It might seem like a simple question;
but with so many types of coffee beans, coffee flavors, recipes for coffee drinks and even different types of coffee creamer out there, you might find yourself wondering.
We want to cut through the confusion and find out more about every aspect of our favorite beverage.
So join us on a tour from plant to cup, and learn about the ingredients that go into creating an authentic cup of Joe.
What is coffee: Definition
Where better to start our quest than with a coffee definition – and the Merriam-Webster dictionary offers us no less than four.
First up, it’s the drink – or as the dictionary describes it, “A beverage made by percolation, infusion, or decoction from the roasted and ground seeds of a coffee plant.”
But what precisely counts as a coffee plant? The second definition gives us the answer: any of the plants from the genus Coffea and especially the Arabica and canephora (also known as Robusta) varieties.
Then there are the coffee seeds, which Merriam-Webster notes are specially roasted and ground.
Finally, whatever you think of the taste, it seems that instant coffee does count. The dictionary definition includes “a dehydrated product made from brewed coffee.”
But of course, a dictionary can only take us so far. What we really what to know about is the taste – and for that, we have to start with the beans…
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The beans – or should that be seeds?
Despite being commonly known as beans, the basic ingredient of a cup of coffee is really a seed. It forms the fruit of the coffee plant, which is red or purple and often referred to as a cherry.
The cherries most commonly contain two stones, positioned with their flat sides together. In about 10 to 15% of cases, they contain only a single seed, which is known as a “peaberry”. Though unproven, it is commonly believed that peaberries have more flavor than other beans.
As an enormously profitably crop, a huge amount of attention has been given to studying the best conditions for growing coffee. These vary by coffee type, with Arabica doing well at high altitude whilst Robusta is better suited to hotter, more humid areas at lower altitudes.
In addition to altitude, site conditions can make a big difference to the prevalence of the pests to which coffee plants are vulnerable. If the site is a good habitat for pests, even the right altitude won’t help.
Two of the most common problems faced by the coffee tree are coffee leaf rust, caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix, and an insect known as the coffee berry borer.
A 2012 study found that large, connected coffee plots were bad for crops because they allowed the coffee berry borer to move around and survive better.
Windy sites also helped fungus spores from the coffee leaf rust to spread from one area to another, increasing the chance of epidemics.
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Where does coffee come from in the world?
With all the conditions that need to be met to successfully grow a coffee crop, you might be asking yourself which parts of the world are able to meet the exacting criteria.
All coffee is grown at a broadly similar latitude between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This area is known as the “bean belt” or “coffee belt”.
As you might expect from their differing site requirements, Arabica and Robusta are generally cultivated in different areas.
Robusta, as its name suggests, is more resilient to disease and is cultivated in central Africa, throughout South-East Asia and Brazil.
South America is responsible for around 45% of all coffee exports, with Brazil taking the lion’s share of the trade.
Once you get past the basic distinction between Arabica and Robusta coffees, the variety of coffees on the market can be pretty bewildering.
Unsurprisingly, the rarity of a coffee has a significant impact on its price – and there are some very rare coffees indeed.
Kopi Luwak is often cited as the world’s most expensive coffee, and when you understand how it’s produced, it’s easy to see why. The key element of the process might surprise you – it’s a civet cat.
The civets enjoy nothing better than munching on a ripe, delicious coffee fruit. After they’ve eaten it, the beans are excreted in their feces.
This might not sound particularly appetizing, but the civet’s digestion process adds enzymes that alter the taste of the beans.
The result is a smooth, delicious coffee for which aficionados are happy to pay up to an astonishing $160 per pound.
If you’re thinking about splashing out, however, beware: some Kopi Luwak coffee is produced with battery farmed and force-fed civets.
Both the animals and the coffee flavor suffer. Look out for certified brands to make sure your coffee is cruelty-free.
Even more prized than Kopi Luwak is Panama’s Hacienda La Esmeralda. Grown in the shade of guava trees on the slopes of Mount Barú, the beans are produced in very small quantities.
Their quality is considered to be unsurpassed, with the coffee taking first place at no less than thirteen worldwide competitions since 2004.
But all this flavor comes at a cost: at the 2013 Best of Panama Auction, Hacienda La Esmeralda achieved a record-breaking price of $320.25 per pound.
It’s not just the bean that determines the flavor of your coffee: the process of roasting also has a key part to play.
Prior to roasting, coffee beans are green (and coffee beans from Sumatra have a distinctive bluish tinge).
Roasting creates the brown color and distinctive coffee aroma, but also releases carbon dioxide that over time will cause the beans to go stale.
For this reason, coffee beans are usually imported in their green state and roasted in their destination country.
The process involves placing the beans in a machine at a temperature of about 550 degrees Fahrenheit. They are kept in constant motion to prevent them from burning.
When the internal temperature of the beans has risen to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, they begin to turn brown and a fragrant oil, known as caffeol, begins to emerge.
This process is called pyrolysis. The beans are then cooled quickly either by air or water.
The length of the roast creates either a dark or lighter colored bean. While many people assume that dark roasts are stronger, this is not in fact the case.
It is primarily the brewing process rather than the roast which is responsible for the strength of the beverage.
There are, however, a number of differences between light and dark roasts.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but dark roasted beans actually have less caffeine than their lighter roasted counterparts.
When coffee is dark roasted the bean cracks twice, leaving it less dense. Light roasted beans maintain more of their density and with it their naturally occurring caffeine.
Lighter roasting also retains more of the beans’ acidity and original flavor profile. This is often considered to create a brighter and more complex coffee.
Medium roasted beans are darker in color. Some of the coffee’s oils may also be visible on their surface, giving them a richer appearance.
This roast aims to balance acidity and body, complementing the flavors of the original coffee with those from the roasting process.
Dark roasts vary in color from dark brown to almost black. The flavor notes from the roasting process are paramount here, and you’ll find it difficult to pick out the characteristics of a coffee’s origin.
This makes for a tasting experience that is all about body rather than brightness.
The different characteristics are a matter of personal preference, so why not try a few different types of coffee roasts and see which you prefer?
Coffee types explained
It is said that Starbucks alone offers 87,000 different coffee combinations, so working out what to order in your local coffee shop can sometimes seem like an impossible task.
To help you, we’re going to describe some of the most popular coffee types.
The espresso – also known as the short black – is both a coffee in its own right and the foundation for almost all coffee drinks.
It packs quite a punch, making it a great choice to wake you up in the morning.
If you love a really strong taste, you can always order a double espresso, or doppio. As its name suggests, it’s simply two shots of espresso in a single cup.
The ristretto gives an even more intense flavor. It’s made with the same amount of coffee as a single espresso shot but with half the water, making for a more concentrated extraction.
If you find unadulterated espresso too much to handle, you might prefer a short caffè macchiato.
The precise method of making this varies from country to country, but it most usually consists of a single shot of espresso in an espresso cup, topped by a dollop of steamed and foamy milk.
A variation on the theme, the long macchiato is made in exactly the same way as the short, but with two shots of espresso instead of one.
An Americano, often known as filter coffee, consists of a cup of hot water to which an espresso shot is added. It can be drunk either black (also known as a long black) or with the addition of milk.
The café latte – or latte for short – is yet another espresso based drink. With the latte, however, the extra ingredient is steamed milk, making for a much sweeter flavor.
Similar to the latte, a cappuccino also combines espresso and steamed milk but has more foam on top.
A particular favorite of coffee drinkers with a sweet tooth, the cappuccino is frequently topped with a final dusting of chocolate.
Last but not least is the flat white. Originating in Australia and New Zealand, it has the same combination of espresso and steamed milk as a cappuccino or latte, but has no added foam.
Getting adventurous with coffee recipes
As well as the classic brewing methods, there are a host of options for those in search of new coffee tasting experiences.
Numerous online recipes are available to add new and interesting flavors to your brew.
For those who like a sweet drink, there’s the gingerbread latte, peppermint mocha, and white chocolate cappuccino.
And if you like your coffee with a grown-up twist, why not sample one of the many coffee-based cocktails – such as the Turkish Coffee Sour, made with rum, coffee and spices.
Or try that after-dinner classic, Irish coffee, made with Irish whiskey, cream, sugar – and of course, strong coffee.
On a hot summer day, an iced coffee can be a great way to keep cool whilst enjoying your favorite flavors. Make your ice cubes from frozen coffee instead of water to get the best results.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you might consider serving your coffee as they do in Finland: poured over chunks of cheese curds known as juustoleipä.
The complex world of coffee
As we’ve seen, the question of “what is coffee” is not as simple as it may at first appear.
We’ve looked at the variations introduced by different coffee beans (or seeds), country of origin, variety, length of roasting and preparation methods.
We’ve even stretched the definition to look at different coffee recipes and serving styles.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed finding out more about one of the world’s most popular drinks.
And if you’ve got a question we haven’t answered, please comment and let us know.
My name is Kathy Gallo, Editor of Ag Ferrari, a Coffee buff. The guide you find here is designed exactly for you, and it is our hope that you find it not only interesting but also actionable.