Disclaimer: This coffee guide may take several or more minutes to read, but it will not make you a total coffee expert. With that being said, we do hope you will at least learn something new about the fascinating brew.
Working at a coffee company it’s all too easy to forget that the world of coffee is so heavily jargon riddled. It soon becomes second nature that a macchiato made with cinnamon roast Arabica beans contains no cinnamon and the beans could be grown in, let’s say, Brazil!
If you are someone who enjoys coffee but you don’t quite know your flat white from your long black, this is the article for you.
Where does coffee come from originally?
Legend has it that coffee originated in Ethiopia when a goatherd observed how his goats grazing on the coffee plants became full of beans in both senses. After eating coffee beans they would stay up all night jumping around like little bleating ravers. When a local monastery got wind of this a drink was made from the beans. Coffee was born and prayer sessions extended long into the night.
Although there is no formal record of this event, there seems to be a consensus in just about every coffee guide you are likely to read that this is a 100% true story.
Incidentally, Black Cab’s Grey usually starts the day with 5 espressos and, with a decent collection of tunes on the coffee shop playlist, it means he is having his own mini rave up in the shop even before the bleary-eyed come in for their morning coffee!
So that must be why coffee and beards is such a thing. Anyone see the resemblance?
Why is Ethiopian coffee called ‘Arabica’?
Although coffee drinking may have started in Ethiopia it was quick to spread through Persia where people began to grow coffee and use it for trade. Houses where people would come together to enjoy the magic brew, play chess, converse, and perform music started popping up everywhere. These first coffee houses were deemed ‘schools of the wise’. So remember that on your next trip to a coffee shop, you are carrying on a great tradition and feeding your intellect. In the early coffee scene the Arab world was the place to be, and as such explains how an Ethiopian bean became known to the world as Arabica.
What’s the difference between Arabica and Robusta?
There are actually many different types of coffee bean, but the two most common species of coffee plant are arabica coffee and robusta coffee. Generally speaking arabica is harder to grow in that it is the more delicate of the plants and susceptible to plant diseases but produces a coffee which most consider superior in taste. Arabica is milder, smoother, and sweeter, it’s also lower in caffeine. Robusta lives up to its name in being ‘robust’ in as much as the plant is generally more hardy and the coffee drinker that enjoys a robusta is a little more grizzly. It’s strong, more bitter than arabica and often described as harsh.
As robusta coffee crops have a greater yield they are cheaper and easier to produce. This means they mostly find their way into instant coffee and coffee roaster brands that put profit before experience. Think of a time when you have (in desperation!) downed a quick cup of black Nescafe, if you survived that experience then you will already be familiar with the taste of robusta. The high caffeine content accounts for any trembling or queasiness you may have experienced after drinking instant coffee. Whereas, almost all coffee you get from a genuine coffee shop these days is Arabica so you probably already have a point of reference for comparison.
What colour is coffee?
Light brown? Dark Brown? Even black? Coffee is surprisingly not really any of these. You probably didn’t think of red or green, but these are its natural colours. When growing on a coffee plant it appears as bright red seeds. These are known as ‘coffee cherries’. The beans we use are effectively just the ‘cherry stones’ of the coffee plant. When they are hulled, in other words the fleshy part is removed, the ‘bean’ inside turns out to be green. Green coffee has it’s uses, such as for weight loss or coffee enemas, but we won’t go there!
Coffee ‘cherries’ in their natural state before any processing. It’s not until the coffee is roasted that it is made fit for the beverage that we know and love.
What do the different coffee roast names mean?
Cinnamon roast, City roast, City roast plus, American roast, French roast, Full French roast, Vienna roast, Italian roast… the list goes on! But what do they all mean? To simplify this you can broadly categorise coffee roasts into three main types. Light roast, medium roast, and dark roast. Cinnamon roast is an example of a light roast, the coffee beans turn, well, a nice cinnamon colour. There is no actual cinnamon involved in the coffee roasting process. Italian roast is firmly on the dark end of the coffee roasting spectrum, while a city roast falls somewhere in the middle.
How does coffee roast type affect flavour?
This could be one of the most valuable sections of this coffee guide. Knowing the roast type of your coffee beans will give you an indication of its flavour and it’s actually quite intuitive. The lighter the roast the gentler the coffee flavour, sometimes the more acidic elements of the coffee are apparent. More of the floral, fruity notes will come out. As it gets darker, something called the ‘Maillard’ effect (the same effect that browns a steak, onions, chicken, etc.) more caramel is formed which brings out the chocolatey, nutty flavours. This produces roasts which owe more to the effects of roasting than the origin of the beans. A good coffee roaster should be aiming to find the best balance (in their opinion) between the bean’s ‘origin’ elements and the ‘roasting’ elements which develop during the roasting process. Finally, you have burnt beans with a bitter taste which [insert high-street chain coffee brand here ] likes to use.
How do you like your coffee?
It would be easy if we could just say black or white! With so many different coffee types the choice can be bewildering. Without exploring some of this variety no coffee guide (even an incomplete one!) is complete. Let’s look at some of the more common ones and say a thing or two about what they mean:
This is a hot coffee made when steam or hot water is forced through coffee grounds. It’s a short and intense drink not for the faint-hearted! You can also call an Espresso a Short Black.
Actually short for Caffè Americano, an americano is an espresso shot to which hot water is added. It gives a longer milder drink, also known as a Long Black. A long black is slightly different because an espresso is added to the hot water rather than the other way round. Making it that way means the foam on top of the espresso shot (known as the crema) is preserved.
The little mark. It translates as ‘stained’ or ‘spotted’. Essentially, there are two types of macchiato. The espresso macchiato is an espresso with a little dollop of foamed milk placed on the crema so as to achieve a little mark. As to why, it’s probably something to do with Italians enabling the waiters to tell the difference between a regular espresso and one with a little milk in it. The Latte Macchiato is a shed load of milk with an espresso staining the top. Recall back in the day of Costa Coffee serving long tall glasses of milk with a little espresso plonked on top; Latte Macchiato, DONE!!
Flat White. Cortado.
Now we’re getting into the realms of espresso with varying degrees of milk being added to create different drinks. The Cortado and the Flat White came about from there being more delicious espresso hitting the market in the second wave of coffee houses using better quality coffees and their customers still wanting to add milk. Without wanting to completely eradicate any nuance of coffee flavour with pints of milk added to the well crafted espresso, baristas started to add just a little full-fat milk. Being well-foamed and sweetened by the steaming process it creates a balanced espresso drink with the hard edge of the espresso delicately rounded off. The flat white brought with it the phenomena of latte art and the ensuing public obsession with photographing these fine ephemeral works which last just a few sips unless immortalized on social media.
The Cortado is a coffee that has been ‘cut’ with milk (or booze, if you’re feeling a little funky). The milk thereby creates a fuller mouthfeel for the coffee but leaving the body of the espresso intact.
See the above macchiato section of the coffee guide. It’s useful to know that latte is the Italian word for milk. So you get what you ask for… Milky Coffee.
Espresso with lots of foamy milk. So much so, in fact, that you get milk in your hipster beard/moustache and start to drink Flat Whites instead. Or espresso.
Milk-foam in the moustache is the real reason hipsters tend to go more for black coffee!
This list could go on and on, but we’ll leave it as a ‘to be continued…’ before we move too far away from coffee guide into the realms of caffeinated rant, if it hasn’t already done so!
The Coffee Guide Quiz
Let’s wrap this up with a little quiz to see how much of a coffee expert you’ve become (you could pinch a few of these for your next Zoom ‘pub’ quiz!):
- Which is darker, a city roast or French roast?
- Which tastes more bitter, an Italian roast robusta or an American roast arabica?
- Where were the first coffee shops?
- What’s the difference between an americano and a long black?
- Which contain more sugar, roasted or unroasted coffee beans?
French, Italian roast robusta, Persia, Americano is espresso 1st then water, roasted