“I need a coffee”, we say, several times a day – yes, ‘need’. After all, there are reasons even astronauts recently got an espresso machine at the International Space Station. Coffee gives us that just-right energy kick, a baseline, the chance to socialise, the reassuring comfort of a warm beverage, but also a break, a minute to centre yourself, even if it’s just the time it takes to walk to the office kitchen.
The human fascination for the dark beverage continues to grow as coffee production and consumption evolves in what they are now defined as ‘waves’. Consumed in the Arabian Peninsula at least since the 15th century, coffee reached Europe about two centuries later, with the first coffeehouses being opened in Venice, Oxford and London in the mid-17th century. In the UK, they became known as ‘penny universities’: the one-penny entrance fee provided all who could afford it an equal chance to interact and read the newspapers (a newly introduced concept at the time), regardless of their level in society. As these coffeehouses became the new commercial and cultural centres of the modern world, the drink became the symbol of a new intelligentsia, of freedom of speech, of public debate – the elements that would eventually evolve into Enlightenment, building the basis of contemporary culture.
From there, it was just a matter of time before coffee became ubiquitous and its beans one of the most traded commodities in the world. A recent turning point in its history has been the spread of coffee franchises in the late 20th century, which fuelled a renewed interest and spurred innovation in preparation methods, espresso drinks and serving aesthetics, giving rise to phenomena such as the unfathomable Latte Art.
These trends ultimately formed into what is today called ‘third wave coffee’, a movement which aims to change coffee’s perception from a commodity into a high-quality, artisanal product. Smaller and sleeker, third-wave coffee shops source their specialty coffees, often raw and single-origin, directly from the producers, in this way overviewing the whole supply chain and micromanaging the brew’s taste.
We put together an overview of the latest trends and espresso drinks as an aid for you to navigate the complex world of coffee.
Spilling The Beans
The Coffea genus, native to tropical Africa, comprises more than 6,000 species, with the two most cultivated ones being Arabica and Robusta. They differ in taste, caffeine content and production costs: the more expensive, less bitter and less caffeinated Arabica is often favoured over Robusta.
Of the whole coffee fruit (or berry), what we drink is the brew of roasted and ground coffee seeds (called ‘beans’); the surrounding flesh is completely discarded in the processing. Much of the drink’s flavour depends on the roasting, which can be done using different methods – or not at all, as is the case for the trendy green coffee.
Roasting is fundamental because it can be done at different levels, oftentimes following recipes developed for each type of bean, called ‘profiles’, and yield totally different results as a consequence. Generally, the higher the temperature at which coffee is roasted, the more its colour will turn from light brown to nearly black, and the more it will acquire a ‘roast flavour’, with its ‘origin character’ progressively being overcome. By and large, lighter roasts have a more delicate taste, but also higher acidity levels, compared to dark roasts, characterised by burnt undertones and lower acidity levels.
Coffee should only be ground at the moment of consumption, as it quickly tends to become stale. Refrigeration is a common preservation method which slows deterioration, though it is best applied to whole beans.
A renewed interest in coffee over the past 20 years gave rise to several trends in the industry. Here are just a few of them.
Invented in 2005 by Alan Adler, AeroPress is a brewing device that has much in common with a cafetière (or French press), but differs in using air pressure to filter the drink, resulting in a much quicker preparation time, usually from 30 seconds onwards (depending on recipe) compared to the 4 minutes of a cafetière brew. It also allows for using a finer grind and according to its manufacturer Aerobie, the resulting coffee is significantly less acidic. As slight changes in preparation affect the final taste, AeroPress is since about a decade the object of an independent international barista competition.
Buttered coffee is mainly known under its ‘Bulletproof Coffee’ incarnation, a recipe for coffee with grass-fed butter and medium-chain triglyceride oil created by American entrepreneur Dave Asprey, who was inspired by Tibetan yak butter tea. Particularly popular amongst Paleo acolytes, its alleged enhancement of cognitive abilities have no scientific basis, but many find the concoction very tasty. Several variations of buttered coffees can now be found in cafés worldwide, generally involving coffee, butter and often also coconut oil.
A worldwide phenomenon originated in Naples and initially diffused during World War II, the ‘caffé sospeso’ (‘suspended coffee’) is a random act of kindness. Anybody who experienced good fortune, upon going to a café, could pay for an extra coffee without consuming it. The ‘credit’ would then be used by the barista to buy coffee to somebody who could not afford it. People in need could just go to cafés and ask if there were a ‘sospeso’ available; the drink being a staple in the southern Italian town. The initiative has spread internationally in the past couple of years and it has now a dedicated day: December 10.
Cold Drip & Cold-Brew Coffee
Both characterised by the use of cold water, cold drip and cold brew are two preparation methods on the rise for making iced coffee, yielding less acidic and very different flavours compared to hot coffee poured over ice. In cold drip, the water slowly drips into and out of a coffee chamber; in cold brew, coffee is soaked in water for the whole steeping time. Because of the low water temperature, they both require a long preparation: from 6 to 24 hours, depending on the type of coffee, recipe and device used. A recent and increasingly popular variation on the theme is the nitro iced coffee: cold brew coffee with added nitrogen poured from a tap.
A few years ago, a couple of studies seemed to suggest that green coffee extract, allegedly destroyed by roasting, would promote weight loss. Green coffee is made by drying raw coffee beans and skipping the roasting process altogether. While there is no conclusive scientific evidence to the weight loss claims (one of the studies has even been retired), the buzz has turned the raw bean into a trend. The green alternative, which can presently be found in organic food and supplements stores, is either consumed via capsules or prepared with infusion like tea, yielding a light green liquor with a herbaceous taste.
Kopi Luwak & Other ‘Animal-Processed’ Coffees
One of the most expensive coffees in the world, Indonesian Kopi Luwak is famous for its production process: it uses coffee beans that have been eaten and partially digested by a small mammal, the Asian palm civet. The ‘treatment’ mitigates the beans’ acidity, adding chocolate hints to its flavour. If you wish to try it, make sure it is ethically produced.
Surprisingly, Kopi Luwak is not the only type of coffee in commerce processed by an animal: among others, production for Black Ivory Coffee revolves around elephants’ digestive systems, and Jacu Bird Coffee relies on the eponymous Brazilian bird.
Mushrooms are currently a major trend in health supplements. The growing popularity of such preparations, involving mushrooms such as cordyceps and reishi, has found its way into coffee, with powders to add or ready-made instant versions now available.
Nomenclature for espresso drinks varies greatly. Here is an overview of the most diffused terms in a small and by no means complete list.
A single or double espresso with added hot water in variable quantities. Also called ‘long black’ in some countries.
(Caffé or Espresso) Macchiato
An espresso with a small quantity (‘macchia’, ‘stain’ in Italian) of milk or milk froth.
An espresso with hot milk and milk froth. It derives its name from the Capuchin friars’ tunic, of which it resembles the colour, and is a popular choice because of its mildness and richness. If you wish to blend in with the locals, never order it after 11:00 a.m. in Italy.
An espresso with a small amount of milk froth: more than in macchiato and without hot milk as in cappuccino. Also called Gibraltar.
Short, thick, strong and drank quickly, this is the traditional Italian preparation, made with an espresso machine. When in Naples, try the version with hazelnut paste in it, called ‘caffé alla nocciola’.
A popular ‘down under’ drink prepared by mixing a single or double espresso shot with microfoam (as opposed to froth), it has the potential to trigger endless discussions as to whether or not it equals cappuccino. The main argument for the distinction is that the microfoam forms a thin (hence ‘flat’) top layer with a completely different consistency. Judge for yourself – but by all means, do not engage an Australian or New Zealander in the debate.
Deriving its name from the Italian ‘caffellatte’, it is a single or double espresso with added steamed milk. It differs from Latte macchiato because of its preparation: for a latte, milk is added to coffee, while in latte macchiato, coffee is added to milk. It has become a ubiquitous term worldwide, except for in Italy: as the word means ‘milk’ in Italian, ask for ‘caffellatte’ instead.
It’s exactly what its name implies: stained milk (as opposed to stained coffee, ‘macchiato’). A cup of hot, steamed milk with an espresso shot in it, topped with milk foam.
A concentrated espresso prepared with slightly less water.
Article by Livia Formisani
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