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Useful Notes: Coffee
Zzzzzzzz...

*knock knock*

MMmpphzzzz...

*knock knock knock*

ZzzzzSNRKKK WHAT?!

You came all the way here to ask me about coffee? You better have brought me some or I'll rip your damn throat out.

Okay, coffee. The world would stop without it. People spend big money on it. It is in practically every workplace everywhere in the world. From weak, sour percolated coffee to eating the grounds right out of the bag with a wet spoonnote , people have come up with many, many ways to consume the most common psychoactive drug in the world.

The legend has it that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia by a goatherd named Kaldi, who got very curious about the cherry-like fruit that made his goats happy and hyper. Although the story itself is probably apocryphal, it's generally agreed that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia and spread throughout the world by the Arabs; even the word for coffee in virtually every languagenote  has Arabic roots: the drink got the poetic name qahwat al-bunn ("the wine of the 'bunn'", "bunn" being the Ethiopic word for "coffee bean") in Arabic, which got shortened to qahwah; this provided the name in the other languages of the Muslim worldnote  most importantly becoming kahve in Turkish, which became caffè in Italian, and from then travelled through Europe, the Americas, and East Asia as Kaffee, "coffee", café, and even ikhofi and kāfēi.note No wonder that in Catholic Europe it was even referred to as "the wine of Islam". Italian trade with Turkey, "Syria",note  and Egypt, along with Turkish invasions of the Habsburg lands in southeastern Europe,note  spread the drink to the West by the 17th century, but it was widely opposed (but still drunk) until supposedly Pope Clement VIII, a downlow coffee drinker himself, blessed it around 1600; over the next century it would become popular throughout Europe.

Today, coffee is reportedly the world's second most traded commodity, after oil. Bulk coffee is sold by the sack, a standard sack containing 59 kilograms of green (unroasted) coffee beans (bulk coffee is always green, since the beans swell during the roasting process). London and Amsterdam are the traditional centres of the coffee trade.

Coffee's made in a number of ways. The first step in the preparation is drying the coffee beans, which requires sloughing off the fruit coating and washing and drying the seeds. The coffee is then roasted, which gets rid of the grassy flavor of green coffee and produces the flavor compounds we normally associate with it. There are several different levels of roast; although the names aren't standardized, one way of ranking the roasts from lightest to darkest in the US would be as follows: cinnamon, city roast, full city roast (think Starbucks), Italian roast, French roast. note  Like everything else about coffee, roast is Serious Business; light roast fans will ridicule dark roast fans as drinking burnt coffee, while dark roast aficionados complain about acidity and underdeveloped flavor in light roasts. (Ironically, the company most responsible for creating demand for high-end coffee in the United States, Peet's, uses a darker roast than almost anyone else, including Starbucks.) Perhaps counterintuitively, the darkness of the roast and the strength of the brew have little to do with each other; the same bean, roasted dark, will actually have less caffeine in it than a light roast.

Next in the process is the brew. There are many, many ways to do this:

  • Direct infusion: This is used with Turkish, er, Greek, um, Armenian, screw it, let's just call it Near Eastern Coffee, as well as what's commonly known as cowboy coffee. This coffee is brewed in a pot directly over the heat; Middle Eastern Coffee is ground to a powder, often with spices (cardamom is a favorite and practically universal in Arab countries, although cinnamon and a few others also show up) and prepared quickly and usually sweetened (drink this coffee without any sugar and people look at you funny), while cowboy coffee uses a coarse grind (presumably to avoid overextracting the flavors and burning the coffee while it sits by the fire). The Near Eastern variant is almost certainly the original way to make coffee, as it doesn't rely on specialized equipment and is traditional in the earliest countries to get coffee.
    • Ethiopia has a fairly complex coffee ceremony used to brew, serve, and consume coffee based on direct infusion.
    • This is also used in what's called a vacuum pot, where the water is boiled and forced by steam pressure into an upper pot where the coffee grounds are, then sucked back down through a filter when the pot's taken off the heat and the steam pressure drops, and the French press, which essentially uses a fine-mesh screen in a manner similar to a teabag to force the grounds to the bottom; in both of the latter cases, there's no direct heat on the coffee brew itself.
    • Israelis, being an odd sort, skip all the effort used in making the coffee palatable and just spoon some of the near-eastern grounds into a mug before pouring in some hot water. The name for this drink translates fairly directly to "mud coffee."
  • Filtered coffee: The hot water is poured through the coffee grounds and the brewed coffee passes through a filter (usually a paper or metal mesh cone) into a carafe. The usual way of doing this is with a funnel with a filter in it, with the water coming from either a kettle or a dedicated coffee machine. An older way of doing this is the percolator, in which the water is boiled and pushed up through the grounds and back where it came; although this makes a very nice room freshener, it also causes the brewed coffee to reboil several times over, and for the most part coffee fans don't like the result.
  • Pressure-brewed coffee: Better known as espresso, this is similar to filtered coffee except instead of using gravity, it uses steam pressure or some kind of pump to force hot water through fine grounds. (Single-serve coffee makers like Keurig and Senseo work on a similar principle, though at much lower pressure.) Espresso makers range from the simple Moka pot (similar to a percolator, but the coffee collects in a top reservoir and doesn't reboil) up to massive pump-powered monsters that can cost as much as a car and produce dozens or hundreds of shots of espresso in an hour. Espresso is originally from Italy, but has become the base of most of modern Western coffeehouse culture, from Scandinavia to Japan and on.
  • Cold-brewed: Similar to sun tea and the like, it's somewhat common to make coffee simply by infusing the grounds into cold or room-temperature water and then filter the result. There are people who swear by this for iced coffee, claiming it gets a more balanced, less bitter/acid flavor. It's somewhat common among cold brew fans to treat this as the seriousest of Serious Business.

Those basic methods of preparation are the base of a huge array of different drinks. When not drunk black, coffee's most common accompaniments are milk and sugar, and everyone likes it a little different; Middle Eastern coffee is sweet (except during Ramadan) and dark, espresso is syrupy with a cocoa-like bitterness and a fine foam (called crema) on top, and drip coffee is thin and sometimes faintly translucent. Espresso mixed with hot milk makes the caffè latte, the classic Italian breakfast drink and the coffee equivalent of a comforting hot chocolate; with foamed milk (using the steam wand on an electric espresso machine), you get a cappuccino, the foam-layered coffee drink named after the garb of the Capuchin monks, and a small dab of the foam gets you an espresso macchiato ("marked" or "speckled" in Italian). Add chocolate syrup to a caffè latte and you get a caffè mocha; steamed milk mixed half-and-half with drip coffee is a café au lait. In Ethiopia, different families like milk, butter, or salt (in a significant amount beyond the pinch some Americans claim brings out the flavour of very good drip coffee), with a fair bit of disgust for the addition they weren't raised on. Outside coffeehouses, drip coffee in big electric urns or small glass carafes is associated with diners and greasy spoons, and despite the fact that it's often kind of crap, there are a lot of people who have a strong affection for the stuff. In some areas, various forms of iced coffee drinks are popular, even in the dead of winter. And flavored coffees are popular too — hazelnut, vanilla, and almond are among the most common, but there are many, many others. Dismiss them as hot milkshakes if you wish, but they're immensely popular. (Incidentally, when you hear someone complaining about a four-dollar coffee, they're most likely talking about some elaborate espresso or frozen drink, seldom just a plain cup of coffee or espresso, which is what a lot of such statements seem to imply. Common misconception.)

Coffee has its own flavors, too, depending on where it comes from and what variety of tree it's grown from. There's four different species, but the most important commercially are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (also known as Robusta); Arabica is the source of most specialty coffees, while robusta is usually used as filler in cheaper blends and occasionally to increase the crema in espresso blends (and, flavorwise, is usually likened to cardboard, with the exception of a few rare Vietnamese varietals). Mostly, though, coffee flavors are broadly divided by geography:

  • American coffees tend to be relatively tame; Colombian coffee is very well-advertised, but flavorwise it's just a clean, slightly boring coffee good for flavored drinks, ultra-dark roasts, and a run-of-the-mill cup for breakfast. Costa Rican coffee is notable for its well-rounded flavor, like Colombian with a touch of spice, and is considered (along with Kenya's) to be the best in the world; Guatemalan coffee (of the Typica variety) is known for a cocoa-like flavor, as well as being ancestral to one of the most exclusive coffees in the world, Hawaii's Kona. Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, and Nicaragua aren't as well-known or distinctive, but produce a lot of organic coffee for American and European markets; there's even a fair bit of coffee grown around the Caribbean, for which Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico are best known. Brazil is a huge coffee producer, but for some reason their coffees tend to have an iodine-like quality to them that a lot of people find off-putting; the Italians use a fair bit of Brazilian coffee (thus the blazing syrupy sourness of some Italian brands like Lavazza), but for the most part it's used as a mixer in other blends.
  • Asian/Pacific coffees — the best-known are mostly from Indonesia (the origin of "Java" as a slang term), with quite a bit grown in India and a couple of others — tend to have a full-bodied, umami-ish flavor, frequently likened to mushrooms or even dirt. Aged and "monsooned" coffees are somewhat of a signature product from Asian countries; some of them have muddy or oily flavors. The coffee from Sulawesi, in Indonesia, is one of the most popular varietals in Japan, and can cost quite a bit compared to the more common Sumatran coffees. Indonesia is also home to kopi luwak, which is notoriously processed with the aid of the digestive tract of a species of civetnote  (it's also made in the Philippines and Vietnam, with mostly domesticated civets). Papua New Guinea is a moderately large producer, with coffees closer to Latin American than southeast Asia; Australia has also grown coffee since the 1980s, mostly with a mild Indonesian flavor, but its offerings are nearly unknown outside a few specialty circles.
  • African and Arabian — coffee comes from Ethiopia, and a lot of it is grown around the horn of Africa and the southern Arabian peninsula. Coffees in the area have floral and fruity flavors; the famous Mocha coffees of Yemen (Sanani) and Ethiopia (Harrar), the closest thing to the wild coffee Kaldi's goats supposedly ate, taste nothing like chocolate and have a strong blueberry flavor, while Kenya's coffees (actually descended from the single plant the French used cutting and breeding of to spread coffee to the rest of the world or a close relative) taste like blackcurrant and grapefruit, and some of Ethiopia's other coffees like Yirgacheffe have a floral flavor to them. Overall, African and Arabian coffees tend to be a bit of an acquired taste, though they're excellent on ice (thanks to that floral/fruity flavor) and mixed with certain spices (the Arabs like to add cardamom).
  • Coffee is also blended to create a specific flavor profile, evening out the differences between individual varietals. There's too many of these to count, although the first widely-sold and best known blend, Mocha Java, was created to balance the fruitiness of Yemeni Mocha and the heavy syrupiness of Java to satisfy people who weren't keen on idiosyncratic local flavors. In addition to that, you'll find generic blends like Breakfast Blend (usually a lighter coffee that won't compete with heavy breakfast foods or startle a sleepy palatenote ), Espresso Blend (usually, but not always, a darker roast usually containing robusta in Italy meant to produce maximum crema and flavor from the fast, high-pressure brewing process; in parts of Italy, they actually prefer a lighter-roast espresso, but that's a little unusual elsewhere), French or Italian roast (these tend to refer to very dark coffees with a nearly carbonized flavor, and usually the exact opposite of a "breakfast blend"), and, although not usually by that name, some kind of dessert blend (frequently a dark or mixed light and dark roast meant to complement rich desserts and pastries). And then there's instant coffee. Which we acknowledge the existence of, and occasionally drink, depending on the troper (truthfully it's probably better saved for cold drinks and cooking, but millions of people drink it around the world; there are many brands, but it seems that the undisputed worldwide number one is Nescafé.).

Coffee, like a lot of tropical agricultural products, is often a rather exploitative business, both towards the environment and to frequently underpaid workers. Several terms are common in the coffee trade business to denote production with a mind towards ethics; organic coffee is, like any other organic product, grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Shade-grown coffee refers to coffee grown in semi-wild tree groves that double as preserves for birds and other canopy wildlife (coffee sometimes grows better with some shade anyway, making it a good deal for all involved). Fair trade coffee refers to coffee purchased outside the commodity market at a higher price in order to subsidize higher wages for the growers and plantation workers. While it's fair to say these are admirable goals, they don't have any direct bearing on the quality of the product; fortunately, this will not usually be a problem, as people paying more for these coffees are still expecting to get their money's worth. (It's worth noting that in some very poor coffee-growing areas, some of the coffee in fact fits the organic and shade-grown profiles as a general matter of practicality; however, because organic certifications and the like cost some serious money, they aren't allowed to use those terms.) Coffee's even been used as part of rebuilding broken states; a large part of Rwanda's coffee output, for example, comes from efforts to use coffee to help finance rebuilding the country after the bloody civil wars of the 1990s.

There is an extensive vocabulary of coffee slang, and not nearly enough room for more than a tiny sampling (names like java, joe, wakey-wake, wirewater, etc). People are also very attached to their coffee shops; around Boston, people must have their Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks still has their home in Seattle, Canadians treat Tim Horton's as a matter of national pride, and lots of people have their local neighborhood diner or greasy spoon where they go in preference to any chain. And yes, the actual job title is "barista"; yes, it's an Italian word; and it's a damn tough job, especially during rush hours and right after the nearest schools get out. Tip your barista.

Now do me a favor. This coffee is crap and I'm still sleepy, so go away before I slay you and your whole family. What, Tea And Tea Culture? A Spot of Tea? Don't mind if I do...


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