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Achieve Coffee Perfection

Food Fitness to Nourish Your Body

For the coffee aficionado, understanding all the subtleties that make a great cup can be a very enjoyable process. Fortunately, achieving the perfect cup is easy once you are familiar with a few basic coffee making concepts.

Added to coffees are flavorings such as spices, liqueurs, nuts, chocolate, and vanilla. This enhances and awakens the taste buds as well as the body.

Know your Beans

Coffee Bean When you walk into a specialty coffee shop, a coffeehouse that sells coffee beans -- or even a grocery store with a variety of whole-bean coffees -- you will probably spot an enticing display of coffee beans.

Usually, the beans range in color from light to dark brown, with names like French roast, Ethiopian, espresso roast, and even designations such as "house blend" and "Christmas blend." Once you know a little bit about the origins of coffee beans and the harvesting, roasting, and naming, you will be better equipped in choosing the bean right for your cup.

What is a Bean?

A coffee bean is actually the seed found in the red fruit (called a "coffee cherry") of a tropical evergreen shrub. This shrub can grow up to 30 feet in height. Coffee plantations thrive near the equator (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn), primarily in Africa, the Americas, and Southeast Asia.

As with most plants used for food and drink, the growing environment -- amount of sunshine, type of soil, climate, and water -- contributes much to the flavor. Once coffee is harvested (a painstaking process that involves picking the coffee cherries by hand as they ripen) and processed, the beans -- which are at this point green in color -- are shipped off to their destinations to be roasted.

Types of Beans

Hot Cup of Coffee with Coffee Beans With all the different monikers on the beans you buy at the store, you may think they are from different species of coffee plants. However, most of the beans you can purchase today come from only two species of coffee plants: coffea robusta and coffea arabica.

The coffee most often found in cans in your supermarket, consists of the type of coffee most Americans grew up with and consist of coffea robusta. Instant coffee consists of coffea robusta as well. While the robusta plant's hardiness and high yield make this a less expensive coffee to produce, coffee experts have described its flavor as "harsh" and "one-dimensional." On the other hand, coffea arabica, which grows at higher altitudes than robusta, produces coffee that connoisseurs often describe as "rich" and "complex." Specialty coffees -- those served at coffeehouses and sold at specialty coffee shops - also consist of coffea arabica.

Choosing the Right Coffee Bean

As previously explained, the names of the beans normally do not refer to the kind of coffee plant they come from; instead, the name can refer to any of the following:

Origin: Quite simply, a name may designate the location where beans grew (Ethiopia, Colombia, Kenya, and Yemen). Sometimes the name of the plantation is included in the name of the coffee as well. You can designate coffees as "single-origin" coffees - this means they hail from one country only -- or "blends," a combination of beans from a variety of geographical areas. Generally, blended coffees produce more complex brews than single-origin coffees.

Roasting Style: Once at their destination, the roasting of the green coffee beans takes place (that is, heated in a large roasting drum to develop a desired flavor and color). Generally, the longer the beans roast, the darker their color -- and the stronger their flavor. Knowing how strong you prefer your brew will help you decide which roasting style you prefer.

Roaster's Preferences: Often, coffee roasters will put their own mark on a batch of beans, blending and roasting the beans according to the roaster's preferences. Often, names such as "House Blend" will tell you little; but the names sometimes give clues as to how the roaster wishes the consumer enjoy their blend, such as "Dessert Blend."

Coffee-Roasting Styles

  • French and Italian Roasts: Dark, heavy-roasted beans that are almost black in color and produce a strongly flavored coffee.
  • American Roast: This is a medium-roasted coffee. It produces a coffee that is neither characteristically light nor heavy.
  • European Roast: Two-thirds heavy-roasted beans combined with one-third medium-roasted beans.
  • Viennese Roast: One-third heavy-roasted beans combined with two-thirds medium-roasted beans.

Decaffeinated Coffee
Decaffeinated coffee beans are regular coffee beans that have had the caffeine extracted from them. A chemical process that uses a solvent to extract the caffeine does this in some, others use a Swiss water method. The Swiss-water method means the beans are steamed and the caffeine-rich outer layers removed. Most coffee lovers agree that a good-quality decaffeinated process will not take away from the pleasure, aroma, or flavor of coffee.

Choosing the Right Coffee Origin

So, how does all this translate into what's best for your cup? Because coffees grown in the same parts of the world can have similar characteristics, knowing the origin of your coffee can help you decide if it will be one you like. Coffees from Africa imbue the aromas and flavors of berries, citrus fruits, cocoa, and spices, while coffees from Latin America have a lighter body and cleaner flavor. Coffees from Southeast Asia are often full-bodied and smooth.

Once you've got this overall picture of origins and roasting styles in your mind, you can enjoy the task of trying a bit of this and a bit of that to hone your personal likes and dislikes.

Caring for and Grinding Beans

Tip: Buy your coffee beans every week and store them in an airtight container to ensure freshness.

Whatever roast of coffee you choose remember the dictum: "Fresh is best." Beans become stale one week after roasting, so buy only the amount you will use within that week. If possible, buy your beans from a specialty shop that can tell you where and when the beans were roasted. If the roasting of the beans occurred halfway across the country, they are probably not very fresh. If the shop itself roasted the coffee, you are probably safe (provided the roaster is a well-trained professional). At home, store the beans at room temperature in an airtight container.

The Daily Grind
Most experts agree that you should not grind coffee until you plan to brew it. Ground coffee loses its freshness quickly -- so purchase your beans whole, and grind as needed. For most purposes, electric coffee grinders -- shaped like cylinders, with little whirring metal blades -- will work well. They cost about $20. Hand grinders may not grind the coffee fine enough for many coffee-brewing methods. The burr grinder has disks that cut beans into evenly sized pieces that drop into an attached container; this produces a more consistent grind, from coarse to fine. This type of grinder costs $50 to $80.

How fine you grind your coffee will depend on the coffee maker you use; check the manufacturer's directions. As a general rule, coffee too coarsely ground tends to be weak in flavor, body, and aroma. Yet, if it is ground too fine, it can taste bitter and clog some coffee makers.

Brewing Coffee

Brewed Coffee Proper Technique: Each brewing method has advantages and disadvantages. No matter which roast and method you select keep these points in mind:

  1. Measure ground coffee for consistent results. If you like a bold cup of coffee, try 2 tablespoons ground coffee for each 6-ounce cup. Because coffee strength is a matter of personal preference, experiment until you find the perfect measure for your taste.
  2. Start with fresh, cold water to make coffee. If your coffee tastes bitter or unusual, the water could be the cause. Highly chlorinated water, water treated by a softener and hard water can all affect the flavor of your coffee. A simple solution is to use bottled water. Consider water, like ground coffee, an essential ingredient in making a great cup of coffee.
  3. If using the manual drip method, let the water come to a full boil; then take the kettle off the heat and pause for a moment before pouring the water into the coffee. The flavor compounds in coffee that taste best release from water at less-than-boiling temperatures of 195 to 205-degrees.
  4. If using an automatic drip coffee maker, do not leave coffee on the warming plate -- it can quickly develop a bitter, burnt taste. Transfer the coffee to an airtight thermal carafe to keep it warm.

About filters
For sediment-free coffee, paper filters are best, but some people prefer using fine-mesh gold-plated filters. These last a long time and allow some sediment and flavorful oils to seep into the coffee, adding a character that some people enjoy.

Common Brewing Equipment and Methods

Tip: Use a carafe for brunches or other events where coffee never lasts long.

Filtered manual drip into an insulated container
Pour freshly boiled water through the coffee into a filter cone set on an insulated container.
Advantages: You can control the water temperature, allowing for the release of desired flavor components of the coffee, and the coffee stays hot in the container.
Disadvantage: Method is less convenient than automatic-drip coffee maker.

Filtered manual drip into glass carafe
You manually pour oiling water through the coffee into a filter cone set over a glass carafe. Advantage: You can control the water temperature, allowing for the release of the desired flavor components of the coffee.
Disadvantages: It is not as convenient as an automatic drip coffee maker is and you must consume the coffee immediately.

You automatically heat the water, pour it through coffee in a filter and the coffee drips into a carafe or insulated container.
Advantages: It is convenient -- some models even offer automatic timers.
Disadvantages: You cannot control the water temperature and it usually does not reach high enough temperatures to release the best flavors of the coffee. Coffee can develop a burnt taste if it sits on the warming plate.

French press (also called plunger or coffee press)
Freshly boiled water is poured over coffee into a cylindrical carafe, then it infuses (like tea) for a few minutes. You press a plunger filter through the water, trapping grounds below.
Advantages: Produces a richly textured coffee rife with natural oils. You do not need paper filters and you can control the water temperature.
Disadvantages: You must consume the coffee immediately. This method allows for some sediment in the brew; some people feel this adds character, and others find the taste bitter.

Electric percolator
As water boils it forces the water up through a tube and sprinkles it over grounds in a filter cup. The percolator automatically repeats the process, repeatedly spraying the coffee over the grounds.
Advantage: It is convenient.
Disadvantages: You cannot control the water temperature and coffee is recycled through the grounds, thereby creating "off" flavors.

Specialty Coffees

Brewed coffee: Usually produced through a drip filter, is perhaps the most common way to fill the American coffee cup; however, these specialty coffees are popular too.

Espresso: Italian in origin, many love espressos for its hearty flavor and thin layer of silky froth on top. Because of its intense flavor, you serve espresso in demitasse cups, often with sugar. You brew it by forcing hot water under pressure through finely ground coffee in an espresso machine.

Caffe Latte: This is primarily an American favorite. It combines one part brewed espresso to about three parts steamed milk, with a little froth (or foam) on top. Serve Caffe latte in a latte bowl or a tall glass mug.

Cappuccino: Equal parts brewed espresso, steamed milk, and froth makes a cup of cappuccino. Popular in both Italy and America, it has a more intense coffee flavor than latte and most often comes served with sugar.

These coffees depend on an Italian roast that has been specially blended and ground to make espresso. Because you make it differently from drip coffees, you need an espresso maker if you wish to prepare authentic espresso at home. Many kinds of espresso makers are available, from inexpensive stovetop pots to expensive machines resembling those found in coffeehouses.

Coffee Trivia

  • A couple of scoops of coffee grounds in a small dish in your refrigerator absorbs odors almost instantaneously. Also works in garbage cans, unplugged refrigerators, etc.
  • A barista is the one who makes coffee drinks.
  • America is the world's largest consumer of coffee with over 1/2 million cups consumed per day.
  • During the Civil War, when coffee supplies became scarce, the soldiers who were desperate for coffee, would roast sweet potatoes or Indian corn, grind it and brew it.
  • Did you know that dark roast coffee has less caffeine than medium roast? More of the caffeine is burned away during the roasting.
  • Until the 10th century, coffee was considered a food. Ethiopian tribesmen would mix coffee berries in animal fat, roll it into balls, and eat them on long journeys.

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