Kitchen 101: Coffee – Roasting & Brewing
Coffee is one of those subjects that seems so simple and unassuming, and then when you decide to do a couple of infographics and a helpful article like this, you suddenly realize that coffee, coffee roasting, and coffee brewing are all very complex, unregulated, and non standardized topics with varying opinions and classifications on nearly every aspect, no matter how small or large. There are no rules on what is or isn’t a french roast – there is however a host of standards for bean color, such as the Agnot system. The what? There is no golden standard holding coffee makers to certain brewing rules – coffee should be brewed with water in a very specific temperature range. Does your coffee maker manage that? Maybe on a Monday. Probably not on a Tuesday. And caffeine. It’s the same across the board right? Nope. Type of bean, roasted level, whether you measure by weight or volume, and even brewing method will muck that number up.
What am I saying then? I’m saying, strap in, folks; it’s going to be a wild ride.
Like fine wines, the thing that affects coffee flavor or aroma most is likely the bean’s origins. And when I say flavor or aroma, I mean those subtle fruity, floral and earthy notes that have you buying one particular brand over another. This is not a post about that. This is all about what to do once you’ve found your favorite beans. It’s a post to show you why you would pick a breakfast roast over a french roast, or vice versa. This is a post about how something as simple as the shape of a coffee maker, the material of a filter, or the method you introduce the ground beans to that nearly boiling water – or then remove the water from the ground beans – can make a wildly different cup of coffee. Take it from someone with half a dozen coffee makers in his kitchen – yes, I’m a coffee snob – you can take the same beans and get dozens of different cups of coffee from them, all with changes in caffeine content, body, flavor, aroma, and acidity.
This is the years-in-the-making, definitive Kitchen 101 article on coffee, what to look for in roasts, and how to brew the perfect cup. Here we go!
What is Coffee?
Before we jump into all of that, let’s quickly look at what coffee is exactly. Coffee is a brewed drink that uses the dried and roasted seeds (or coffee beans as we like to say) from the coffee plant (which is actually more so a genus of various similar plants that is called Coffea, rather than just one plant). Of all the Coffea species, most coffee in the world comes from just two: Coffea arabica (producing what is often known as Arabica beans – and what accounts for nearly 80% of the world’s coffee beans) and Coffea canephora (producing what we know as Robusta coffee.) What’s the difference? Well, you could call Robusta coffee the poor man’s coffee as it is often considered to be harsher, more bitter, and with a distinct earthy flavor – and this is often found in cheap, mass-produced coffee blends. It also contains a lot more caffeine, almost twice as much by weight before roasting than Arabica beans. Arabica beans on the other hand are praised for their smoother and more flavorful attributes.
Before it becomes your morning pick me up, coffee beans are, well Coffea seeds, found inside Coffea berries. The berries (which resemble a cross between a cherry and cranberry in size and range from bright green to red) are picked, the flesh is removed, and the seeds – I think it’s safe to say we can now call them coffee beans again – are dried. Once the coffee bean has dried out, roasting begins, a process whereby the beans are heated in massive industrial drums – or small roasters, depending on where you look – to a predetermined internal temperature or bean color, which we know as consumers a specific roast. The coffee is then stored, shipped, packaged, shipped again, arrives at your local grocery store, sits on the shelf a while, ends up in your cart, is removed from the package, ground, and then brewed into the cup you are likely holding on to this very second as you read this.
Because Coffea can only be grown in a narrow band around the equator (it’s not that narrow; it spans thousands of miles) and is generally considered a finicky, picky plant, it’s a miracle in global economics that has been providing caffeine addicted humans with their favorite beverage for hundreds and thousands of years.
Coffee the drink is a collection of over a thousand chemical compounds – caffeine likely being the most well known of the bunch. If you really want to know what those compounds are and what they do, I suggest a google search, a trip to the library, and a lot of free time. Safe to say, I’m not going to get involved in the heated argument that is the health benefits and downfalls of coffee and caffeine. Drink it if you like it. Don’t if you don’t.
Location, Location, Location
As I’ve alluded to, the heart of the coffee bean – at least to me -, the aspect that creates the subtle flavors that shine through roasting and brewing methods, are often where the bean originates from. There’s a reason that halfway between the light roasted coffees and dark roasted coffees is a point when you begin to lose the bean origin flavors and gain the roasting method flavors. Farming methods, plant variety, weather conditions, and countless other items also affect the bean’s flavor, but tracking that down makes bean-chasing more of a chore than a joy. It is fascinating to see how certain areas can lend very specific attributes to beans though. Where do my favorite beans come from? Chiapas, Mexico.
On a never ending mission to be complicated, coffee gets, well, complicated, when it comes to roasting, only because the terms you and I use everyday – breakfast, medium, espresso, french – aren’t standardized, and can vary from one producer to the next. It’s only made more complicated by the fact that roasting temperatures can yield different roasts in different types of beans. And then in the industry, your given a myriad of non-standardized methods of measurements. What your left with is a subjective, at best, look at how to classify coffee roasting.
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That said, for the sake of our own palate, we can put together a collection of rough categories. Here I’ve organized them by the roasting temperature, color, and then the names so familiar to you and I. From there, we can start to look at just how the different levels of roasting affect coffee. So, what are those? Caffeine, Body, Aroma, Acidity and Flavor.
Caffeine is, just that, the amount of caffeine in the coffee. You might think that the darkest roasted beans have more caffeine, right? Nope. Then the less a bean is roasted, the higher the caffeine content, right? Well, only sometimes. It’s true, as a bean is roasted, some of the caffeine is lost. At the same time, the bean expands and looses a lot of moisture, so a dark roasted bean is going to weigh a lot less and take up a lot more space than a lightly roasted bean. So if you measure your coffee by volume to make your morning coffee (or with that handy little scoop your coffee comes with), then yes, scoop for scoop, light coffees have more caffeine than dark coffees. However, if you measure your coffee by weight, the playing field isn’t only evened, it’s tipped. Ounce for ounce, dark roasted beans will actually contain more caffeine than light roasted beans. It’s completely up to how you measure your coffee when you brew it.
Body is the mouthfeel or weight of the coffee – think whole milk vs. skim milk. This can have a lot to do with how well essential oils and compounds are pulled from the bean into the water. Lighter roasted coffees, which are relatively untouched by the roasting process, will create a thin-bodied coffee. As roasting increases, so does body. But this peaks somewhere in the medium to medium-dark range where you get a full-bodied coffee. However, as beans continue to roast beyond the second crack, their body becomes thin again as many oils are simply roasted out of the bean, leaving little for the water to pull out.
Aroma here can be described as how much of a bean’s original aromas can still be noted, in addition to how it compares to the flavors which come from the roasting process. Roasting beans will impart smokey, spicy, and nutty aromas, and chocolate, caramel and charcoal like flavors. The longer the beans are roasted, the more these flavors and aromas will stand out over the earthy, fruity, or floral aromas found naturally in the coffee beans. Light roasts are fruity and floral, medium roasts are nutty and chocolatey, and dark roasts are smokey and spicy.
Acidity is somewhat erroneously used – coffee is a neutral liquid and thus has no true acidity – to describe the sharpness, or clarity of coffee, instead of its actual acidic levels. Lightly roasted coffees will often have a cleaner, brighter taste, while heavily roasted coffees will often be pungent and bitter.
Flavor is the combination of the above and is what you have when you take a sip. Lightly roasted coffees such as cinnamon, breakfast, and New England roasts are often clean, mild, and fruity with a full body. Medium roasted coffees such as American and city roasts, are heavier, full-bodied, and rich in chocolatey, caramel, and nutty flavors. Dark roasted coffees such as Espresso, Italian, French, and Spanish roasts are pungent, strong, thin-bodied, and can be heavy-handed in smokey, charred flavors.
Roasting isn’t however the only aspect of making coffee that can affect its caffeine content, flavor, body, and finish.
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This is where brewing comes in. There are many ways to turn water and ground coffee beans into the drink you and I cherish. Some will be familiar to you, and some will sound foreign and contrived, but boy do they make a phenomenal cup of coffee. Every brewing method, no matter how different, are designed to do one thing, steep coffee beans in very hot water and separate that coffee from the beans. To do this, each method has five basic means of control. It is the variations in these controls that give us the different cups of coffee, from the relatively weak but smooth, clean, and balanced cup of drip coffee to the strong, robust, full-bodied, and complex cup of french press.
Coffee Bean to Water Ratio can determine if you under- or over-extract the coffee, leading to a weak or bitter brew. This number is essentially the same across the board for each maker but varies from one person or coffee house to another. What is it? You’ll see anything from 1:14 to 1:18. I like 1 gram of coffee for every 16 grams of water. For you volumetric measurers, that is about 2 tablespoons for every 6 ounces of water, which equals one small cup of coffee (note: not a true cup as that is 8 oz). That said, you can always experiment here to find your perfect brew.
Coffee Bean Grind could just be the most important part. After all, if you mess this up big, coffee grounds could go right through your filter or your maker just won’t be able to turn those grounds and water into coffee. This varies from one maker to another and depends solely on the filter in the maker. That said, how you grind is also important. And this is where I, like every other coffee snob writing a post about coffee, plea you to go out and buy a burr grinder. Why should you spend more on your coffee grinder than your coffee maker? Burr grinders are precise and crush each bean into the same size chunks with each setting, unlike blade grinders (that $10 cylinder you use to grind spices too) which chop and break the beans into various sizes.
Water Temperature is another control that is relatively the same across the board – at least it should be. With the exception of an espresso maker which brews coffee under pressure, every other coffee maker is simply relying on hot water. It’s because of this that we have to look at the beans for our temperature. First, let’s get one thing straight: COFFEE HATES BOILING WATER. Your water should not be boiling. It should be close, but not boiling. Most beans will brew between 90°C and 96°C (194-205°F). Some beans, like darker roasts can tolerate lower temperatures but not by much. Of course, just because the water should be this temperature – which is easy to control with many methods – it doesn’t mean the coffee maker always achieves this. Imprecise automatic drip makers can heat the water too little or too hot, while percolators rely on boiling to drive the water up, and thus always overheat the water.
Steep Time is completely dependent on the maker and your preferences. Typically, the finer the grind, the quicker the steep or draw time, but this isn’t always true – Turkish coffee takes quite a bit longer than espresso’s 20-30 second pull.
Filter is another very important one, and is essentially why you have one snob purporting the chemex while another yells about the french press. After all, the metal filter will let a lot more through as it doesn’t catch many of the coffee’s oils and residues. Paper filters will catch those oils and sediment. With the metal filter you can expect to get a more robust and full-bodied cup while with paper filters you can expect to get cleaner, less intense cups of coffee. On top of this, the size of the metal filter, or strength of the paper can determine even more. The chemex uses a much sturdier, denser paper filter than normal drip coffee, and as a result produces a much cleaner cup.
All together, these five controls come together to create a myriad of coffee brewing. From the clean, smooth cup producing methods like Vaccum Pot, Cold Brew, and Drip, to clean and rich coffees like Aeropress, Chemex, and Pour Over. Then you have the full-bodied coffees: robust and complex brews like the French Press, Pressure Percolator, Moka Pot and Turkish; and rich and balanced methods like the espresso maker. There are countless ways to brew your coffee and countless coffees that can come from that. So, how do you make the perfect cup of coffee?
The Perfect Cup
There isn’t a more subjective statement out there, but this is how you brew the perfect cup of coffee. (Treat this as a guideline. Roasts, temperatures, times, and brewing methods can be changed and modified to create subtle differences that could mean the difference between your favorite cup and mine).
1. Buy your beans whole. I suggest a medium to medium-dark roast as this is where you get the best balance between bean and roast flavors. And buy whole beans!
2. Store your beans. Until you’re ready to use the beans, keep them in a cool, dark pantry or cabinet in an airtight container.
3. Prepare your coffee maker. Make sure your coffee maker is completely clean taking care to make sure there isn’t any old coffee residue or soap residue left.
4. Measure. Remember, 16 grams of water for every gram of coffee. That also works out to 1 ounce of coffee for every 16 ounces (not fluid ounces) of water as well.
5. Grind your beans in a burr grinder. Only grind your beans just before brewing. Coffee beans, once ground, can begin to lose their oils within 30 seconds of grinding.
6. Heat the water. If you’re not relying on your machine to heat the water, then it’s up to you. Using a thermometer is most precise (90-96°C or 194-205°F) but if you don’t have one, bring the water to a boil, then remove from the heat and let sit about 10 seconds.
7. Bloom the coffee. Pour enough water over the ground beans to wet them all – give them a little stir if necessary. Wait 30 seconds for the coffee to bloom before continuing brewing – blooming is a process whereby CO2, which likes to attach itself to the side of the ground beans thus preventing water from reaching it, is allowed to escape from the bean.
8. Brew your coffee. Depending on your preferred method of brewing, this is where you steep the coffee (3-4 more minutes for a french press) or slowly add water for pour over and Chemex brewing (never fill either to the top with water). Only make enough for what you plan to drink.
9. Decant and Serve immediately. Coffee doesn’t like to sit around, especially not in its own grounds.
10. Don’t reheat. Brew More. The only thing coffee dislikes more than sitting around, is being reheated – this includes being left on a warm burner or on the hot plate of a coffee maker. The excess heat quickly degrades the coffee turning it bitter.
There you have it, 10 super simple (but not really all that simple at all) steps for brewing the perfect cup of joe. Of course, if that’s all too much for you to fathom in the morning, you can simply do what you’ve been doing all along: letting your automatic drip machine figure it out for you. No, I’m kidding. Please don’t do this. Join the dark side. Spend a good chunk of your morning constructing the perfect cup of coffee. Trust me. You’ll never look back.
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How do you like your coffee? Have a method of trick we didn’t cover? Share it with us in the comments!
Sources: Wikipedia – Coffee Roasting, NCUAS, Business Insider, Coffee Crossroads, Java Distribution, Coffee Research, Blackbear Coffee, Coffee Snobs, Coffee Lab Equipment, Duvane’s World, Agtron, CSR Coffee, Sweet Marias, Make Good Coffee, Wikipedia – Coffee Preparation, Stumptown Coffee, Washington Post, Coffee Wikia – Coffee Brewers, Specialty Coffee Advisor, I Need Coffee, Prima Coffee, Coffee Wikia – Coffee Characteristics, Craft Coffee, Coffee Warehouse, Lifehacker, Pangeo Coffee, and Seattle Coffee Works.