The Beginner’s Guide to Coffee

Understand coffee appreciation and how the coffee process brings about different tastes

“An overhead shot of two coffee machine portafilters next to coffee beans and a cup of coffee” by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Ah, coffee. The fuel that powers humankind. It is a drink that exist in almost every country in the world from the villages in Nepal to the cities of America. Dating back to the 10th century, it was believed to be first discovered in Ethiopia. By the 15th century, it had reached areas including the Middle East, Persia and Turkey. By the 17th century, it reached the rest of the world such as Southeast Asia and the Americas.

The world of coffee appreciation, much like Wine, is a massive and complicated one. Every cup tastes unique depending on where the coffee beans came from, how the beans were roasted and even how the cup was brewed. For today, we hope to help you better appreciate humankind’s nectar of life through looking at key aspects of coffee tasting and how different components can affect your morning cup of coffee.

The Four Traits of Coffee

Photo by Makhmutova Dina on Unsplash

Different people drink coffee for different reasons. You can drink coffee purely for the caffeine boost, for something to go with your food, or even if it’s to camp at your local Starbucks and use their wi-fi for the entire day. To better appreciate and describe a cup of coffee, connoisseurs evaluate their drink on several dimensions. We will focus on four key ones: Aroma, Acidity, Body and Flavour.

Aroma. Just like wine, smell is a huge part of coffee appreciation. This is because the sense of smell is closely related to our sense of taste. Before you gulp down that coffee, take a moment to put your nose to the cup and let the aroma engulf you. Depending on the coffee, common aromas include caramel, smoky, carbon, fruit, nutty and spicy. For the everyday person, some of these aromas may be subtle and thus challenging to detect. It never hurts to try however, as getting a good whiff of your coffee will only help to enhance its flavour when you drink it.

Acidity. Acidity is the dry, bright and sparkling sensation that gives coffee its unique taste. This is a quality commonly associated with coffee beans grown at higher elevations, and thus deemed of a higher quality. In coffee, there are many different varieties of acid type. This can range from citric acid found in arabica coffee to Malic acid that provides coffee with a fruit-like flavour. Many coffee drinkers associate highly acidic coffee to be the cause for their sour stomach.However, the cause for this is not all types of acid, but rather by a specific type known as Quinic acid. Quinic acid increases in stale coffee that has been roasted or brewed a long time ago, and rarely is from the origin of the coffee bean itself.

Body. Also known as mouthfeel, a coffee’s body is a measure of its texture. When you drink your next cup of coffee, feel how rich or intense the coffee is as it settles on your tongue. Just like aroma, there are no set terms when describing a coffee’s body. Rather, connoisseurs will use a wide vocabulary to try and accurately capture the feeling. Common ones used include “heavy-bodied” and “light-bodied”. A heavy-bodied coffee will feel thicker and more viscous, while a light-bodied coffee will feel thinner and less viscous. An easy way to understand the difference between a heavy body and a light body is the feel of whole milk against skim milk as it settles in your mouth.

Flavour. The flavour of coffee is, simply, the taste of your coffee. Does it have a hint of honey? Do you taste vanilla? It perhaps tastes like a mix of nuts and caramel? The descriptors of coffee flavour are, just like when describing coffee body, as wide ranging as one’s vocabulary. Sweetness and Bitterness, among the other factors mentioned such as Acidity and Body, are common go-to descriptions when it comes to describing a coffee’s flavour.

With these four key traits of coffee, it should allow you to better describe the cup of coffee in your hands. However, it’s also important to know how these traits come about during the coffee production process, as this will allow you to know the variables that go into your favourite coffee. The key factors are coffee bean origin, type of roast, and the way it is brewed. Let’s take a look at each.

Know your Beans

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All coffee start off as seeds in the ground. These seeds take approximately 3 years to grow into trees and bear what are known as coffee cherries. They are bright red when ripe, and will be ready for harvest. The beans inside are then separated from the cherry, fermented, dried and milled.

While there are about 25 major species of coffee around the world, only about 3 of them are cultivated for commercial consumption. The major ones are Arabian (Coffea Arabica), Robusta (Coffea canephora) and Liberica (Coffea arnoldiana De Wild). Through grafting between coffee species however, there have been offshoots (also known as cultivars) of minor species of coffee bean that often have their roots in either Arabian or Robusta Coffee.

Coffea Arabica (~60–70% of the coffee market). Hailing from the mountains of Yemen and Ethiopia, Coffea Arabica have been distributed to be grown in plantations all around the world. As they are often grown on high elevation with steep slopes, this makes mechanical harvesting difficult. Farmers thus often have to resort to hand-picking. The hand-picking of these beans however, ensure higher quality assurance as under or overripe beans tend to get weeded out more effectively. This produces a higher quality batch of coffee beans for roasting. Gourmet coffee, such as Blue Mountain, are often of the Arabican variety. The Indonesian version of the Arabican variety, such as Sumatran and Java, are more common, and are known for their heavy bodies and low acidity.
Taste Profile: Highly-complex aroma with multiple flavour layers.

Coffea Canephora (~20–30% of the coffee market). Also known as Robusta, Coffea of the Canephora variety are regarded less highly than their Arabican counterparts. It is associated with almost double the caffeine, bitterness and lower acidity. Even though it hails from Ethipoia, Vietnam has far surpassed it to become the world’s largest exporter of Robusta. Compared to Coffea Arabica, it is much easier to grow due to its disease-resistance and higher crop yield. It is also often grown at lower elevation, allowing for mechanical harvesting to take place. This allows for a huge yield of Robusta every year as compared to Arabica. Because of its high supply and cheaper cost, it is often used in instant coffee mix and fillers for lower-grade coffee blends.
Taste Profile: Double the caffeine when compared to Arabica coffee. Smooth with distinct chocolate notes.

Liberica (~3% of the coffee market). Beans of the Liberica variety are cultivated in Liberia along the Atlantic coast. It has seen declined supply due to the coffee rust in 1890 and declined demand due to the rising popularity of Arabica and Robusta. It is now cultivated mainly in the Philippines in a sub-variety known as ‘barako’. Because of its limited supply, it is considered a rare commodity in some areas like the US. It has an extremely dense ‘woody’ flavour that may only cater to people with a specific palate.
Taste Profile: Full-bodied with a smoky and nutty aroma.

After the beans have been harvested and processed, they are greenish in colour. At this stage, they have little to no taste. To open up the flavour of the coffee beans, they will need to go through a roasting process. Let’s explore the key types of roast and how they affect the taste of coffee.

Cookin’ the Beans: Types of Roast

Photo by Geronimo López on Unsplash

Roast levels range within a spectrum from a light to dark roast. As the roasting process opens up the flavour of the coffee beans, variables such as temperature and length of roast plays a huge role in the taste of your coffee. As a rule of thumb, a lighter roast will preserve more of its natural origin flavour, while a darker roast will bring out what is known as the ‘roast flavour’.

Light Roast. The more common kinds of light roast are the Cinnamon and New England roast. The Cinnamon roast is the lighter of the two, roasting at 196°C (385°F). It carries an underdeveloped sweetness, sharp acidity and grassy flavour. The New England roast heats the beans at 205 °C (401 °F). With higher temperature, it brings with it a more complex acidity and is at the right temperature to open up the natural origin flavour of the beans. Speciality roasters sometimes use the New England roast due to its emphasis on the beans’ origin flavour.
Taste Profile: Acidic with a lighter body, but more varied profiles depending on the beans’ origins.

Medium Roast. When the heat is increased to a medium roast, the body of the coffee begins to develop. This brings a coffee taste that balances the acidity and origin flavour of the beans with the roasted flavour and body from the roasting process. Medium roast like the American and City Roasts are common in countries such as the United States. In American Roast, where the beans are heated at 210 °C (410 °F), acidity is muted with the origin character still preserved. As the heat increases to 219 °C (426 °F), it becomes a City Roast. While the origin character can still be tasted, the roast flavour starts to become noticeable.
Taste Profile: Lower acidity with increased bitterness. Higher body with roast flavour.

Dark Roast. In a dark roast, where temperatures are above 225 °C (437 °F), the beans begin to go from green and brown to black. The origin flavour is barely noticeable and largely eclipsed by the roast flavour. Almost none of the inherent aromas and flavour of the coffee bean are left. Large coffee brewing corporations tend to use dark roasts as the beans used are often cheaper and have a lower moisture. This makes them easier to ship in large quantities. If done correctly, however, a dark roast can caramelise the coffee, creating a rich, smoky flavour. Espressos tend to be dark roasts.
Taste Profile: Minimal acidity. Full-bodied with a strong roast flavour.

Within the equation of coffee-making, the last step is brewing the coffee. The type of brew further enhances or degrades the the taste profile of your coffee. Let’s explore how.

From Bean to Drink: Brewing Methods

“A person pouring milk over a coffee cup on top of a pot of Vietnamese coffee” by Thanh Tran on Unsplash

Brewing Coffee involves using a method to infuse the roasted coffee with water (or a liquid of your choice). Over the years, several methods have developed around the world. Each of these methods, from the technological pod machines of the West to the traditional sock brew of the East, have imparted in its coffee a unique finish.

Brew & Filter. This is widely accepted as the classic way of brewing coffee. The beans are manually grounded and then placed into a pot with hot water at about 96°C (204.8°F). After infusion in the hot water for about 3 minutes, the mixture is poured through a filter to separate the grounds from the coffee. Through this technique, the coffee you get is not as heavy. The acidity also becomes more pronounced.

Press. There are several variants of Press coffee, the most common one being the French Press. In Press coffee, the beans are also grounded and placed into a flask with hot water. Instead of letting the coffee grounds infuse in the water, a plunger or press with several small holes is used to press down on the mixture, forcing the coffee grounds to the bottom while the liquid seeps through the holes. By forcing the coffee grounds to move through the mixture actively, the coffee is stronger and often produces excellent results. However, more coffee grounds often need to be used in this method of brew.

Drip. In Drip coffee, a filter with coffee grounds is placed over a pot. Hot water is then poured onto the filter, which then slowly infuses with the coffee grounds and drips through the filter (hence the name). However, the nature of liquid moving through the coffee ground causes the infusion to be unbalanced as some liquid may pass by faster and some, slower. Alot of experimentation is often required to determine the right extraction time and filter type that is being used.

Pod Filtration. This is probably the most common way to make passable coffee at home. Through forcing hot water through a capsule of coffee grounds, the water infuses quickly with the coffee grounds and flows out of the spout as coffee. The machine is easy to clean, it involves minimal human effort, and the coffee brews extremely quickly. Of course, the range of coffee is limited to the capsules that you have access to. The coffee grounds in your pod also comes pre-ground, which may have been grounded up to an entire year beforehand! These factors cause your coffee to sometimes taste stale as compared to the other methods of brewing.

Instant Coffee. Instant Coffee are packets of pre-prepared coffee powder, which can be made into coffee by simply pouring hot water into the mix. These coffee powder comes from freeze or spray drying of the coffee grounds. While this is by far the quickest method of making a cup of coffee, the coffee grounds used are often extremely inferior to drive down the cost. This causes the taste of the coffee to be extremely stale with little to no origin character left in them.

With this information, you should be able to better appreciate the cup of coffee you drink everyday, as well as know what goes into your cup. We hope that, through this Guide, you will be able to better articulate the taste profile of your favourite cup of coffee the next time you visit your nearest coffeeshop.

About The Beginner’s Guide:
The Beginner’s Guide series provides you with a quick understanding of everyday items that you come in contact with. This includes articles on how something works, where something originated from, or how to make something better. All to provide you with tidbits of information that you can use to show off at your next dinner party.

Author’s Note:
That’s it for the introduction to Coffee Appreciation! I hope you’ve managed to take away tidbits of knowledge that will let you sound smarter at your next coffeeshop or cafe visit. As per my previous Guides, if any of the information is inaccurate, or if there is a certain topic you wish to find out more about, please feel free to drop a comment on this article! See you next Guide!

The Guide provides you with an understanding of the world around you, all to sound smarter at your next dinner party.

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