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Coffee: More than Just a Drink

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 Caffeine is the lifeblood of the modern college student. Late nights writing papers, early classes, and a general lack of sleep all create a need for some form of chemical enhancement to keep all of us awake. And while some turn to energy drinks in order to get their caffeine fix, many more turn to that sweet nectar that we all know and love, coffee. Whether it’s made at home with a machine, grabbed from your nearest Dunkin’ or Starbucks on the way to work or class, or artisanally brewed at your favorite local coffeehouse, coffee is used by many people to give them the energy they need to get through the day. Just like the people who drink it, there are many different ways to prepare coffee. These are far more involved than just the amount of cream or sugar you put in. Everything from the type of bean, type of roast, grind of the coffee, to the type of brewing, all affect your coffee’s smoothness, taste, and aroma. Knowing how each of these factors affect your coffee can allow you to pick and choose and create your perfect cup of caffeinated goodness.

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You can’t have coffee without coffee beans, of which there are four definitive types: Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa, and Liberica. Each of these varieties of coffee beans are unique in their own way, whether it be in flavor profile, prevalence, or how they’re best served. Arabica beans are the most common type of coffee bean, composing approximately 60% of the world’s coffee bean supply, and it’s easy to see why. Arabica trees are short, growing six feet high at most, and are easy to care for. They are grown in areas with high altitudes, steady rain, and plenty of shade. However, Arabica trees are also the most delicate of the bunch, easily influenced by their environment and prone to disease. If a single Arabica tree becomes contaminated, there’s a very high chance it will destroy a significant portion of the crop. When it comes to flavor, Arabica beans shine through with their brightness, acidity, and sweet taste with notes of berries, fruit, and sugar. These flavors are at their best when served hot and diminish when served cold or with creamer.

The Robusta bean is a paradox when it comes to coffee beans. While it is second to Arabica in terms of production it is the most recognizable type of coffee bean, at least as far as the home consumer is concerned. As its name suggests, Robusta coffee beans are quite robust, being almost immune to disease and indifferent to their environment. It is this hardiness that allows Robusta beans to be planted in a myriad of environments. This permits Robusta coffee to be made cheaply, causing it to be used primarily in store brands, instant, and cheap ground coffee. If Robusta beans are grown in their ideal environment, a hot climate with irregular rainfall, it almost becomes a different bean. It takes on a smooth texture, low acidity, hints of chocolate, and a strength that allows it to maintain flavor when mixed with other things, like cream and sugar. As an added bonus, Robusta coffee beans have twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica beans, which is what lends the beans their resilience.

One of the lesser known types of coffee beans, Excelsa beans make up only a meager 7% of the world’s coffee production. This is because the coffee made from Excelsa beans is unique, to say the least. Grown at medium altitudes in Southeast Asia, Excelsa tends to be used more as a blending coffee, used to add flavors to other coffees. It helps boost the blend that it is added to, adding tartness and fruitiness, as well as an overall bolder flavor.

The final type of coffee bean is also the rarest, and it has a lot of history behind it. As mentioned, Arabica plants are susceptible to disease often taking a significant portion of the crop when one tree gets infected. This happened in 1890 when coffee rust, a type of disease that causes coffee trees to have very low yields and die within a few years, destroyed 90% of the world’s Arabica crops. Frantic, farmers turned to the Liberica plant with the first adopters of it residing in the Philippines. This massively boosted their economy as they were the only supplier of these Liberica coffee beans. Once the Philippines declared independence the United States cut supplies off, leading to Liberica remaining a Filipino coffee for almost 100 years. It did not reenter the global coffee world until 1995. Liberica coffee beans are unlike any of the other three major coffee beans, despite Excelsa being scientifically classified as a subspecies of Liberica. Liberica beans are larger and asymmetrical, with a unique floral and fruity aroma. Oddly enough, they possess a smoky flavor, with many who drink it saying it has a woody taste unlike any other coffee.

As anyone who has ever tried a raw coffee bean will tell you, coffee must be roasted in order to get that dark color we love as well as any decent taste. There are four levels of roast with each changing the color and taste of the bean: light, medium, dark, and extra dark. Light roasts turn the beans light brown and taste of toasted grain with a more pronounced acidity. Medium roasts yield brown beans with a triple balance of flavor, acidity, and aroma. Dark roasts, as the name implies, yield dark brown beans with a heavy and full-bodied flavor that also has some hints of spice. An extra dark roast produces black beans with a bitter, smoky, or burnt taste. Some people say that the darker the roast, the less caffeine it has, however, this isn’t completely true. As the beans roast they lose moisture as well as a small amount of caffeine, and therefore lose mass. The difference in caffeine boils down to how you measure your coffee. If you measure your beans by the scoop, a lighter roast will contain more caffeine than a darker. However, if you measure by weight, you’ll actually get more caffeine per cup with a darker roast, as the beans are lighter.

The grind of your coffee goes hand-in-hand with your preparation methods, which tend to fall into two categories based on the final product: hot and cold. One of the most common hot coffee preparation methods is drip coffee, also known as filter coffee. This is where the coffee grounds are placed in a filter and have hot water poured on them, collecting in a mug or pot below. There are many factors that can affect the quality of this coffee from the price of your machine to simply unavoidable changes in water temperature. Compare this to pour-over coffee, which in itself seems like the exact same process. Coffee grounds are put into a paper filter and have hot water poured over them, which collects in a mug below. In this case, the difference lies within the details. In a pour-over coffee, you heat the water yourself and pour it over at your speed. This allows you to control the strength and smoothness of your cup. For both of these methods a medium grind is best.

The next method, espresso, requires finely ground coffee beans. Espresso, literally meaning ‘expressed’ in English, is brewed by taking finely ground coffee and forcing a small amount of nearly boiling water through it under high pressure. This causes the resulting product to be thicker than other methods of preparing coffee as well as having more caffeine per unit. However, since it is served in such a small amount, it actually has less caffeine than a mug of standard coffee. When it comes to cold coffee, we have two options: iced coffee and cold brew. Iced coffee is your standard drip coffee, but brewed at double strength to account for dilution. It is then cooled and served over ice, tasting very similar to your standard drip coffee. Cold brew is a completely different brewing process. As the name implies, cold brew is not brewed with boiling water, but instead has the grounds steeped in cold water for 12 to 24 hours, causing it to taste a bit sweeter, milder, as well as considerably less acidic and bitter.

Clearly, coffee is a lot more complicated than most think with every little detail affecting the coffee in some way. From bean, to bake, to brew, the minutiae that goes into making the perfect cup of caffeinated goodness oftentimes goes unnoticed or overlooked. Whether you prefer your coffee hot or cold, black as night or sweet as sugar, hopefully you’ll better appreciate what goes in your mug. 

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