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Coffee Basics

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The word coffee is highly evocative, conjuring images of steaming mugs and olfactory memories of Sunday mornings. But what, exactly, is coffee?

Coffee

The coffee drink that we all love comes from the seeds of these cherry like fruits that grow on large bushes in mostly equatorial regions. Technically they are not coffee beans of course, they are coffee seeds; the seeds of the Coffea plant. I have tried the fruit and it is tasty but there is not much to it. These bushes can live up to hundreds of years, producing coffee beans for the majority of that time.

The coffee plant averages about 20 ft in height. As it gets older, it produces less fruit and slowly loses it’s disease-resistance. These plants need a very specific climate to thrive. Arabica coffee beans grow best at temperatures between 59 and 75 °F and Robusta at 75–86 °F. Each need 59 and 118 inches of rainfall per year.

Coffee History

Legend has it that the coffee plant was discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi around 850 AD. Kaldi noticed his goats got frisky when they ate coffee beans. It was first cultivated in India in the 15th Century.

CoffeeThe processing of these seeds is fascinating. Two methods are used to process coffee berries.

The “wet” process is where the flesh of the cherries is separated from the seeds and then the seeds are fermented by soaking them in water for a couple of days. This softens the mucilage, which is a sticky pulp residue that is still attached to the seeds which is then washed off with water.

There is also a dry method that is cheaper and simpler. The fruit is spread out in the sun for a couple of weeks. They are turned regularly so they dry evenly.

Green Coffee Beans

Green Coffee Beans could be an entire blog post on its own, and very well may be in the future. The term refers to unroasted beans that have been processed in one of the ways described earlier. Green coffee beans have a waxy outer layer.

Roasting

Green beans need to be roasted before you can consume them. The roasting process influences the taste of the beverage by changing the coffee bean both physically and chemically. To roast the green beans you have to bring their temperature to 392 degrees. During the roasting processing caramelization occurs as heat breaks down starches, changing them to simple sugars that begin to brown, which gives coffee beans their iconic brown color.

Grinding and Brewing

Before you turn the roasted beans into a drink, they have to be ground. Roasted coffee beans may be ground at a roastery, in a grocery store, or in the home. Most coffee is roasted and ground at a roastery and sold in packaged form. If you are really into coffee you are going to want to at least try grinding beans at home immediately before consumption at least once.

Brewing usually takes one of 3 forms: boiled, steeped, or pressurized. Brewing coffee by boiling was the earliest method, and Turkish coffee is an example of this method. Most people’s home coffee makers brew coffee using gravity; hot water drips onto coffee grounds allowing the water to seep through extracting the coffee grounds oils and essences.