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Coffee Culture 101: The Bean & the Beverage


Any avid coffee enthusiast wouldn’t be caught belly-up and festering with a cup of instant coffee. Instant coffee, unlike it’s roasted counterpart is created from de-hydrated coffee extract and although is cheap, easy to find, comes in pretty little glass jars and tins, it does not contain any of the health benefits found in the freshly ground variety – not to mention that sensory orgasm one achieves from each flavourful cup of fresh ground java. Also, did you know that the coffee bean is the word’s largest traded commodity with oil coming in a close second.

A short history of the coffee bean

Coffee use can be traced at least to as early as the ninth century, when it appeared in the highlands of Ethiopia. According to legend, an Arab goatherder named Khalid noticed that his goats became more lively after eating the berries of the coffee plant. Intrigued, he boiled the berries, thus producing the first coffee. From Ethiopia, coffee spread to Egypt and Yemen. It was in Arabia that coffee beans were first roasted and brewed, similar to how it is done today. By the 15th century, it had reached the rest of the Middle East, Persia, Turkey, and northern Africa.

What is coffee?

Coffee is the seed of a cherry from a tree, which grows from sea level to approximately 6,000 feet, in a narrow subtropical belt around the world.

Coffee trees are an evergreen and grow to heights of 20 feet. To simplify harvesting, the trees are pruned to 8 to 10 feet. The coffee cherries ripen at different times, so they are predominantly picked by hand. It takes approximately 2,000 Arabica cherries to produce just one pound of roasted coffee. Since each cherry contains two beans, your one pound of coffee is derived from 4,000 coffee beans. The average coffee tree only produces one to two pounds of roasted coffee per year, and takes four to five years to produce its first crop.

Possibly the most important thing to know about coffee and caffeine is that the strength of a coffee’s taste has little to do with how much caffeine it contains! While caffeine has a slightly bitter taste, our perception of strength comes basically from the degree of roast (the darker the “stronger”) and the ratio of coffee to water used during the brewing process that creates the actual strength of the coffee.

The Roasting

While one can obtain green coffee beans ready for self roasting it is much easier to buy the beans pre-roasted and ready for brewing.

  • CINNAMON – light brown and dry surface, tastes like toasted grain with sour acid notes.
  • LIGHT CITY – medium light brown, traditional norm for eastern US market.
  • CITY or MEDIUM – medium brown, normal for Western US and all of Canada, good to taste varietal character of bean.
  • FULL CITY – medium dark brown, oil drops starting on surface, good for varietal character, bittersweet notes starting.
  • LIGHT FRENCH, ESPRESSO – darker brown with oily spots or some surface oil, more bittersweet caramel flavours, acidity muted.
  • FRENCH – shiny with oil, also popular for espresso, burned undertones, low acidity.
  • DARK FRENCH or ITALIAN – very shiny with oil, charcoal tones evident, very low acid.
  • SPANISH – nearly black, charcoal tones dominate, flat taste.

Coffee Preparation

There is no “best” way to prepare coffee; each of us prefers one method to the others (for the record we live for espresso!). Coffee is an everyday part of our lives and it should fit our lifestyle and pocketbook. Making coffee is both a ritual and a practical part of life. Unlike tea or cocoa, coffee lends itself readily to many different ways of preparation. All of these methods share the same basic principle, which is to use very hot water to extract from the ground beans the natural oils that give coffee its wonderful aroma and flavour. The resulting brews described below, are all technically a coffee infusion.

The drip or filter method is possibly the most widely used method today. Fine ground coffee is placed in a paper or reusable basket unit and nearly boiling water is poured on top. For best results, a small quantity of water should be poured on first to wet (infuse) the grounds. The resulting brew filters through the unit into a pot or mug and is ready to drink. The coffee grounds remain in the filter basket. There are electric versions, which automate this process, including heating the water, and in general make a better or more consistent cup of coffee than the manual version. The filter method is used especially in Germany, Canada and the USA.

The plunger method (said to have been invented in the 30’s) extracts the most flavour from the ground beans. Coarsely ground coffee is placed in the bottom of the pot, hot water is added to the grounds and stirred, then it is allowed to steep for three to five minutes, before the plunger is slowly pushed down to separate the coffee grounds from the coffee infusion. This method is only slightly less convenient than the filter method and is today one of the two fastest growing ways to make fresh ground coffee. Cheaper pot models have nylon rather than stainless steel mesh to separate the grounds from the infusion, but they do not last as long. Very fresh-roasted coffee (2 days or less) will produce a foaming action when made in the plunger pot (C02 is being released) and is one sure way to tell if the “coffee right out of the roaster” actually is.

Espresso and its derivative cappuccino, invented in Italy, are the fastest growing methods of making coffee. All the other methods involve a ‘natural’ form of infusion, and for a small cost, you can have a system that will make acceptable coffee. Espresso machines, however, force the hot water through very fine, compacted coffee into the cups below. Good espresso is more expensive to make because in order to extract the greatest amount of flavour from the coffee, a high level of pressure is required (8-10 bar) and thus a high quality machine. When making espresso, it is important not to over-extract the coffee, which means that the entire process should take around 18 – 30 seconds. The ‘crema’ lies on top of the black coffee underneath and will tell you everything about the quality of the espresso. Too light, or too thick or too thin: all mean that the espresso is sub standard. A reddish-brown colour is perfect. Espresso can become like a religion to some people. And there certainly is a big difference between a good espresso and a not so good one. How much we spend in terms of money or energy in seeking out the best is one of those lifestyle choices we all make for ourselves. Espresso is the foundation of cappuccino and cafe latte. A good espresso is less obvious under a head of frothed milk, but the quality of the coffee underneath is still an important factor. The aim in steaming the milk is to aerate it and give it the consistency of whipped cream without burning it. The combination of frothed and steamed milk is then poured and ladled onto the coffee in the cup, gently as though folding it in. The small amount of remaining milk is poured in also. And there we have the perfect cappuccino.

No Italian home is without one or more mocha jugs of varying sizes, and no matter what you may think of the coffee, their visual appeal is undeniable. Wonderfully designed stovetop pots; they combine the characteristics of espresso and percolator coffee. They force the water, which has come to the boil in the lower chamber, up through a tube and then down through the finely ground coffee. Handled expertly they can satisfy coffee cravings and produce an adequate ‘espresso type’ coffee in under a minute. This is the same premise that many so-called electric “steam-driven” espresso machines use. It is not true espresso because of the lower pressure developed. These machines can be identified by the screw top through which the water is placed.

Although the coffee bean spread from Arabia to the rest of the world, the Arab method of making coffee did not. There is a fundamental difference between the Arab and other methods: the Arabs boil their coffee, traditionally, three times. Boiling coffee boils away the most delicate flavours, but it is a romantic way to make strong-tasting coffee. Arab coffee is made in an ibriq, a small copper pot with a long handle. Two teaspoons of very fine (a powder) ground coffee plus one of sugar are added to a cup of water and the mixture is brought to the boil. The ibriq is taken off the heat as it comes to the boil, usually three times, and then it is poured out and drunk. A cardamom seed may be added for flavour. Only the very best coffee grinders can grind coffee into the powder required for this method.

The coffee percolator was widely used throughout the western world, where, until the recent coffee ‘revolution’, it was a standard piece of equipment in most homes. The percolator heats the coarsely ground coffee and cold water so that it boils and bubbles up into the top of the unit. It is an excellent way to have the relaxing sound of the coffee liquid burbling and gurgling, and to waft the aroma of coffee through the home, as all the volatile wonderful flavours go out of the coffee and into the air! There is possibly no worse way to make fresh coffee than this.


Upon roasting, coffee beans need to be stored in an airtight container free from light and moisture. Ground coffee found is those fold-over foil bags should be used up within two days otherwise they start to lose their flavour and aroma. The worst possible place to store your coffee is in your fridge.

Health benefits

  • Rich in anti-oxidants which is derived from the roasted coffee beans
  • The caffeine found in coffee can help prevent muscle fatigue. Meaning you can lift more weights (or exert yourself for longer) and see significant long term muscle and stamina gains
  • Aids in preventing Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimers
  • Beneficial in decreasing the likelihood of type 2 diabetes
  • Decreases the likelihood of developing heart disease (in moderate quantities)
  • Trigonelline found in coffee (giving coffee its aroma and bitterness) contains both antibacterial and anti-adhesive properties which will help to prevent cavities from developing.
  • Increases mental performance, resulting in a heightened alertness, attentiveness and short term memory function.
  • Studies conducted have revealed that coffee can reduce the onset of asthma and respiratory related attacks.
  • Contrary to popular belief (and according to the World Health Organisation) coffee is in fact not addictive.

It should be noted though that once you start to exceed six cups per day that things, literally, start to get a bit shaky and you lose all the benefit from each cup. Aside from that this an incredible beverage that is enjoyed the world over and makes the perfect companion to a wholebran muffin, good company, a sudoku puzzle or newspaper.

Steaming Milk

The quest for any barista is to create the velvety foam that is made when milk is properly steamed. This “mircrofoam” is a thick chiffon of tiny bubbles held in the milk that creates the feel of satin on the tongue. This ultra-fine foam varies in density from very hard for lattes (where minimum air is injected) to velvety soft for a cappuccino. The tight velvet foam offers not only the perfect feel but also the optimum flavor of the milk and espresso combination. Big foam bubbles (known as “sea foam”) are not only unattractive, but they also disrupt the flavor marriage of milk and espresso by causing the tongue to taste mostly air.

Store the stainless steel milk pitcher in the fridge or on ice
The cold pitcher will keep the structure of the milk tight. A hot pitcher promotes loose foam and big bubbles. Be sure to use a large enough pitcher (cold milk should never fill the pitcher more than 1/3).

Fill pitcher with a measured amount of fresh, cold milk
Cappuccinos will need less milk for the same cup size as a latte because you are introducing more air to the foam.

Steam milk
Place the tip below the milk surface. If the tip is to close to the surface, big bubbles will appear immediately. The wand should be close to the bottom of the pitcher.

Turn on steam fully with the wand in the center of the pitcher. Remain motionless, lowering wand very slightly (2-3 millimeters). Listen for the slight hissing that indicates air is being drawn into the milk. There should be no splatter. If there is, raise pitcher slightly. If you do not hear light hissing, lower the pitcher slightly.

Keep the steam wand in the milk until a temperature between 150 and 160° Fahrenheit is reached. Check a thermometer for consistency, but this should not be necessary each time you steam milk. As a general rule, if you hold the pitcher near the bottom, the milk is done once the pitcher is too hot to comfortably hold (CAUTION: both the steam from the wand and steamed milk can be hot enough to cause serious burns).

Once the milk is at the desired consistency and temperature, swirl and tamp the milk pitcher on a flat surface to get rid of any large bubbles.

Combine milk & espresso
Milk should be poured over top of espresso and the two should come together to form liquid, not a separation of milk on the top and espresso on the bottom.

Coffee Recipes

Cappuccino (6 oz)
Single espresso, 4 oz steamed milk and ½” milk foam

Cappuccino (12 oz)
Double espresso, 8 oz steamed milk and ½” milk foam

Espresso, long (It. “lungo”)
One 40 ml (1.35 fl oz) shot of espresso

Espresso, short (It. “ristretto”)
One 20 ml (.65 fl oz) shot of espresso

Latte (12 oz)
Single espresso, 9 oz steamed milk and 1 tbsp milk foam

Latte (16 oz)
Double espresso, 12 oz steamed milk and 1 tbsp milk foam

Mocha (12 oz)
Single espresso, 9 oz steamed milk, chocolate sauce and whipped cream

Mocha (16 oz)
Double espresso, 12 oz steamed milk, chocolate sauce and whipped cream

Popular Drink Variations

Affogato (It. “drowned”)
Espresso served over ice cream. Traditionally vanilla ice cream is used, but some coffehouses or customers prefer chocolate ice cream (this variation is sometimes called an “affogato mocha”).

Americano (It. “American”)
Espresso and hot water, classically using equal parts each, but many individuals prefer a greater volume of water. Rarely, if ever, ordered by Italians.

Red Eye or Black Eye
A cup of drip coffee with two shots of espresso in it. Also known as a slingblade, a depth charge, a shot in the dark, an Al Pacino, an autobahn or a hammerhead.

Breve (It. “short”):
Espresso in half and half, in proportions equal to those of a caffè latte. Similarly, a mocha breve is espresso, chocolate, and half and half in proportions equal to those of a cafè mocha.

Café Bonbon (Sp. “candy coffee”)
A shot of espresso served in a small glass filled with condensed milk. The shot and the milk remain separate unless stirred, as in a black and tan.

Café Cubano (Sp. “Cuban”)
Sugar is added to the espresso grounds during brewing for a sweet taste. Sugar can also be whipped into a small amount of espresso after brewing and then mixed with the rest of the shot.

Caffè Macchiato (It. “stained”)
A small amount of foam is spooned onto the espresso. The cafè macchiato is to be differentiated from the latte macchiato (described below), which is what Starbucks serves under titles such as “caramel macchiato,” “marble mocha macchiato,” and “maple spice macchiato.”

Café Noisette (Fr. “hazelnut coffee”)
Espresso cut with warm milk, similar to a cortado. The combination of dark French roasted coffee and milk gives a nutty taste, hence the name.

Corretto (It. “corrected”)
Some sort of liquor added.

Cortado (Sp./Port. “cut”)
Espresso “cut” with a small amount of warm milk.

Doppio (It. “double”)
Two shots of espresso in one cup.

More foamed milk, less steamed milk.

Espresso con Panna (It. “espresso with cream”)
Espresso with whipped cream on top.

Flat White
A coffee drink very popular in both Australia and New Zealand, made of one-third espresso and two-thirds steamed milk.

Latte (It. “milk”)
This term is an abbreviation of “caffè latte”, coffee with milk, an espresso based drink with a volume of steamed milk, served with either a thin layer of foam or none at all, depending on the shop or customer’s preference.

Latte Macchiato (It. “stained milk”)
Essentially an inverted caffè macchiato, with the espresso poured on top of vanilla-flavored milk and flavored sauce (most often caramel or chocolate) drizzled on top of the foam.

Long Black
Espresso and hot water in equal parts.

Lungo (It. “long”)
More water (about double) is let through the ground coffee, yielding a weaker taste (40 ml).

Normally, a latte blended with chocolate. This is not to be confused with the region of Ethiopia or the coffee grown in that region (which is often seen as 1/2 of the blend “mocha java).

Java in Jozi

Fancy going on a coffee appreciation course here in sunny South Africa, the following websites have a few courses on. Origins & Intec College

Some of the best places I’ve found for coffee (specifically Espresso) in Johannesburg are Mugg & Bean, Doppio and Seattle Coffee Co.

Also see Perk Up, Coffee Is Good For You



About Author

Lover of gadgets, men's culture, cool stuff, Earl Grey tea and all things manly. An optimist in his prime. When he's not keeping the wheels turning at Mantality HQ you'll find him trawling the web, and visiting trade shows to find the newest and coolest gadgets. During his down time he's usually with his 2 dogs, on the golf course, cycling or basking in the literary company of Oscar Wilde, Bret Easton Ellis or Martin Amis whilst drinking espresso strong enough to strip paint.

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