Ethiopia is thought to be the motherland of the first coffee beans, which, throughout the ages, found their way to Brazil and Colombia — the two largest coffee producers today. Coffee plantations abound throughout other South and Central American countries, Cuba, Hawaii, Indonesia, Jamaica and many African nations. There are hundreds of different coffee species but the two most commercially viable are coffea robusta and coffea arabica. The sturdy, disease-resistant coffea robusta, which thrives at lower altitudes, produces beans with a harsher, more single-dimensional flavor than the more sensitive coffea arabica, which grows at high altitudes (3,000 to 6,500 feet) and produces beans with elegant, complex flavors. Some coffee companies are now identifying their beans as shade-grown coffee; this refers to a traditional, environmentally friendly method of growing coffee under tree canopies as opposed to the cultivation of coffee species that need ample sun, a method that requires deforestation. The coffee plant is actually a small tree that bears a fruit called the "coffee cherry." Growing and tending these coffee trees is a labor-intensive process because blossoms, unripe (green) and ripe red cherries can occupy a tree simultaneously, necessitating hand-picking the fruit. The coffee cherry's skin and pulp surround two beans enclosed in a parchmentlike covering. Once these layers are discarded, the beans are cleaned, dried, graded and hand-inspected for color and quality. The "green" beans (which can range in color from pale green to muddy yellow) are then exported, leaving the roasting, blending and grinding to be done at their destination. Coffee can be composed of a single type of coffee bean or a blend of several types. Blended coffee produces a richer, more complex flavor than single-bean coffees. The length of time coffee beans are roasted will affect the color and flavor of the brew. Among the most popular roasts are American, French, Italian, European and Viennese. American roast (also called regular roast) beans are medium-roasted, which results in a moderate brew — not too light or too heavy in flavor. The heavy-roasted beans are French roast and dark French roast, which are a deep chocolate brown and produce a stronger coffee, and the glossy, brown-black, strongly flavored Italian roast, used for espresso. European roast contains two-thirds heavy-roast beans blended with one-third regular-roast; Viennese roast reverses those proportions. Varietal coffee is coffee from a particular geographic region, such as Columbia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, New Guinea and Sumatra. Though the species of coffee clearly plays a role in determining its unique flavor characteristics, the growing environment also plays an important role. Estate coffee is even more specific and describes coffee from a single plantation. Instant coffee powder is a powdered coffee made by heat-drying freshly brewed coffee. Freeze-dried coffee granules (or crystals) are derived from brewed coffee that has been frozen into a slush before the water is evaporated. Freeze-dried coffee is slightly more expensive than regular instant coffee, but is also reputed to be superior in flavor. Coffee concentrate is a liquid extract of freshly brewed coffee that's diluted with water. It comes in many forms including regular, decaffeinated and flavored (vanilla, chocolate, and so forth) and can be found in most supermarkets. Coffee, tea and cocoa all contain caffeine, a stimulant that affects many parts of the body including the nervous system, kidneys, heart and gastric secretions. With the exception of the Madagascar coffee species — Mascarocoffea vianneyi — which actually grows beans that are decaffeinated, coffee beans must go through a process to produce decaffeinated coffee. The caffeine is removed by one of two methods, either of which is executed before the beans are roasted. In the first method, the caffeine is chemically extracted with the use of a solvent, which must be completely washed out before the beans are dried. The second method — called Swiss water process — first steams the beans, then scrapes away the caffeine-rich outer layers. Though there was once concern about the safety of solvent residues, research has found that the volatile solvents disappear entirely when the beans are roasted. Coffee, whether ground or whole-bean, loses its flavor quickly. To assure the freshest, most flavorful brew, buy fresh coffee beans and grind only as many as needed to brew each pot of coffee. Inexpensive grinders are available at most department and discount stores. Store whole roasted beans in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to two weeks. For longer storage, freeze whole beans, freezer-wrapped, up to three months. Since room-temperature ground coffee begins to go stale within a couple of days after it's ground, it should be refrigerated in an airtight container and can be stored up to two weeks.

From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Keep Reading

Next Up

Coffee Talk

Some simple tricks for spicing up your daily coffee routine.