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A User’s Guide to Great Coffee

Winter or summer, boom or bust times, coffee drinkers aren’t going to give up coffee. However, when times are tight, people are more likely to make coffee at home, so it’s helpful to have a guide to great coffee.

By making a shift in marketing techniques, some of America’s top specialty coffee purveyors are offering workshops on how to create the best home-brewed coffee, coffee drinks and coffee and cheese pairings.  It isn’t just about providing information or selling products; it’s also about pride in their profession.  Here are their thoughts on how to make great coffee, the best coffee making options and information on how to read the labels on the coffee you purchase.

Helpful Coffee Making Guidelines

* Use fresh coffee beans. Minimize the coffee beans’ exposure to air by storing them in an airtight container. Don’t store beans in the freezer as condensation during the thawing process can damage them.

* Use simple, nonelectric brewing methods, such as a French press or the manual makers like Melitta and Chemex, which allow you to stir the water and grounds while they are steeping for the most even extraction.

* Purchase a good burr grinder ($40-$600). Experts say propeller grinders produce uneven grinds. Always grind beans just before brewing.

* Measure Carefully.  The recommended measure is 2 tablespoons of coffee per 6 to 8 ounces of water.
* Make coffee with fresh water. Experts often use filtered or bottled water. If using a manual coffee maker, heat the water to a full boil; wait 30 seconds before pouring. Warm your coffeepot with a swish of very hot water.

What is the best method of brewing coffee?  Coffee specialists feel there are four ways for brewing great coffee. America’s most popular method of coffee brewing  – the automatic drip machine is not included in their suggestions.

Vacuum Brewer or Siphon Pot Method
How it works:
Invented in France in the 1840s, this method was popular in early 20th-century America but automatic drip machines became an American favorite because of it’s a timesaver. However, as more people grow interesed in fine coffee brewing, the vacuum has made a comeback. The device consists of a glass coffeepot and an upper glass chamber connected by a siphon tube. Water is placed in the lower coffeepot while ground coffee goes in the top chamber, fitted with a cloth filter. When the water heats to a boil on a stove, it travels up through the tube into the top chamber to mix with the coffee grounds. When the device is removed from the heat source, coffee is pulled back down through the filter into the pot, gurgling all the way. The vacuum brewer produces a great pot of coffee and is entertaining as well. Good for those who want to retain richness from coffee oils, have the patience to carefully monitor the process and enjoy a good show.

Carafes such as Chemex or Melitta
How it works: Place ground coffee in a paper-filter-lined cone on top of the carafe; pour some just-boiled water to moisten the grounds and let it bloom. Then, add the rest of the water and let it drip through to the pot. Good for people on a budget who like a clean coffee flavor.  Remember:  2 tablespoons of coffee to 6 ounces of water.  Boiling water with 30 seconds off the stove.

Eva Solo Cafesolo
How it works: Put grounds in the glass flask, pour hot water over them, stir them for 10 seconds. Then, place a filter funnel and a tip-up lid in the mouth of the flask, wait four minutes and pour. Good for those who go for a rich mouth feel but don’t want any sediment. Also great for table pouring because it comes with a felt or neoprene zip-up jacket for the carafe.

French Press or Plunger Pot
How it works: The French press (plunger pot) has a cylindrical glass carafe that holds the grounds. Hot water is poured to fill the carafe; after about four minutes you push down a plunger with a stainless-steel mesh filter to the base of the pot, thus straining and pressing the coffee grounds to the bottom. Good for those who will drink their java very soon after plunging and who like a full, rich body to their coffee.

Here’s a user-friendly guide to some of the terms you’ll find on coffee packages, with information from coffee experts and from www.coffeeterms.com.

* Bird-friendly certified: Coffee that has been verified by a representative of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and comes from a farm that meets “organic standards, canopy height, foliage cover and number of bird species, among other criteria,” according to Birdwatchers Digest. Farmers volunteer for the inspection and pay nothing to the Smithsonian for the certification, but 25 cents per pound goes to support the center’s research and conservation programs, according to the center.   This is a plus for farmers as small farmers rarely have the funds for organic or fair trade certification.

* Coffee blend: Coffee that has been blended from more than one farm, ideally to complement and enhance the flavor of each.

* Coffee terroir: The characteristics of the land on which coffee is produced including soil composition, weather, sun exposure, altitude, proximity to other plants, terrain and drainage. Although a coffee’s origin and terroir can play a part in its flavor, experts agree the beans from the very same plot of land can change yearly due to weather and soil changes.

* Direct trade: A broad term for coffee purchased directly from the farmer by the coffee roasting company, without the use of middlemen. This allows farmers to get more money for their coffee and for terms to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. (For details, check your roasters’ Web sites.)

* Estate coffee: Coffee farmed on a single plantation, which can have better consistency and higher quality control compared with coffees collected from many small farms.

* Fair Trade coffee: A certification from Transfair USA that guarantees a certain price for the farmer, certain working and economic conditions for the laborers and sustainable agricultural practices, including a restricted use of agro-chemicals and no GMOs (genetically modified organisms), according to Transfair. Coffee quality is not a factor. Many in the coffee-supply chain must pay a fee to the Transfair USA organization to be allowed to use the label.

* Organic coffee: Coffee verified by a U.S. Department of Agriculture representative to be produced on a farm that has not used synthetic pesticides or other prohibited substances for at least three years and has a sustainable crop rotation plan, according to the Organic Trade Association.

* Rainforest Alliance Certified: According to its Web site, www.rainforestalliance.org, this means coffee grown on farms where “forests are protected, rivers, soils and wildlife conserved; workers are treated with respect, paid decent wages, properly equipped and given access to education and medical care. The Rainforest Alliance seal ensures experienced inspectors have verified that the farms meet demanding social and environmental standards, and are on a path toward true sustainability.”

* Shade grown: Coffee grown in shade or partial shade, which some say results in better flavor because it needs a longer ripening time. Shaded coffee trees also offer natural habitat for songbirds and reduce the need for fertilizers. Further, shade grown coffee is environmentally better as sun grown coffee is mostly grown on cleared forested land and is at great risk of erosion during heavy storms. An additional value of shade grown is that natural pollinators can pollinate the coffee, keeping the natural cycle in balance.

* Single origin: Unblended coffee from a single country, growing region or plantation. This is sometimes called straight coffee.

* Varietal: Coffee made from a single type of coffee, such as arabica, robusta or Bourbon. It may come from a single country or region as in Brazil Bourbon Santos coffee.

One final comment on coffee labels
With the notable exception of the big plantations in Brazil, most arabica coffee is grown on small family plantations.  Some of these plantations belong to cooperatives may be able to get organic or fair trade certification.  However, the majority of individual farmers cannot.  This doesn’t mean that their coffee isn’t organically grown; in fact, most cannot afford chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  With mountain grown coffee, as in parts of Mexico and Guatemala, all chemical products would have to be carried in on mule back.

This same system applies to small producers of chocolate and vanilla.  A new type of labeling to anticipate in the future would be “eco-humane” or “ethical” coffee, chocolate or vanilla.  This means that the product has been grown in a sustainable and healthy manner and that the producer has been paid a fair price.  While the organic and fair trade systems are good in theory, there are issues that no one realized would come up when they were created, which is why eco-humane and ethical are appearing now.

Want more information about coffee?  Go to: www.needcaffeine.com or www.intelligentsiacoffee.com.



Patricia Rain
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