- Virginia Johnson
With the coming of artisan roasters in the last few decades, coffee has become more than just a "cuppa joe." People want to know more about the beverage they savor, flavor, or just plain swill. Read on for a bit of vocab, a touch of history, and a few recipes.
What Is Coffee?
The bean that changed history is simply a roasted fruit seed--which is why the terms that describe its flavor relate mostly to fruitiness and the roasting process. Here are some examples of terms used by connoisseur coffee tasters: bitter (usually caused by over-roasting), carbony (burnt sensation, common with dark-roasted coffees), fruity (akin to citrus or berries), and winey (similar to red wine; full-bodied, and often found in Kenyan and Yemeni coffees).
What Is Coffee Cupping?
"Coffee isn't a liquid so much as a chemical reaction in progress, and the soul of the brew will twist out of the cup in an instant if not attended to."--The Perfect Cup: A Coffee Lover's Guide to Buying, Brewing and Tasting
As there is wine tasting, there is also coffee cupping. It is how coffee producers check a coffee for defects or compose a blend. Typically, six to ten cups of coffee are assembled at a time. Before you even taste the coffees, you will write down observations on their aromas--when ground and when prepared. It's quite a ritual, and these videos show it in its humble glory.
Rich Coffee, Poor Coffee
When speaking of types of coffee, the most common division comes between the Arabica (higher quality) and the Robusta types (found largely in canned, ground supermarket coffee and instant coffee). Finer coffee yet than Arabica is stenophylla, which originated in West Africa. However stenophylla takes longer than Arabica to reach maturity and is less cost-efficient to produce so it is not widely available. Typically, the stuff served at coffee houses in the beatnik period (1950s) was the harsher brew...which had the advantage of being cheap and affordable for starving artists.
Why Would Anyone Grow Robusta?
The poor relation of the coffee world, Robusta refers to more than the coffee's strong and unrefined taste. It's also more resistant to disease and will grow under a wider range of soil and climate conditions and can yield a consistently larger crop--which means lower prices for consumers. The caffeine punch for tired workers is often twice as intense as Arabica, but the price is ever so much cheaper. And, honestly, some prefer the homier brew that reminds them of past times. Plus, when enjoyed in the proper setting, its raw, wild strength can later conjure dark and delightful memories.
If you hang out in coffee shops, you'll quickly discover there's a whole lotta lingo to go with the java jolt. Here are just a couple of examples:
Peaberry coffee happens when one of the two seeds in the pod fails to develop. The remaining seed develops into a round cross-section called a peaberry. Some believe these are more flavorful.
There are also different varieties of the beloved Arabica. Some are larger (marigo). Some are more disease-resistant. Some grow on shorter trees and are easier to harvest (cattura and catuai).
Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona Coffee have rich and unusual flavor because of their unique growing conditions. They also cost a lot of money. A full pound can easily run over fifty dollars. Is it worth it? Hmmm. If you can afford and appreciate a pricey bottle of wine, you should probably give one of these royal varieties a try, however...
Beware the Blend
"Hey, I've seen Kona for a lot, lot less," you might say. Yes, it had the word Kona on the bag, but it was likely a Kona blend--cheaper coffee mixed with the famous name. By all means, try it if you wish. You may enjoy it, but please don't think you're experiencing full Kona or Blue Mountain flavor.
Coffee in the Americas: A Steamy Beginning
Almost all of the coffee in Latin America descends from one hothouse plant in Louis XIV's Jardin des Plantes. According to legend, Capt. Gabriel de Clieu wooed a lady of quality who had access to the heavily guarded royal plant. She gave her lover what he desired, and he saw to it that coffee was planted throughout the French-owned island, Martinique. By doing this, France would no longer have to rely on expensive East Indian Coffee. In time, almost all Latin American coffee would be descended from this lovers' token.
Today's lovers may like to try this sophisticated and easy coffee dessert:
2 cups strong Italian coffee
¾ cup whipping cream
½ cup granulated sugar
Pour all ingredients into a saucepan and heat gently. Stir continuously until the sugar dissolves and the mixture comes to a boil. Allow the mixture to cool to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Then transfer to a shallow dish and place in the freezer.
Allow mixture to freeze solid which will take 3 to 6 hours.
Before serving, put in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
From The Coffee Book, by Jacki Baxter
With this unusual recipe, you can make the most of those holiday fruits. From Starbucks Passion for Coffee:
Candied Citrus Peel
Sweet crystallized strips of citrus peel provide a zesty nibble alongside caffe mocha or any other after-dinner coffee. Boiling the peel twice before candying it removes any trace of bitterness.
6 oranges, grapefruits, lemons, or limes
5 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water
2-inch piece of vanilla bean (optional)
Thoroughly wash the fruit. Using a paring knife, cut off the stem and blossom ends of each fruit. Score the fruit from top to bottom into four or six segments. Remove the pieces of peel, including the white pith.
Place the peel in a large saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer the peel, covered, for 15 minutes. Drain the peel in a colander, return to the pot and cover again with water. Simmer, covered, for another 15 minutes. Drain the peel in a colander and cut into strips ¼-1/2 inch wide.
Combine 4 cups of sugar, the 2 cups water and the vanilla bean (if using) in a heavy saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the strips of peel, reduce the heat and simmer until the syrup has almost disappeared, about 1 hour. Stir the peel and syrup occasionally to prevent scorching but take care not to break the peel. Remove the saucepan from the heat and transfer the strips of peel to wire racks to cool, about 20 minutes.
Place the remaining granulated sugar in a bowl. Roll the strips of peel in the sugar and set on a wire rack to dry, about 30 minutes. Store the candied peel in an airtight container.
Want to read more about the lingo and history of coffee? Check out our booklist, Java Jive, to discover coffee's dark and sometimes wicked past, its hopeful future, and how to truly appreciate this best-loved beverage.