Java, rocket fuel, liquid energy, brain juice, lifeblood — whatever you like to call your morning cup of joe, coffee, in all its roasted glory, is the best part of waking up for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Globally, we consume more than 2 billion cups on a daily basis, making it second to water in beverage popularity (move over, Coca-Cola). October 1 is International Coffee Day, so we’re paying homage to this magical brew and the variety of handy appliances that bring forth its intoxicating flavors.
Coffee 101: Fun facts
If you’ve ever wondered who we have to thank for discovering the divine purpose hidden within the woody evergreen known as the Coffea tree, the story goes that it’s actually some 9th-century goats. Back in 800 A.D., goat herders in the forests along the Ethiopian plateau noticed their livestock would appear to “dance” and frolic about after eating the small, red berries found on the shrubs. The rest is history, and the coffee plant has been cultivated around the world to help us frolic about our days ever since, grown mostly in the area around the equator known as the “Bean Belt,” which includes parts of Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
For the record, it should be noted that coffee has nothing to do with beans at all. What we refer to as “coffee beans” are technically seeds, the pits of the tree’s cherry-like berries, which are dried and roasted and then ground down into coffee.
While just smelling its invigorating aroma has been shown to help you wake up in the morning, the 96 milligrams of caffeine in one cup alone doesn’t hurt — that’s more than three times the amount in a can of Coke or the average energy drink. That jolt is definitely addicting and has even led to some interesting technical advances from those intent on keeping the buzz going. One of note is the first webcam, which was invented at the University of Cambridge with the sole purpose of keeping tabs on the status of the coffee pot.
If the constant jonesing has you concerned about cutting back on your daily intake, don’t go cold turkey just yet. Regular coffee drinkers have actually been noted to live longer — with health benefits including reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and even depression. So drink up!
While there are numerous varieties of coffee beans, there are two main types you’ll find in stores and cafes near you: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is the most popular with coffee enthusiasts worldwide — hands down — thanks to its sweeter, more complex flavor that many people enjoy straight, with no creamer or added sugar required. Robusta is less expensive, with a more bitter taste and higher caffeine content. It’s often used in espresso drinks and instant-coffee mixes because adding milk and sugar won’t dilute the flavor.
In coffee vernacular, the word espresso comes up a lot, but it’s not a type of roast or coffee bean. It’s a method of preparing coffee, in which boiling water is forced through pressed coffee grounds for a swift 20 to 30 seconds. Measured in 1-ounce “shots,” the result is a highly concentrated flavor with a frothy top layer, known as the “crema.” “Espresso” is Italian for “pressed out,” a nod to the process’ origin in Italy in the 19th century. The espresso machine revolutionized coffee drinking and led to the varied menu of drinks that populate cafe chalkboards around the globe, which is why most have Italian names.
Cappuccinos and lattes and mochas, oh my!
While a lesson in Italian may seem required, the primary ingredients in our favorite coffee drinks are pretty much just espresso and milk (venti mocha Frappuccino excluded — that’s more dessert than coffee). The differences come in the amount of milk in the drink and the amount of air in the milk. Here’s a rundown of the ratios in some cafe classics:
Americano: Espresso with hot water. This drink is attributed to American soldiers living in Italy during World War II, who would order coffee at the local cafe and stare, perplexed, at the itsy-bitsy 21-gram espresso served versus the 8-ounce mug they enjoyed at home. Italian baristas got creative and started adding hot water to dilute the espresso and fill a larger cup.
Macchiato: 1 part espresso, 1 part milk. Unlike the caramel concoction you might have been served at Starbucks, a traditional macchiato (which means “marked” in Italian) actually has the highest coffee-to-milk ratio. The scant milk “marks” the coffee to add just a touch of sweetness and help soften the intense espresso flavor.
Cappuccino: 1 part espresso, 1 part milk, 1 part milk foam. Steamed milk is frothed into a foamy consistency to top the drink — and has resulted in countless foam mustaches ever since.
Latte: 1 part espresso, 4 parts milk. Different from the cappuccino because it has little to no foam and a lot more milk, adding sugar in the form of “flavor shots,” such as caramel, vanilla and hazelnut, has become popular with this beverage.
Cold brew: While the raging popularity of cold brew seems sudden, its origins actually date back to 16th-century China. The name refers to the process of preparing the coffee rather than its final temperature. Ground beans are soaked in cool water (rather than boiling), and for a much longer period of time (at least 12 hours), releasing oils and tannins during the steeping process. The result is a smoother and more chocolatey flavor, with half the acidity of traditional iced coffee, which is coffee brewed normally and then poured over ice.
Guide to home-brewing greatness
Thanks to the variety of handy appliances available these days, we have more ways than ever to bring the cafe to our own kitchens. Whether tried and true or the latest and greatest, these popular devices each deliver an excellent cup, but with nuanced methods and flavor differences.
Pour-over coffee: It’s basic yet effective: just a cup, a filter and a funnel. A popular pour-over coffee maker is the Chemex, invented in 1941 and manufactured in Chicopee, Massachusetts. The main difference between a standard pour-over model and a Chemex is the filter. Rather than being thin with a round, funnel shape, Chemex proprietary filters resemble thick, square-shaped fabric folded into quarters. They are also twice as expensive as typical filters, but legions of diehard fans claim the results are worth it. The go-to Mr. Coffee-type machines that you plug in, known as drip coffee, are basically an automated form of the pour-over method.
French press: Not actually French at all, the French press was first patented in Milan in 1929. Noted for its ease of use since there are no cords or plugs involved, many coffee connoisseurs swear this simple design makes the best cup of coffee — period. Rather than pouring hot water over the grounds, they are steeped in the bottom of the container. There is also no filter involved. Instead, a plunger pushes through the grounds, catching and pulling them away. Because you can vary the amount of time the coffee steeps, users enjoy tailoring the results to their own individual liking.
AeroPress: A bit of a mini French press, an AeroPress is a coffee maker that can almost fit in your pocket. Simply place a scoop of ground coffee in the chamber, wait just 60 to 120 seconds, then press down on the plunger to deliver a cafe-quality cup of brew that’s been heralded to top anything a drip machine can offer.
Percolator: Unless you’re a cowboy or do a lot of camping where you cook over an oven flame, you might not be as familiar with this stainless-steel coffee pot. In this design, the bottom chamber contains the water. As the water heats, it rises as steam through a metal tube, condenses in an upper tray, drips through grounds held on a perforated metal plate, and then sinks back down into the water chamber below. Now, the water chamber contains some coffee, which rises through the tube, and the cycle continues. This process is called percolating, and it concentrates the coffee’s flavor each time, creating a uniquely bold flavor beloved by devotees.
Keurig and Nespresso: For parties of one, single-serving coffee makers are a more recent phenomenon, and these two brands have emerged as category leaders. Where they differ goes back to what makes espresso different than drip coffee: pressure. Nespresso offers models that force water through individual pods to brew espresso, whereas all Keurig machines use a traditional drip method with their trademarked plastic K-Cups. While Nespresso users claim the coffee is far superior, the 400-and-counting K-Cup options make Keurig an enticing choice.
No matter which method or model you prefer, as long as coffee is involved, how can you really go wrong? It’s International Coffee Day, so fill your favorite mug, and cheers to the perkiest beverage of them all. Salud, java lovers!