Coffee!…have you been sent into a reverie dreaming of rich frothy crema, heady dark smells of over 1000 aroma compounds and the bitter yet complex flavour of earthy acids, nutty noses and sanguine citrus’? Or has the whole topic of your daily caffeine hit left you overwhelmed and worried about the effects on your health?
Coffee can very quickly become a very confusing topic indeed with the wealth of choice, information and interest in the product. How do you take your coffee? Cold extracted, long, short, black, white, espresso, instant, strong, weak, bitter, sweet or any way in-between? What is a macchiatto? The difference between a capuccino, latte and a flat white?
What about fair trade and organic coffee? Do fair trade growers get a better deal in life? Is most coffee grown organically making certification an extra expense rather than a real benefit?
What about the health benefits? Is coffee good for you or bad? Well let’s take a closer look and at least try to understand coffee a little more; and most importantly, make the ritual of imbibing coffee one of life’s pleasures the best it can be.
How you can take your coffee
There are many kinds of ways of taking your coffee. But basically there are two variables that you should worry about. The first is to do with how the coffee flavour is extracted from the bean. And the second is how much, what kind of milk or how little milk (and how the milk is foamed or not foamed) is added to your coffee.
So first we will look at how your coffee is extracted. Because this is of vital importance to both the flavour and experience of your coffee and the way it will effect your health.
Now, there are many many different ways of extracting your coffee – including filter, plunger, cold-drip, espresso and risstretto shots to name but a few.
These different methods will all impart different characteristics to your coffee as they will extract different compounds from the bean due to the amount of water, the pressure involved, the heat of the water, time the water passes through the coffee ground and how fine the coffee grounds are.
What I want to focus on here is the flavour and health aspect of the extraction method. Because, as luck would have it, both can go hand in hand as you shall soon see!
Cold-drip coffee extraction is the healthiest way to consume your coffee. This involves slowing dripping cold water through the coffee very very slowly which takes time and a certain amount of equipment. Cold-drip or cold-brew coffee is no way near as acid forming (essentially a stress on your body) as other methods of extraction. Cold-drip coffee also has very little caffeine.
My only criticism of this method is that, for me, it is a completely different drink to your average coffee. Much more milder and closer to tea than coffee in it’s style of flavour. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but is certainly often disappointing if you are looking for that strong pungent taste and smell of coffee that it is so well known for – although equally interesting and delicious in a different way! This brings us to another method of extraction. And in my view the overall best.
But first let’s get back to this matter of caffeine. Because there are a lot of misunderstandings about caffeine and its usefulness in coffee. Caffeine basically causes increased levels of the hormone epinephrine (aka adrenaline). This in turn causes us to feel more alert and essentially hyperactive, which at times (i.e. in the mornings etc.) can be very helpful. It can also make us feel panicky and anxious if we have too much.
Caffeine is not particularly good for our health – in the sense that it is both an anti-nutrient (it binds important mineral and vitamins and inhibits us from absorbing them also). In small doses it definitely has its uses and can indeed help certain things (see below for more health info).
But the key factor is that we don’t need or want too much of it. And by and large, coffee can give us way too much – especially as we age – and especially if we are using the more intense extraction methods like espresso. Caffeine is also very bitter and unpleasant in flavour i.e. generally not what we are looking for in our coffee. It is in fact, the most consumed psychoactive drug in the world and I would even go so far to say, a poison when consumed in large doses!
Which brings us to one of the best methods of extraction. Risretto is a smaller stronger flavoured shot of esspresso. Traditionally the water is passed through the compacted grinds quicker, which gives less time to extract a higher ratio of volatile flavour compounds and oils in relation to caffeine. This means that the resultant shot will be more flavoursome, less bitter and has far less caffeine if done properly.
The chances are, if you have found a cafe that makes coffee that you love, that they will be doing two things well. They will be using good quality/fresh beans and they will be using a shorter extraction method to get the best flavour out of the coffee. Ristrettos taste nuttier and rounder. And they don’t have that awful bitter flavour. And they certainly don’t make you feel like you are going to grind your teeth down to nothing after drinking one.
These are the reasons why I think the ristretto extraction method is the best extraction method overall – as opposed to the usual method of espresso extraction – which is extracted for longer than the ristretto and contains a lot of caffeine.
You can also use the ristretto shot/s for making flat whites, lattes, cappucino, short black, long black or pretty much most styles of common coffee presentations. Unfortunately many baristas will not know how to make a ristretto, even if you specifically order one.
But the key aspect is to stop extracting the coffee as soon as you see the crema turning whiter in colour. The ideal amount of time to extract the most amount of flavour from the coffee bean is about 23 seconds. This allows the perfect amount of time to extract the best tasting flavour compounds out of the coffee grinds without the nastier caffeine and bitter compounds.
If you can try a ristretto I promise you that you will never go back! Sure you may try cold-drip coffee or turkish coffee or anything in between. But you will always go back to the ristretto as it has the best flavour and happens to have very little of the evil caffeine. But don’t fear – this doesn’t mean a ristretto style coffee won’t give you your morning pick-up, because it will! Just not the teeth grinding, anxious forming kind of one. So if you ever have these issues with drinking coffee – try making, or getting your barista to make you a ristretto shot or two served any way you like i.e. in a latte etc.
And finally, we will quickly consider the second aspect of the coffee which has to do with the milk aspect…
There are the coffees with no milk – turkish, short and long black etc – they just have varying amount of water and therefore strength of flavour. And then there are the coffees with frothed milk – cappuccino, latte and flat white which are all essentially the same. Technically they should have varying amounts of froth, but in reality most baristas froth milk how they froth milk so you won’t tend to get what you order.
I personally like my milk (nut milk or otherwise) to have very small froth bubbles (i.e. like a flat white) as this mixes with the crema really well and makes the coffee mouth-feel very smooth in texture. There are also smaller versions of the latte, i.e. a pocillo (which has half the amount of milk as a latte) or there is a macchiato which is essentially a short black (i.e. a shot of coffee with a little water added) with a little bit of froth sitting on top of the black coffee. And then there is the vietnamese coffee with condensed milk added, sickly and yum.
The style of coffee you are after will largely depend on the type of flavour you are looking for from you coffee i.e. strong, sweet, milky or both.
Coffee is the second most traded commodity around the world, second only to oil. It is a sub-tropical plant grown in over 80 countries around Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Most of the workers in these countries are low paid and live in third-world conditions.
Fair Trade coffee ensures growers and farmers from small hold farms are paid above market prices and treat their workers to strict standards of pay and conditions. The fair trade certification also ensures a rigorous standard of environmental practices, GMO free products and the banning of the most hazardous of pesticides.
The main criticisms of Fair Trade revolve around the fact that the certification process costs impoverished farmers around $1000 US initially and then an ongoing $500 US per year. There is no doubt that being a part of the Fair Trade co-operative is to the financial benefit of most third world growers in the long run. But in some cases these costs can be too much outlay for small hold family businesses.
The Second main criticism revolves around the fact that the reason farmers don’t get better prices for their coffee is because coffee is over-produced world-wide and giving farmers a guarantee of better prices, which, in some peoples view, only encourages more people to grow the product therefore exacerbating the problem.
Well the fact of the matter is that Fair Trade is not the absolute answer to the worlds problems. It is not going to suit every farmer or make every single farmer’s life better. It does however, help a lot of third world producers get better pay and working conditions. It has not caused a massive influx of growers from other industries, and has not exacerbated the problem of over-production – in fact coffee prices have gone up significantly in recent years due to a lack of supply. So if you do buy fair trade coffee you are definitely helping impoverished people.
Perhaps most important of all for the coffee connoisseur is to consider the aforementioned lack of supply of coffee. The price of coffee has shot up significantly in recent years. This is due to both the demand for coffee worldwide at the same time as the coffee plant being a highly sensitive crop to grow that is highly susceptible to the change in climate in growing areas and to rust fungus.
On top of this, farmers are not actually receiving the extra profits of the increased price in coffee. This unfortunately is pretty much going to wall street traders who are buying up futures stock on the commodity markets and making large dividends. This means that actual growers of coffee are not encouraging their children to go into the hard life of farming and so production is further going down over time.
One of the upshots of this lack of supply is that more and more ‘robusta‘ coffee beans are being grown and sold. Robusta is a much easier, higher yielding crop than the much more popular variety arabica. The only problem here is that robusta coffee tastes disgusting. Like really disgusting. In fact this is another important tip for getting your ideal coffee fix – make sure you are imbibing arabica coffee beans! The only problem here is that more and more robusta coffee beans are being mixed in to coffee blends in order to save money, and we are not told about it!
So basically, by buying fair trade coffee you are ensuring farmers see more of the profit from the sale of their beans. And therefore more growers will stay producing more of the top quality arabica beans. You do also get the added benefit of a guaranteed higher quality product with less harmful pesticides etc.
You want coffee that has been as freshly roasted as possible, both for taste and health reasons. If you want more information check out the Coffee & Conservation website. There is some good information given in a balanced manner.
Coffee & Health
The question of how good coffee is for the health is a topic of uppermost interest. Let’s be honest we all wish and hope that it is indeed good for the health. However, this question tends to be posed more from the standpoint of whether or not coffee is not necessarily bad for you. This is curious indeed, considering the wealth of information regarding the benefits of coffee. But maybe this is because we all feel the powerful effects of this stimulant and immediately feel that such a potent drink must not be good for the health.
Well according to the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee “Regular coffee drinking can be part of a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle, and moderate coffee consumption i.e. 3-4 regular cups a day, is safe for most individuals with no adverse effects”. In fact they claim that “coffee in moderate doses (1-4 cups per day***)” have been shown to have a whole milieu of health benefits, indeed including reduced risk of stroke (in women only for some reason), many forms of cancer, type 2 diabetes, improved liver function and a slowing down of many neurodegenerative disorders.
The fact of the matter is that Coffee can be considered a health food when consumed as a wholefood. Substances that it contains such as caffeine do deplete the body of nutrients as well as providing it with many of the benefits mentioned above and more. But coffee as a whole food has many nutrients that overall have many health benefits.
Unfortunately, many of the beneficial compounds in coffee are unstable and cause the product to go rancid very quickly. For coffee to not stress the liver, it really should be consumed as freshly roasted as possible after roasting. Other factors such as use with sugar can make it less beneficial. And of course, for some people coffee can be too much of a stimulant and deplete the body of magnesium. It may be the most popular drink on the planet but it is not for everybody.
***has anyone else notices how ‘moderate’ recommendations of coffee drinking are always abnormally high! I think most people would consider any more that 2 coffees a day as quite a lot. We are assuming this means weak American style coffee i.e. probably 2 shots of coffee equals about 2-4 cups of weak coffee?