There is no single best way to make coffee; each of us prefers one method to the rest. Coffee is an everyday part of our lives and it must above all fit our lifestyles and our pockets. 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 making the infusion. All these methods share the basic principle which is to use hot water, to extract from the ground beans the natural essential oils, the caffeol, that give coffee its wonderful aroma and flavour. The resulting brew, or liquor, is a coffee infusion.
ARAB OR TURKISH COFFEE 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 finely-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 can also be added for flavour.
THE FILTER METHOD
The drip or filter method is possibly the most widely used method today. Finely-ground coffee is placed in a paper or reusable cone-shaped unit and nearly boiling water poured on top. For best results, a small quantity of water should be poured on first to wet the grounds and speed up the release of caffeol. The resulting brew filters through the unit into a pot or mug and is ready to drink. The coffee grounds remain in the cone. 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 and the USA.
The plunger method, said to have been invented in 1933, extracts the most flavour from the ground beans. The pot is warmed, coarsely ground coffee is placed in the bottom, hot water is added to the grounds and stirred, then it is allowed to steep for three to five minutes, before the plunger is 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.
The jug method of making coffee is the simplest of all. The coffee should be quite coarsely ground and then the hot water added. It is somewhat like the cafetiere method, but without the convenience of the cafetiere’s plunger to separate the coffee grounds from the infusion. The jug is not now widely used, although it is always a serviceable stop-gap method.
ESPRESSO AND CAPPUCCINO
Today, espresso and cappuccino, which were 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. But not with espresso. Espresso machines force the hot water through very finely and compacted coffee and then into the cups below. Good espresso is expensive to make because in order to extract the greatest amount of flavour from the coffee, a high level of pressure is required and thus a high specification machine. Yet when making espresso, it is important not to over-extract the coffee, which means the machine should be switched off sooner, rather than later. While the coffee is still coming out as a golden brown liquid, it is perfect. This liquid is the ‘crema’, which lies on top of the black coffee underneath. The crema will dissipate a few minutes after the coffee is made, but in those few minutes it 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. Espresso can become like a religion to some people. And there certainly is a big difference between a really 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; it is the coffee upon which a luxuriant structure of frothed and foamed milk is ladled and poured. A good espresso is less obvious under its head of frothed milk, but the quality of the coffee underneath is still an important factor. The milk, ideally semi-skimmed, is poured into a jug, into which a steam spout is placed. The steam control should not be turned on until the nozzle of the steam spout is under the surface of the milk. Once the steam is gurgling and bubbling under the milk, the jug should be moved around, or the milk will spoil. The aim is to aerate the milk and give it the consistency of whipped cream without burning it. It is essential that the cups are warm when the milk is poured in or the froth will deflate. They are normally stored upsidedown on top of the espresso machine. 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 think of the coffee, their visual appeal is undeniable. Wonderfully designed double beaded stove-top 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.
The coffee percolator was a civilising influence in the American wild west; it was certainly widely used throughout the USA, 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 percolator and into the air! There is possibly no worse way to make fresh coffee than this.
SOLUBLE, OR INSTANT COFFEE
The first soluble “instant” coffee was invented in 1901 by Japanese-American chemist Satori Kato of Chicago. It was not marketed commercially until the launch of Nescafe in 1938. The quality and diversity of instant coffee have grown dramatically over the years, and we can make a good cup of coffee from today’s products. Instant coffee has a number of advantages over fresh brewed coffee, including ease and convenience. It stays fresher longer, it is hard to damage the flavour, however hard you try, and most of all it is fast, cheap and clean. Instant coffee is manufactured, just like any other coffee, from ground beans. The first stage involves the preparation of a coffee concentrate from which the water is removed, either by heat, known as spray dried, or by freezing, to produce a soluble powder or granules. During the process of dehydration, the coffee essences may be lost, but these are captured and returned to the processed coffee.
An interesting and fast growing area of the market is flavoured coffees. Today there are over 100 different flavoured varieties available. While coffee connoisseurs may turn up their noses at the idea of spoiling the flavour of their sacred brew, there are definitely moments when a chocolate or cinnamon flavoured coffee is just right. Coffee is a wonderful taste itself, but also acts very well as the platform for many other flavours. Flavouring coffee is actually an old trick. In the Middle East it is traditional to add cardamom to coffee, while the practice of adding cinnamon has been widespread in Mexico for many years. The growth in popularity of flavoured coffee is proof of coffee’s versatility and strength. The flavours are added directly to the beans by roasting them, then spraying them with a carrier oil and then the particular flavouring. Another way to make a cup of flavoured coffee is to add a syrup to hot brewed coffee. This makes an ideal summer coffee drink, which can be served cold, as can iced coffee: pre-made coffee which has been chilled with either ice cubes or crushed ice added. By far the most important flavouring added to coffee over the world is milk. Although milk is not added to Arabian coffee, and coffee purists tend not to add milk, most people find coffee more palatable with its addition.