distinct variations in aroma.
Dark roast coffees are considered complex and chocolate-y by some, and bitter and burnt by others.
Espresso or Italian roast, which has been intentionally roasted to achieve “smokiness.”
Once you understand the type of bean and roast, you get to the grind. It’s recommended that you buy whole beans and freshly grind them before brewing in order to present guests with the best cup of coffee.
When it comes to the grind, the subtleties are subjective and the choice depends on the method of brewing and personal preference. The finer the beans are ground, the more essential oils are released. These oils can make slow brewed coffee bitter, so slower brewing methods generally require a coarser grind.
And after grind, we get to flavor, which experts adamantly agree should only be added after the coffee has been brewed – if at all. They allege that flavor additions (like vanilla or hazelnut) are often used to disguise lesser quality coffee. If the beans, the roast and the brew are just right, there is no need to cover up the natural flavor of the coffee.