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Useful Notes / Coffee

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a: a beverage made by percolation, infusion, or decoction from the roasted and ground seeds of a coffee plant
b: any of several Old World tropical plants (genus Coffea and especially C. arabica and C. canephora) of the madder family that are widely cultivated in warm regions for their seeds from which coffee is prepared
c: coffee seeds especially roasted and often ground
d: a dehydrated product made from brewed coffee
// instant coffee
also : a beverage made from this
— Merriam-Webster definition of coffee


*knock knock*


*knock knock knock*


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 spoon,note  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 is made in a number of ways, but they all start with dried, roasted coffee beans. Drying the coffee beans entails 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. For simplicity's sake, 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. Ironically, Turkey, the contentious namesake, is the highest consumers of tea in the world.
    • 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 legend goes that it was invented by IDF soldiers on alert who didn't have time to brew up a proper cup. The name for this drink translates fairly directly to "mud coffee."
    • In Central Europe, at least in the former Czechoslovakia, the "Turkish" coffee is drunk even today.
    • In similar way to the Israeli method above, the typical Indonesian way of brewing coffee is almost identical (called "tubruk"): dump coffee grounds into a cup, put in the sugar, then pour hot water in, stir, and serve.
  • 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. Automatic drip filters, by far the most widely used, scale particularly well, and range in size from small home units of 3-12 cup capacity to massive urns found in diners, Camp Cook cafeterias, office break rooms, and AA meetings, some of which seem large enough for a child (or a midget) to hide in. The manual method is also referred to as "pour-over" and it's Serious Business for pour-over fans.
    • In the late 1990s single-serving filter coffee system was introduced by Keurig, which took the market by storm when the price for the units dropped about ten years later. In the Keurig system and work-alikes, the coffee machine is loaded with a small plastic pod ('K-cup') roughly the size and shape of a thimble or single-serving creamer, the flat bottom of which being a semi-permeable filter. The K-cup, which contains a pre-measured amount of ground coffee, is loaded into the top or side of the coffee machine, which then forces pressurized water (not steam, as would be the case for a pressure-brewing system, and at a much lower pressure than those) to quickly filter the water through the grounds. While they are unmatched in convenience (short of instant coffee, see below), they aren't very efficient in terms of energy use, the disposable cups are considered wasteful by many, and worst of all to a coffee fanatic, the pre-ground coffee is usually of mediocre quality. Reusable K-cups do exist, but aren't particularly popular compared to the disposable cups.
    • The Aeropress is a relatively new (and patented, so only one company makes it so far) method which combines aspects of filtered coffee, direct infusion, and pressure brewing (for very, very limited definitions of 'pressure'). The device is similar to a French press crossed with a reverse-osmosis water filter: coffee grounds and hot water are infused in a chamber, then a hand-drawn piston plunger forces the brewed coffee through a stiff paper filter at the bottom of the chamber into the cup. The result is a coffee which aficionados describe as being somewhere between French press and espresso in strength and flavor, but with less bitterness than either. While it is a very new method, and not very well known, it has quickly become a Cult Classic with a small but devoted following. Similar presses with names such as "Handpresso" have similar cult followings, though the Aeropress is the closest of them to really catching on.
  • 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. The café cubano of Cuba and south Florida is espresso carefully stirred together with more sugar than you'd expect it to be able to dissolve and is a nice but hard-to-find alternative to straight espresso. Worth noting, Espresso is sometimes incorrectly called "Expresso" by English-speakers, which is doubly amusing if you know that "Espresso" comes from the Italian word for "Expressed", as the water is expressed, or forced through the grounds.
  • 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 most serious of Serious Business, even more than pour-over fans.
  • Percolator: An older method, once ubiquitous but now largely abandoned, a percolator is a pot in which heated water is pushed up through a pipe by the bubbles formed as the water is boiled; the water then splashes through the end of the pipe to land on a filter containing the grounds, dripping ('percolating') through the filter bed before returning to the boiling chamber below (this video from Technology Connections gives a detailed explanation of how they work and why they're not that great). While 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. In the US specifically, percolators were nearly universal in the early 20th century, due to their convenience and low cost; however, they rapidly vanished once inexpensive drip-filtered coffee machines (specifically the iconic Mr Coffee and its work-alikes) came on the market in the early 1970s. You may still see one pulled out of storage at church dinners and community centers.
  • Instant Coffee: Coffee that's been brewed in mass infusion units, and then freeze-dried or processed in some other way to produce a powder (or in one well-known brand, 'crystals') which can be infused into hot water to produce a vaguely coffee-like liquid. The results are generally considered Bad to the Last Drop by serious coffee aficionados, being coarse and painfully bitter, and many feel it is better saved for cold drinks and cooking. Still, it has the advantages of being cheap and extremely convenient, and can be serviceable enough for most people's tastes when mixed with a large amount of sugar and creamernote , particularly when better brews aren't readily available; thus, millions of people drink it around the world to get their daily caffeine fix. There are many brands, but it seems that the undisputed worldwide number one is Nescafé.

Those basic methods of preparation are the base of a huge array of different drinks. When not drunk black, the most common accompaniments to coffee 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 deserves particular mention, because it is unusually susceptible to mixing and matching. 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) on a caffè latte, you get a cappuccino, the foam-layered coffee drink named after the garb of the Capuchin monks. 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. Note that caffè latte should not be confused with the French café au lait, which although drunk at breakfast and containing milk is made not with espresso, but with either drip coffee or coffee infused in a French press. Caffè latte should also not be confused with the "flat white," an Australian creation made by mixing espresso with microfoamed milk for a velvety texture. Also speaking to espresso's versatility are its use in both the "long black" and the Americano; both are ways to approximate the experience of drinking a longer "black" drip coffee with espresso by mixing with hot water, but the former (which is Australian) involves pouring the espresso over the hot water (which preserves the crema), while the latter (invented by Italians catering to Americans) involves pouring hot water over the espresso (which breaks up the crema). And again, espresso is also the basis for the contemporary coffee cultures of the Caribbean (particularly Cuba), which most often involves mixing light brown demerera or turbinado sugar with the grounds before pressing the espresso.

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 (sometimes out of reverse snobbery, sometimes just because the drip coffee goes fantastically well with the heavy cuisine associated with greasy spoons the way English Breakfast tea pairs well with a greasy "fry-up"). At the other end of the spectrum, the "third wave" coffee movement has popularized the pour-over method with high-quality, single-origin beans made one cup at a time. In some areas, various forms of iced coffee drinks are popular, even in the dead of winter.

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 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.
      • Historically, Haiti was a major producer: in 1788, it produced half the world's coffee supply, mostly around the Tiburon Peninsula in the south. However, its famous revolution did irreparable damage to the industry, and by the time the country was stable enough to support coffee growing again, other countries had irretrievably replaced it in the market. Today Haiti's products are niche.
      • Haitian and other Caribbean coffee is probably one of the main reasons that France and the United States are primarily coffee cultures today. When France controlled Haiti and Haiti produced half the world's coffee, it makes sense that France would take up the drink big-time. Additionally, coffee was one of the many products smuggled from other countries' colonies to the British ones before the American Revolution, although Jamaican coffee would have been semi-legitimately imported (also being British).
    • 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 outside Australia itself (where an Italian-inspired espresso-based coffee culture is strong, and pre-packaged iced coffee is very popular to the point of outselling Coca-Cola in South Australia), 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, so here are some examples:
    • 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.
    • A number of blends are generic:
      • Breakfast Blend: Common in North America, usually a lighter coffee that won't compete with heavy breakfast foods or startle a sleepy palate. In the United States, similar coffees are sometimes referred to as "donut shop" or "diner" blends, implying that they're meant to be just like the morning coffee you grab on the way to work, but better. It serves a similar role that English Breakfast tea does in the U.K.
      • 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"
      • Spanish roast or Torrefacto: The darkest of roasts, the bean is not only burnt, but sugar is added during the roasting process so the bean caramelises slightly. Considered vile by most coffee aficionados, it was originally done as a way of increasing coffee shelf life, but it became popular in the impoverished post-war Southern Europe. They're usually 20% to 50% robusta and the rest low-grade arabica.
      • "Dessert blends": Usually not called that, frequently a dark or mixed light and dark roast meant to complement rich desserts and pastries.
    • In the American state of Louisiana, it is common to flavor coffee with chicory, a plant (closely related to endive, and whose leaves are commonly used as endive is) whose roots, when ground and seeped in hot water, yield a bitter tasting drink. The reason is that during the American Civil War, coffee imports into Louisiana dried up because of the Union blockade of Southern ports. Chicory was drunk as a substitute. After the war, coffee became available, but there was a severe economic depression in Louisiana, and so most people continued drinking chicory. Even many who could afford coffee added chicory to it to stretch out the supply of what was a luxury good. When the economy got better, the chicory growers prevailed on the state legislature to pass a heavy tax on coffee, perpetuating the mixed form until it became so emblematic of the state (and particularly its largest city, New Orleans) that artificial supports weren't needed to keep the product going. It's considered to be the ideal accompaniment to the state's famous beignets (which in the Louisiana Creole tradition refers to a kind of ethereal rectangular doughnut topped with powdered sugar).
    • A more recent trend is taking black coffee and blending it with one or two teaspoons of butter, and either some Coconut Oil or MCT Oil. The result is a fatty drink without coffee's bitter edge for people on low-card or no-sugar diets. Frequently called either Butter Coffee or Bulletproof Coffee. Its high fat content typically allows it to be a healthy alternative to a full breakfast meal.

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. As well, while Fair Trade coffee has a price markup, a large portion of this markup goes to the Fair Trade managers in North America and Europe, as opposed to the farmers. A 2011 study found that Fair Trade coffee farmers ended up poorer. One of the reasons is that farmers have to pay fir the Fair Trade certification, so Western certifiers fly in to do the assessment. note  A study by Mendoza [2000] has shown that "farmers received a premium of only US$0.09 per pound, or 2 percent of the US$4.23 retail [Fair Trade] premium."

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 has even been used as part of efforts to rebuild 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. Oh wait, Tea and Tea Culture? Don't mind if I do...