Fact File: Coffee

This frothy dark libation is a beloved morning staple for many. We examine the finesse and flair that goes into your mug of coffee

Drinking a freshly brewed cup of excellent coffee is an exquisite sensory experience. First, your nostrils will be greeted by the steaming aroma, so evocative of the earth. As you take your first sip your tastebuds will be inundated with an extraordinarily full-bodied mouthfeel...before the jolt of caffeine finally hits, coursing through your veins like fuel through a supercar's engine.

It is coffee's singular complexity that ought to make the downing of your aromatic mug a treasured ritual. Picture an idyllic afternoon with your closest confidantes in a warmly lit lodge stocked with platters of crumbly pastries—cafe culture, as it were. For all its surface ease, there is much more that goes into your cup of coffee than meets the eye. Indeed, the humble bean is chock-full of legend, history and assiduous labor, a condensed version of which you can peruse below.


Coffee beans are the pits of what the industry calls "cherries" (which are technically berries, if one wants to be pedantic.) Apocryphal accounts in the annals of coffee history tell the story of the Kaldi the Ethopian goat-herd, who discovered the jittery effects of caffeine circa 800 CE after observing his frisky flock "dancing" after consuming the berries of a shrub that is now known to modern biologists as belonging to the genus Coffea. Ever adventurous, the earliest African tribes then folded crushed berries into lard to create buzzing balls of fire.

A primitive "bean broth" was widely imbibed in Arabia and North Africa by 1,000 CE, but it is said that no coffee seedling ever saw the light of day outside the region until the 1600s: exporters made sure to render the beans sterile by first boiling or drying them before passing them on to European traders.

In a momentous episode of daring smuggling, one Baba Budan decided to end Arabia's monopoly by escaping Mecca with "live" beans strapped around his waist. The fruits of Budan's escapade, so to speak, were the beginnings of the widespread cultivation of coffee in places like Java and Ceylon, spearheaded by aggressively entrepreneurial enterprises like The Dutch East India Company.

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"Ethiopian Sidamo" beans from organic fair trade brand Happy Goat Coffee. The label's whimsical packaging alludes to the founding legend of Kaldi the Ethopian goat-herd

Other tales of espionage abound: in 1727, for instance, Colonel Palheta was dispatched to smuggle seedlings for the Brazilian government. He did so in the grand tradition of James Bond: by seducing the wife of the French Guiana governor into passing him a bouquet of flowers, cleverly interspersed with sprigs of live coffee. 

Today, coffee trees are now cultivated in over 70 countries in what has been dubbed the "coffee belt", a sweltering swathe that encompasses Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. Unroasted "green" coffee beans, which hail from trees genetically downsized to about 10 feet to make manual harvesting more manageable, are one of the most lucrative commodities in the agricultural sector, and the end product—coffee—is one of the most popular stimulants and beverages consumed in the world today. 


The production starts with the labor-intensive hand picking of berries, carefully inspected and plucked when they are at their ripest, although it is more common nowadays for berries to be "strip picked" by either hand or machine regardless of ripeness. Berries are then sorted by color, with their flesh removed by machine and the seeds within fermented to rid them of any risidual slime.

These fermented, de-pulped berries are then given a good rinse, before being dried to produce beans ready for roasting. Traditionally, the beans are then laid out to dry on raised, ventilated platforms, tumbled by hand, sorted and labeled as green coffee (we did say it was labor-intensive...)

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Darker roasts, which exhibit an oily sheen from their longer roasting time, tend to produce a more robust body. Lighter-hued beans exhibit caramelized notes from the retention of sugars and acids

Now comes what is arguably the most crucial step: the roasting. Roasting is key in unlocking the secret pleasures from what would otherwise be a fistful of bland seeds. The roasting process profoundly affects your brew by increasing or decreasing the density and moisture levels, as well as by inducing caramelization and modulating the color and taste of the beans.

Indeed, hue is a reasonably reliable indicator of taste: the roasted nuggets are graded by color from light to very dark. Sucrose dissipates at high heat, resulting in a bitter aftertaste for darker roasts. An exquisite calibration must be made: fragrant oils and the astringency associated with coffee are rapidly lost as roasting progresses, but when the oven hits 200 °C, caffeol is coaxed from the stubborn shells, the oil which experts regard as the single most crucial constituent of coffee's aroma and flavor.

Move Over Kopi Luwak Elephants Are Brewing Black Ivory Coffee

Most everyone will have heard of the curious case of "Kopi Luwak", the Indonesian coffee processed from beans excreted from the Asian civet. There's a new contender in town, though. Meet "Black Ivory" coffee, a specialty brew created by beans handpicked by Thai mahouts from their charges' poo. Price? US$1,100 per kg

How to Prepare

While a myriad of methods exist to extract flavor from the beans, all methods of preparing coffee involve steeping the grounds in hot water, then separating the spent grains from the liquid—now recognizable as coffee.

The general rule dictates that coarser grounds require longer extraction times. Filters, which hold the leftover grounds, are also an important consideration. Paper is most absorbent and gives you clearer, cleaner-tasting coffee, whereas metal filters leave in all the oils in the beans, resulting in a murky, deeply tannic brew.

Some of the devices used will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowlege of coffee-making. The French press or cafetière is the most commonly employed coffee extraction machine. Ground coffee and hot water are tumbled in a cylindrical vessel, and a plunger affixed to a circular filter is then pushed down, begetting a brew redolent with intoxicating oils and a slight sediment (the grounds in the filter are discarded).

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Detail of the crema of a well-pulled shot of espresso. The viscous layer, composed of minute bubbles of carbon dioxide, should be a rich rust-red hue

The espresso technique is a tad more violent. Ground coffee is essentially hit with a blast of vaporized water under high pressure, rendering an aggressively muscular and potent draft topped off with a chocolate-hued foam that baristas call crema.

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A Siphon coffeemaker in action. Note the heated water traversing the funnel to the upper vessel, whereupon manual stirring of the grounds commences

Siphon or vacuum-brewed coffee has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in recent years. Invented in Europe during the mid-19th century, a siphon coffeemaker is made up of two main components: a boiling flask holding water is affixed via a tube to a second vessel, in which the ground coffee is placed. Unusual in that manual stirring is involved, the heated water rises to the top container, which is the cue for you to stir the bubbling liquid to mix the water and grounds together for about a minute and a half. Turn the heat off, and the suction induced by physics causes the brewed coffee to be "siphoned" back to the bottom vessel.

Finally, coffee can be made by soaking coarse grounds in a tower filled with water and ice for several hours. The patience involved is reflected in the drink: ice drip coffee is surpassingly smooth, with an intoxicating wine-like quality.

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A towering ice drip coffeemaker, which requires hours to produce a cup of coffee


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Latte art, the coffee world's version of a bar trick, is created by deftly pouring steamed milk into espresso in the desired pattern - in this instance a leaf-shaped "rosetta". Depending on the barista's skill, the motif can also be achieved by simply swirling with a stick on a latte's surface foam to create any number of shapes, usually resembling hearts or maple leaves

Brewed coffee can be served in a staggering number of ways. Unlike other "standard" beverages like whisky, coffee is uniquely colorful in that it has been appropriated by different cultures to suit different palates. Turkish coffee, for instance, uses the simplest of equipment—typically a copper kitchen kettle—to boil finely ground coffee, which is then served in a cup, grounds and all, with a heapful of sugar and a dash of cardamom. A most leisurely repast, you then sit and wait for the grounds to settle to the bottom of your cup before taking small sips of the spicy sugary treat.;

Then there is of course South-east Asia's cherished "kopi", traditionally found at open-air hawker centers. A wallet-friendly indulgence, kopi is usually made from inexpensive beans which are wok-fried in lard or vegetable oil, then strained through a long cloth sock and shot through with thick condensed milk and processed sugar.

Meanwhile, espresso-based coffee has a staggering array of possible presentations: you can down it in a shot, or tampen it with warm water as an Americano. You may also opt for a dash of steamed milk to create a caffè latte; a cappucino, which you get by adding equal parts steamed milk and frothed milk; or layer hot foamy milk on top for a caffè macchiato. Whatever your preference, baristas recommend consuming your coffee at a serving temperature of around 68°C.

Now that you have a working knowledge of what goes into your drink, we hope you will better appreciate your cuppa the next time you order one at your favorite joint!


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