Let’s talk about Coffee

For most serious drinkers, discovering your perfect beverage(s) is a journey; an adventure; an experiment, in exploring options, identifying preferences, and tuning your tastebuds to the qualities and characteristics of your chosen brew.  For our favourite alcoholic tipples, there are well-worn paths of discovery and a body of knowledge and expertise available to us, as we progress towards our personal nirvana, supported by an endless supply of books, magazines, websites, retailers, growers, experts, tastings, visits, and so on.  But unlike this wealth of knowledge of the source and production of alcoholic drinks, coffee for a lot of people, is still a bit of a mystery.

It was during the 1950s that coffee starting to make some headway to becoming a popular drink in Britain, rather than being just a flavouring for cakes, puddings and the like.  The arrival of espresso machines and the emergence of coffee bars had a limited appeal, disguised somewhat by the popularity of the 2is Coffee Bar in Soho , which became more well known as a music venue than for its coffee.  But hey, coffee and British rock and roll had to start somewhere.

In time, coffee started to find its place, and who can recollect those innocent days, enjoying the company of good friends, sharing a bottle of Liebfraumilch, in rooms dimly lit by candles stuffed inside the neck of empty Mateus Rose bottles, and then rounding the evening off with a cup of instant to stabilise you for your journey home?  Those were the days, eh?  If you’re of a certain age, that was the way a number of ‘coffee’ journeys started – purely medicinal.  However, the Liebfraumilch is now long gone, replaced by an extensive selection of wines from every corner of the globe; the candle wax encrusted Mateus Rose bottles have been confined to the bottle bank of history, and the coffee is no longer instant, and occupies a much more respected role in people’s lives!

Now, for people who take their beverage consumption seriously, and have cultivated a taste for good wine, beer and spirits, they know that a knowledge and appreciation of the raw materials and the subtleties of the brewing process can add to the overall appreciation and pleasure afforded by the drink.  Add to that the social contribution that the drink offers when sharing with family and friends, and you have the makings of good times, well spent, enjoying good company, good conversation, whilst indulging in your favourite drink.  Meeting somebody for beer, a glass of wine, a coffee, has a certain social connotation. Somehow, meeting your mates for a glass of water doesn’t have the same ring about it!  Even tea hasn’t quite achieved the same level of social acceptance – the ubiquitous cuppa serves to quench thirst, and a ‘nice cup of tea’ provides a therapeutic antidote to all of our daily niggles.

Did you know that in the UK, we now drink 95 million cups of coffee per day?  For a nation known historically as tea drinkers, that’s a lot of coffee, and the good news is that more and more of it is coming from specialist roasters and coffee houses.  Back in the day, when coffee was just a jar of instant powder or freeze-dried granules, the concept of choice was marginal: black or white!  Nowadays, if you walk into one of the High Street coffee outlets, you’re faced with a menu offering you a wide range of coffee and coffee styles, and a barista to make it on demand for you.  Who knew that making a cup of coffee could become a profession?

The quality of the brew is reaching new heights, which accounts for some of the growing popularity of coffee.  It has always been noted for the energy boost it delivers, due to the caffeine content, but there has been an increasing number of observational studies that list a plethora of other benefits such as boosting physical performance and longevity, helping with weight loss, lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.  These claimed benefits are attributable to the content of different types powerful antioxidants.  However, as long as you drink about 3 cups per day of toxin free, good quality coffee, brewed with care, you can take comfort from the fact that you’re not only consuming a favourite drink, but also getting some potential health benefits.

Heading out to a coffee house to meet up with friends, or just grabbing a coffee-to-go, has become part of a daily ritual for lots of people, serviced by a growing number of high street coffee houses.  But what do you do if you take your coffee seriously and want to produce the highest quality brew in the comfort off your own home?  This is where patient and careful experimentation can result in brewing your own ‘perfect’ cup of coffee to a standard that will compete with or improve upon the commercial offerings.  And this is perfectly achievable given a modest budget, and the patience to evaluate the various options.  The process starts by taking note of the variables: the source and supply of coffee beans, the roast, the grind, and whichever brewing process is used to make the drink.

The Beans

Taking on the challenge, we’ll leave the growing of the coffee plants, the harvesting and processing of the berries to the experts, but in case you wanted to know, coffee beans are called coffee beans because they look like beans, but they are actually the stones from coffee berries, the fruit of the coffee plant.  The climatic conditions needed to grow coffee plants confines them to the ‘coffee belt’, the area between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, in which the major growers and exporters are  Brazil, Columbia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico and India.  The two most common varieties of coffee plant are Arabica and Robusta.  Arabica is grown at higher altitudes at temperatures between 15 and 24°C and has specific cultivation requirements, since it’s a more delicate plant. This generally means it is more expensive than Robusta, which as the name suggests is a more robust plant, grown at 24–30°C.  Coffee plants need between 150 and 300 cm of rainfall per year in total.  Heavy rain is needed in the beginning of the season when the fruit is developing and less later in the season as it ripens.

When ripe, the. fruit is usually hand-picked and then processed to extract the stones.  There are three alternative processing methods to remove the flesh and other extraneous material from the berries. The first process, known as the dry process, is the traditional, cheaper, and natural method in which the berries are spread out in thin layers on a drying station for 2–3 weeks, to dry in the sun, with regular turning.  Once the berries are fully dried, the skin and dried fruit flesh are removed mechanically.  The second process is known as the washed process, in which the flesh of the berries is separated from the berries by a de-pulper machine. The berries are then fermented by soaking them in water for about two days. This softens the sticky pulp residue that is still attached to the berries, which is then washed off with water.  The final step is to dry the beans by spreading them on raised beds for 2–3 weeks, to dry in the sun, or with a mechanical drier, turning them regularly to ensure even drying.  The third process, known as the honey process, is a variation on the washed process in which the berries are de-pulped mechanically, but go straight to the drying tables, so any residual pulp remains on the berries and contributes to the overall sweetness of the beans.

The Arabica bean produces the most popular type of coffee with its smooth caramel flavour and makes up about of the 60% global market.  Robusta coffee beans, which make up about of the 40% of the market, contain more caffeine than Arabica, but less sugar, and are often used to give coffee blends a boost of caffeine and a smooth golden crema. On their own, they would create a quite nutty flavoured and strong coffee.  

Caffeine is the most recognised component of coffee beans, which also contain proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, and chlorogenic acids (antioxidants), all of which contribute to the drink’s distinctive flavour.  During the roasting process other molecules are generated which contribute to the typical pleasant aroma of coffee, and most of the unpleasant-tasting volatile compounds are neutralised. 

The Roast

The roast is the process which transforms the green coffee beans into the dark beans we’re familiar with, and it is this process that develops the characteristic flavours of the brew.  Although roasting is mainly a commercial process, for the enthusiast, home roasting is an option worth considering, since it offers the opportunity to experiment with a wider range of roast profiles than the standard commercial options.  Home roasters, like most things in life, vary in quality and price, largely dependent on their capacity and the level of control over temperature and roasting times available.  As well as budgetary considerations, there’s a technical decision to make, whether to opt for a manual or automatic drum roaster or air roaster.  Air roasting is generally quicker and produces a more consistent roast.  Since coffee roasting produces a fair quantity of smoke, built-in smoke suppression may be a requirement, depending on where you choose to locate your roaster.

The Grind

If roasting is not for you, then the next step, the grind, is something that can be easily undertaken at home.  If fact, if you’re really serious, home grinding is the only option to ensure a really fresh brew.  Once again there’s a cost factor involved, as well as a technical decision, but compared to a roaster, this is more affordable.  There are two basic options – manual grinding, if you fancy a brief workout whist preparing the brew, or an electrical grinder, which does the job for you.  If you opt for an electrical grinder, there’s another decision to wrestle with – a blade grinder or a burr grinder.  Blade grinders are lower cost, quick and simple, but do not grind very evenly, whereas burr grinders offer more precision with multiple settings, and produce an even and consistent grind.

The Brew

Whichever choice of grinder you make, it’s the next step that opens up pandora’s coffee box – the choice of coffee machine.  When you come across references to ‘how to make the perfect cup of coffee’, it is important to note that perfection is highly subjective, and what’s perfect in my world, may be a disaster in yours.  So, you need to make your choice of the various options such as stove top percolators, filter machines, capsule machines, cafetiere/pump/press machines, or bean-to-cup machines.  Additionally, your choice may depend on a number of other factors such as budget, time and effort, what number of cups one brew will make, and ease of cleaning. 

A brief summary of the major coffee machines:


A coffee percolator is a pot containing a metallic basket that is arranged on a vertical tube inside the pot.  The basket in which the ground coffee is placed, sits above the level of water that is added to the pot.  As the water is heated in the pot, it rises through the tube and then seeps/percolates down through the ground coffee in the basket.  Percolators, although very common years ago, have been largely superseded by filter machines.

Filter machines

Filter machines are well established and simple to use but because the water drips through the coffee grounds, it introduces some limitations in its ability to extract the full flavour from the grounds.  Firstly, the water temperature will be lowering as it reaches the coffee and, furthermore, the paper filter may absorb certain flavour components.  Nevertheless, filter machines are relatively cheap, popular, and convenient.

Capsule/pod machines

Capsule/pod machines are even more convenient. They can be quite expensive but are capable of producing a single cup of coffee very quickly, by using pre-ground coffee sealed inside the pods.  The downside is that there is no scope to vary the process to suit your personal taste.  Furthermore, this process is not environmentally friendly due to the issues about disposal and recycling of the empty pods.

Espresso machines

Espresso machines can make you feel more like a barista, but generally come with a bigger price tag.  You have the choice of using your preferred home, or purchased ground coffee, which is loaded into a removable metal basket, the portafilter.  The portafilter is located in position, and hot water is pumped from a reservoir through the portafilter into your cup or mug.

Bean-to-cup machines

Bean-to-cup machines will have the biggest impact on your budget but offer an automated means to achieve your perfect cup of coffee, although maintenance and cleaning need to be incorporated into the cost/benefit equation.  Basically, these are espresso machines that incorporate a bean grinder, so that the ground coffee is produced on demand.  Water is forced through the ground coffee under pressure, but depending on the sophistication of the machine, it may offer control of a number of parameters to enable you to make your perfect cup of coffee.

Cafetiere, Pump/Press machines

Cafetiere, Pump/Press machines are simple, manual devices, which have established a reputation for making the cheapest and best coffee.  The coffee grounds are steeped in hot water for a few minutes to fully extract the flavour, before pushing down a plunger to squeeze the water through the grounds.  Steeping the grounds in hot water ensures a richer brew than a filter device.  The French Press and AeroPress are the two most common pump/press machines.

My Perfect Cup of Coffee

Of the 95 million cups of coffee consumed every day in the UK, I can only claim responsibility for three, and based on the recommendation of a coffee-loving friend to discard my other coffee machines and try the AeroPress, every brew I make represents my ‘perfect’ cup of coffee.  It is also attributable to Tiki Tonga Coffee Roasters and their ‘Guinness 232 Coffee’ blend.  In case you were wondering, Guinness 232 Coffee does not contain alcohol!!  It had to be said! The branding relates only to the roast profile in which the temperature of the roast is briefly increased to 232ºC, the same temperature as the barley is roasted at when brewing Guinness. For reasons encapsulated in mystery, this produces a coffee brew that claims the same the smooth, creamy, dark malty flavours as the famous dark stuff.  I concur!

Being the only inhabitant in my household who is serious about coffee, my machine of choice is the AeroPress, invented by Alan Adler, who also invents aerodynamic toys, such as flying rings and discs. The AeroPress is a double cylindrical device, with one cylinder, the plunger, fitting inside the other with an airtight seal.  The ground coffee is placed at the bottom of the larger cylinder, hot water added, stirred, and allowed to steep for a few minutes, before the brew is then forced through a microfilter by applying pressure to the plunger.  To complicate matters, there is an inverted method of using the AeroPress in which the device is placed upside down, with the plunger inserted.  The ground coffee and hot water are then added, the filter cap secured on top, and the device turned he right way up and then plunged normally.

The AeroPress gets great reviews, but it is limited to making one cup at a time, so if you’re planning a coffee morning for your entire neighbourhood, it’s not for you. 

The grounds

Once you’ve made your coffee, there’s one more thing to deal with– the spent coffee grounds!  What do you do with them?  Hold on to your hat, fire up the search engine, and stand back: here’s a few options:

  • Fertilise your garden
  • Compost it
  • Repel inspects and pests
  • Remove fleas from your pet
  • Neutralise odours
  • Natural cleaning scrub
  • Scour pots and pans
  • Exfoliate your skin
  • Reduce the appearance of cellulite
  • Use as a natural dye
  • Clean your fireplace
  • Tenderise meat
  • Stimulate hair growth
  • Repair scratched furniture
  • Grow mushrooms
  • Treat under-eye circles
  • Deodorise the fridge
  • Grow blue hydrangeas
  • Make a cockroach trap

And there you have it! Not just a perfect cup of coffee, but an economical and multi-functional solution to a wide range of personal and domestic problems.  How can you not like coffee?