What Do You Know About Your Cup of Joe?

What I don’t know about coffee could apparently fill a small encyclopedia. That is not particularly surprising. Like most people, I did realize there are many types of coffee beans from all over the tropical world and each has its own unique and subtle qualities. But I couldn’t have told you which kind had which qualities. For me, coffee came from 7-Eleven or Starbucks. And I don’t like either of those. I mainly brew my own coffee at home in my french press. But that doesn’t resolve the fact that I hardly know one bean from the other. I take that back . . .there’s decaf and regular, conventional and organic.

For decades coffee has been described like fine wine. It has “hints,” “tones,” “notes” and “characteristics.” This is where I get lost. I see coffee from Ethiopia (where it is said coffee was first discovered), Guatemala, Vietnam and of course–as the coffee ads from my childhood taught me–Columbia. I still have no idea what I like or dislike about these. I just want my coffee to taste smooth and have a good flavor.

Then I went with my family to have coffee and decided to write this post about it and the door to coffee cuisine finally cracked open for me. For instance, I’m often drawn to a description of coffee that says it has notes of chocolate. I like chocolate! Mocha Java sounds good to me! But I never quite seem to detect the note of chocolate in the coffee as I sip it.

Hmmm. I started searching for descriptions of coffee flavors and found out that coffee has two main categories of descriptors–flavor and aroma. So far so good. Then I saw the Coffee Flavor Wheel published by coffeeandhealth.org and what do you know?. Chocolate is an aroma, not a flavor! I should have been sniffing while sipping!

Image result for description of coffee flavors
Coffee Flavor Wheel by coffeeandhealth.org Very useful!

I kept looking around and found that many coffee “experts” have this thing about chocolate mixed up. In fact, this coffee wheel explains a lot and has many coffee flavor descriptions I’ve seen. I felt much more at ease with this when I saw the flavors were based on the basic flavors salty, bitter, sweet and sour that I’ve known for years and have used as a guide to the qualities and benefits of foods in teaching cooking .

There is truly an entire universe of coffee connoisseurs, coffee associations, coffee research and coffee roasting and coffee brewing methods. Online there is everything from Consumer Reports explaining the most basic information about coffee including a handy glossary, to Coffee and Health (the flavor wheel people) who are devoted to scientific research about coffee and health. You can even earn a certificate from the Specialty Coffee Association, a non-profit boasting a global membership devoted to every aspect of expanding a sustainable, equitable specialty coffee industry.

Coffee has it all! It’s gourmet, it’s art, it’s got global social influence and it’s a science.

Brewing coffee isn’t a matter of choosing percolated, electric drip or french press. It isn’t only a high-tech machine to make your lattes. Some brewing looks like a chemistry experiment!

Case in point, Michael Thomas Coffee Roasters in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I visited there with my family from out of town recently. Have a look at this coffee maker!

Chemistry Lab or Coffee Shop?

The Michael Thomas barristas take their coffee very seriously. Their slow bar selection is outstanding and the results are the best tasting and smoothest coffee I’ve ever had. What is a slow bar? It is slow. The barristas take their time weighing and measuring beans for your cup, grinding your beans, brewing your individual cup of coffee and educating you about the coffee if you desire it. Slow bar has been a trend for several years.

And that brings me to something else I’ve learned about the coffee industry called “the third wave,” an American term coined in 1999. The third wave refers to a movement that started in the ’90’s to produce very high quality coffee with attention to every aspect from growing, harvesting, importing, roasting and brewing. The third wave made coffee an artisanal creation rather than just a commodity. Coffee made it into the ranks of wine, beer and chocolate. And like microbrewing which is a huge trend, there is microroasting where places like Michael Thomas import their own beans and roast them on the premises and deliver not only freshly brewed, but freshly roasted coffee one cup at a time.

And what of waves one and two? The first wave was probably the chain of events starting in the late 19th century that eventually brought canned, ground coffee into the grocery store branded Maxwell House or Folgers. The second wave developed in the ’60’s with Peet’s and then that first coffee shop in Seattle where you could order something called a latte. You could go to a coffee cafe and get Italian coffee instead of making your regular brand at home in your percolator. Soon your coffee stopped being served by the cup and now you had a choice of tall, grande and venti.

Today a fourth wave in the coffee industry is emerging. The focus is on production and the people involved. It encompasses concern for the economic and environmental stabilization of coffee producing countries and the people who farm coffee there and understanding the social responsibilities of developing the industry.

An example is the term “Fair Trade Certified” coffee that I see in stores and coffee shops. Consumer Reports tells us Fair Trade Certified means that the product was given a thumbs up by “a non-profit international organization that advocates sustainable production and fair prices for farmers. TransFair USA, the certifying organization, also works for safe working conditions (and no forced child labor), limits the use of harmful pesticides, and supports credit plans and training for farm workers.”

As American as a Cup of Joe is, the big business of specialty coffee certainly relies on a global community of coffee growers and how we continue to develop our relationship with them in a sustainable and meaningful way.

That makes your next cup of specialty coffee even more special.

This is such an aesthetic and pleasing look at the subject of edible flowers. Far more so than the one I wrote a while back (https://mycookinglife.com/2012/03/03/please-dont-eat-the-hyacinths-but-its-okay-to-drink-the-dandelions/). I just had to re-blog . And man! I wish I could draw and paint all my graphics. I tried it once when I wrote about the super hero, Coffee Man, (https://mycookinglife.com/2012/05/23/coffee-man-sigh-my-hero/).

Illustrated Bites

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Coffee Man (sigh) My Hero

Coffee for Love

Coffee for Love (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is dedicated to my husband who is a hero in many ways.

I had never really learned how to make coffee.  Until about 2 BS (Before Starbucks*),  I didn’t even like the stuff and never drank it.  But it was about 2 BS when I went away to college and took to drinking a little coffee in the college cafeteria.  My appreciation for coffee grew during those college years (enhanced by caffeine-laden stay-awake remedies) until I graduated and was no longer eating in anyone’s cafeteria.

Back at my parents’ house, my mother, who was always on top of the latest food inventions, was convinced that freeze-dried instant coffee was the way to go.  I didn’t like that at all so I didn’t drink it.  I relied on the local diner.

As a young adult on my own, there were no drive-thru coffee places whatsoever except in the land of Seattle where we heard exclusive brands of coffee could be had in stores built just for that product.  This was in the newspapers.  Where I lived, one went to the corner deli or lunch counter and ordered a cup of coffee.  I drank it, but I still didn’t own a coffee pot.

Fast forward a decade or so and there I am, a mother and a wife and I still don’t know how to make coffee.  In fact, there were several years in there when I didn’t indulge in caffeine of any sort because I was nearly always pregnant and/or nursing a baby.  And there were many years when the only caffeinated drink I would take was a little green tea.

Eventually the hankerin’ for some coffee returned and it was off to Seven-Eleven for the best coffee around.  $.79 for a huge cup!

One time I got my own electric coffee pot.  I gave it a good effort—trying to make coffee as good as Seven-Eleven’s.  It wasn’t.  It tasted like coffee that could have been this:

Liquid Mud

I tried to make good coffee.  Sort of.  I tried other people’s electric coffee maker coffee too and didn’t like theirs either.  What I really enjoyed was going out or having someone go out to Seven-Eleven and buy it ready made.  I did this for about twenty years having sold my electric coffee maker in a yard sale.

I’m not sure when I came across my first retail designer coffee outlet, but it was probably around 20 AS (After Starbucks) when I started shopping for hot coffee somewhere besides at a gas station.  Starbucks had oozed out from the land of Seattle and had arrived in my neighborhood!

I got into it.  And even though it sounded absolutely CRAZY to think of making coffee and then “watering it down” to make something called an Americano, I got talked into trying it and loved it.  More and more of it.  With extra shots.  I was so hooked and it was costing me a fortune and making me feel like an addict.

Until finally I decided enough was enough.  I was determined to find a coffee pot that even I could make good coffee with.  I deliberated for a couple of years about this–all the while still ordering at good ol’ Starbucks and pooh poohing my old haunt, Seven-Eleven.

Mind you, I had by that time done a LOT of cooking and knew how to make all kinds of healthy foods, teas, medicinal remedies and drinks—but still not too sure how to make coffee.  So I went to my favorite gourmet cooking supply store, Williams & Sonoma.  They had so many coffee makers!  I didn’t even waste time looking at most of them because I intuitively concluded that the best kind of coffee pot for me was a French Press type.  This is the kind where you put the ground coffee in the bottom and pour very hot (but not boiling) water over it and steep it after which you press down on a plunger that sends all the grounds to the bottom and all the coffee is above the plunger and ready to pour.

There were beautiful French Press Coffee Makers on display all filled with whole coffee beans.  Hmmm I thought.  A young man helped me and showed me the different styles and I chose an excellent mid-priced model and asked him how to make coffee with it.

“Simple,” he said, “You put the whole beans in the bottom and pour the water on top and you have to let it sit for a while and stir it a lot so it will make the coffee, then you press down the plunger and it’s ready to drink.”

“Whole beans?” I asked.

Afrikaans: Geroosterde pitte van die koffiepla...

Roasted coffee beans  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I purchased the pot and took it home.  The directions didn’t really say anything about the coffee beans.  “Nah!”  I thought, “That can’t be right.  That doesn’t make sense.”  I was pretty sure you didn’t use whole beans but after all, this is Williams & Sonoma and they ought to know.  I called my youngest son and he set me straight.

So, the upshot of this saga is that the French Press Coffee Maker turned out to be a wonderful way to make delicious, fresh, non-bitter, heavenly-smelling coffee in minutes.  I save so much money and time!  And I can have coffee whenever I want, though I am no longer a coffee addict and don’t overindulge in caffeine anymore.

But about once a week or so, I get a visit from an All-American Super Hero who brings me a ready-made serving of my favorite Americano after he has driven not to Starbucks but to a local coffee specialty store that has the best.  And I always say,

“Coffee Man, (sigh) My Hero!”

(*The first Starbucks opened in 1971)