Of all legal vices, coffee would be my drug of choice. I drink it black with no sugar, and there isn’t a day I don’t have several cups. I start when I get up, and finish my evening meal with an espresso, whatever the time.
I don’t consider myself an expert, but definitely an informed amateur. For as long as I can remember, I have liked “good” coffee. But what exactly does that mean?
One thing I have learnt over the years is that coffee is a very personal thing. Without going into the whole “American coffee is not really coffee, it’s brown water” versus “ristretto is liquid tar” debate, even people who drink similar strength coffee have very different preferences. This is why there are so many different coffee blends and types of roast. The fact is, you get used to a certain flavour, and that’s the one you like then. Like a baseline for taste, so to speak.
The two basic coffee varieties are Arabica and Robusta.
Robusta, as the name suggests, is a robust plant that grows pretty much everywhere (okay, not everywhere… It does need to be an equatorial/tropical climate, but you get my gist), but is a bit rough around the edges when it comes to taste. Arabica is fussier, as plants go, and needs a bit of altitude to be happy. Apparently, the higher it grows, the better the quality. Coffee, like wine, has different aromas depending on what the French call terroir, the unique mix of soil, mineral content, humidity, precipitation, amount of sunshine, etc. Ethiopian, Columbian, Costa Rican, Hawaiian… Best to taste them all and choose your favourite! For more detailed information about how coffee is classified, grown, and harvested, you can go to the website of the coffee roaster Illy, for example.
Long ago, when we were still young and adventurous, Hubby worked one season as On-piste-Barista for Cafe de Colombia on the women’s circuit of the Ski World Cup. He followed the ladies around to all the competitions with coffee machines, bags of Prestige Roast and a 007-type backpack with a hose and a tap. Representing one of the main sponsors, he would set up a coffee tent at the arrival area and hand out free coffees (next to the giant, inflatable Milka cow), or set off on his skis with his thermos backpack and pour coffees up and down the slopes to the technicians and spectators of the race.
Sitting in a hotel in Val d’Isère one freezing afternoon, I had a long chat with a Columbian coffee expert who had worked on the Nespresso project before it became the “What else?”-phenomenon we know today.
He told me a few things about coffee I hadn’t known. For instance, most people think espresso contains more caffeine than filter coffee – because it tastes strong – but that the opposite is true (because the higher the pressure, the lower the caffeine content). I looked this up (for example, the Mayo Clinic website). It really is true.
He also told me that it is a myth that Italians have the best coffee. Sure, they drink a lot of coffee (3.4kg per capita per year), but they only come 19th according to a 2013 study by The Caffeineinformer – the top three countries of coffee drinkers are at #3, the Netherlands, at #2, Norway, and at Number 1, Finland, with a whopping 9.6kg per capita. The better the quality coffee bean (and the more pressure used to force the water through), the longer you can make your coffee without squeezing out the nasty stuff and the fats contained in it (Have you ever noticed that the last drop or two of coffee kind of pearls on top of the surface of your cuppa…? Look next time, you’ll see it!). Italians famously drink ristretto – a teaspoonful of strong coffee in a tiny cup. The history of coffee goes as far back as the 10th century or so, but it was the vibrant trade of the Republic of Venice with Northern Africa that brought coffee to the European Continent towards the end of the 16th century. In fact, the first coffee house outside Arabic-speaking countries was established in Venice in 1645. The “good” coffee, however, was reserved for trade – not the consumption of ordinary Italians! To make the lesser-quality coffee palatable, therefore, they had to make the coffee shorter – restrict it – hence the name “ristretto”. And then it just became the way people drank coffee.
(photo: Huffington Post website)
With all the craziness around Seattle-based coffee companies and and superstar baristas and milk-foam art coffees all over the developed world, I did wonder whether some (all?) of it didn’t simply boil down to snobism and whether any of us really had a clue. I had an ongoing coffee war in my own family. On the one hand, my mother worked as a Nespresso representative, making coffee for people in department stores and selling Nespresso machines. She got her coffee for free and had several machines at home. On the other hand, my parents-in-law make a large percolator of coffee in the morning and repeatedly reheat the black stuff in the microwave until it’s all gone. (Eeeek!)
Hubby recently bought us a fancy Swiss coffee machine that grinds the beans just seconds before brewing. I am in love… Now, that’s what I’m talking about!
But many factors influence the way coffee tastes: how it is roasted, how it is stored, the quality of the water, the temperature of the machine…
So one day we left our house to my parents-in-law for the week. When we came back, I found the coffe – from my beloved machine – tasted awful. They had run out of coffee and had bought a fresh bag, the cheapest they could find. For diplomatic reasons, one holds one’s tongue, but when they were gone, I investigated. I poured out a handful of both their purchase and our usual coffee. The difference was visible: theirs was darker, some beans almost black. Their grains were shiny – the other lot wasn’t. Their grains were of differing sizes and contained broken bits – the others were more uniform and I saw no broken bits.
Now, I don’t know what any of these characteristics mean when it comes to coffee – my knowledge is limited – but I do know that one tasted strong, bitter and slightly burnt, while the other was smooth, round and pleasant, but with a nice kick. Is it because it is “good” coffee or is it because it is what I am used to? I don’t know. (Having said that, bad quality rice contains many broken pieces, while the best Basmati rice I ever had had long, uniform grains and no “chaff”… Might be a clue?)
The problem is that since last week, my wonderful coffee machine has been making woeful cups of coffee! I am in crisis. For a person who functions badly without caffeine, I should put this in capitals: I AM IN CRISIS! So the CSI-like investigation has begun: grains…water…temperature…dosage… filter… Oh, come on! I can’t do this without coffee! Even CSI couldn’t do this without coffee!
I’ll let you know the results of the autopsy.