Just Coffee, No Bullshit

Today I am grateful for my cup of coffee, this bittersweet earthy well of murky comfort. Coffee has been a huge part of my life since 2005. I was late to the show as an adult  but once I found this nectar of the gods my turn to the dark side was total and complete. I’ve never looked back. Maybe I’m addicted, but I’m okay with that. You can have my coffee when you pry my empty cup from my cold dead hands.

What I know about coffee today I learned back in the winter of 2006-7 working as a barista in a local coffee shop just north of Williamsburg, VA. Williamsburg is a coffee haven and filled with boutique coffee joints still doing it the old-fashioned way. The place I worked at imported and roasted their own beans. Our espresso machine was a huge cantankerous antique from Italy that was feared and respected in equal measure.

We didn’t serve the variety of drinks you’d find at Starbucks, our fare was a little more purist in nature. There were no flavors beyond the cinnamon and nutmeg shakers in the dining room and squirt bottles of caramel and chocolate on the bar. Of course we had cream and sugar available as well. But if it wasn’t coffee, a latte, cappuccino, Americano, or Single, double, and triple shot espresso. We didn’t serve it. We also outsold our two local Starbucks franchises 3 to 1.

Our best seller was hot black coffee. We sold 28 different varieties of brew from 15 countries and 6 regions across the globe, all fresh roasted on site and fresh ground the day of brewing. This is where I learned how to appreciate the subtle flavors inherent in different beans, sources and roasts. This is also where I learned that Starbucks likes to roast their beans to just a breath away from burnt then over brews them to produce a bitter cup of coffee that puts most people who try it off black coffee forever.

If you’ve only had black coffee at a place like Starbucks then do yourself a favor and find somewhere else to go, you don’t know what you’re missing. Correctly roasted and brewed coffee has a huge range of flavor and nuance that gets lost under all that cream and sugar. More importantly if you’re a man in America and your coffee order has more than 3 words in it, your life has entirely too much bullshit in it.

Here’s the shortlist of things you need to know to enjoy no bullshit coffee my friends. First the bean. The best beans are Arabica. Robusto, the other type are primarily used to make dehydrated and instant coffees. Robusto have a slightly higher caffeine content but poor taste and are often snuck into supposed gourmet blends to increase the caffeine content.

Most experts believe that the best beans come from Indonesia, and Central and South America. These beans are typically grown on mountain slopes in volcanic soil. Sumatran, Costa-Rican, Columbian, and Nicaraguan are celebrated for the quality of their beans. Brazil is the largest coffee exporter on the planet, however most of their beans are of the Robusto type and sold to big name coffee makers like Folgers and Maxwell House. There are a few ways to dry and prepare the beans but your main concern will probably be “organic” and Fair-trade certified. Fair trade means the local farmer who grew your beans got a “fair” price for his product.

Roasts range from tanned, light, medium, and dark. If you’re after the maximum amount of caffeine per cup go with light roasts. Light roasts also have a more pronounced berry or fruit like flavor. Most breakfast coffees are light roast. Espresso is usually dark roasted and you’ll find more caffeine in a cup of drip coffee than a similar sized cup of espresso. Espresso was invented for speed and ease of brewing, not for more caffeine. It’s a delusion coffee joints like Starbucks are happy to propagate, after all espresso drinks are often 2 times more expensive than drip.

Sumatran and Costa Rican beans do well with Dark and Medium Roasts. It brings out their chocolaty and earthy flavors well while cutting down on acidity and caffeine content. Dinner or dessert coffees are usually dark roasted so are French, Italian, and Espresso blends. Blends are simply mixes of various beans from different regions and roasts to give a broader range of flavors. A good roaster understands and appreciates the different traits and qualities of different regions and roasts and can build blends to highlight those traits forming a truly delicious cup of coffee.

Freshness is everything in coffee. If you’re brewing at home buy a good burr grinder and grind your beans each morning just before you brew. This will insure you’re getting the most flavor out of your beans.  Medium works best for drip coffee makers, Fine for espresso machines, and coarse if you’re using a French Press. Regardless of which method you choose to brew your coffee, you must use hot water at temperatures of at least 195 degrees to get full flavor and caffeine extraction. There are few home coffee brewers that can achieve these temperatures and are one reason most people have never experienced truly great coffee at home. If you can’t justify a $150-300 coffee maker, don’t worry. A good french press coffee maker can be had for under $20. Its simple to used and mine has been with me for 10 years now. Just add near boiling water and the proper amount of fresh ground coffee.

I could write about coffee for days on end. I’ve tried beans from all over the world and every type of roast and blend imaginable. My favorite coffees come from Sumatra and Central America, but you can never go wrong with a fresh roasted and ground batch of Colombian. When you’re buying your coffee, freshness and quality are more important than price and name. I’ve found Starbucks coffee is great when brewed at home but the price puts me off. Cheaper brands like 8 o’clock, Seattle’s Best, and Kicking Horse make wonderful brews when used fresh so don’t be afraid to try a store brand. Thanks for sharing this cup of coffee with me.


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