The ultimate guide to coffee

Read Time:   |  24th November 2017

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Coffee is everywhere and it’s not all bad for us – Charlotte Willis reports…

The ultimate guide to coffee

The UK is over-spilling with drug addicts. This stimulating narcotic is found on the corner of every high street. It’s in the aisles of every supermarket. Every day, we carry millions of pounds worth of the stuff in our very hands, whilst we make our daily commutes, school runs, gym sessions, meetings and those treacherous journeys from bed-to-fridge-to-bed on the weekends. If there’s one substance that we can’t seem to shake our relationship with – it’s coffee. Coffee has got us all under its performance-enhancing, bitter-sweet tasting thumb. We’re hooked, lovingly and willingly, into our ongoing relationship with a cup o’ Joe, and we consistently refuse to let it go.

Coffee nation

55 million cups. That’s how much coffee the UK alone gets through in just one day. That’s equivalent to around 2kg of coffee per person per year. And as I’m sure most of you are aware, coffee boasts far more than just a brain and body buzz. The nation’s second favourite beverage (second only to tea, naturally) has been said to help reduce onset of certain diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and can even help to increase your body’s antioxidant properties. Result. Coffee can also help you through a strenuous workout (I always notice when I’ve downed a double espresso immediately before I hit the gym. Gym + Coffee = heavy weights and a red face!) and has also been proven to act as a thermogenic, aiding fat burning and weight loss. What’s more, coffee consumption of around three cups a day has been correlated to a higher longevity of life and some research suggests prevention of throat and mouth cancers, type two diabetes and strokes. Now, you knew there was a totally valid and scientific reason behind your soy latté addiction, didn’t you?

The ultimate guide to coffee

Bean to brew

The process that coffee undergoes in order to make it to your mug (or hollowed out avocado in some hipster bars, I kid you not) is extremely extensive. Once harvested, the coffee beans are sorted dependent on age and quality. Higher quality beans will be processed separately and beans selected for “aged coffee” varieties will be kept in warehouses for up to 7 years, in order for the acidity of the bean to be reduced.

Next comes processing, whereby the coffee cherries (with the bean inside) are dried, the pulp removed, and the beans are exposed to the sun while being continually raked and ventilated to prevent mould. From here, the beans are polished to remove any excess skin, and are cleaned, sorted and graded according to size and weight. During these stages, the beans are in fact green, and it is only when they are roasted that they turn brown. Here, during this final process, the majority of the flavour of the coffee is developed. Differing roast degrees allow for a variety of different oil levels and aromatic compounds to develop during the process of heating.

Let’s get technical

That’s all well and good, but what does that mean for us? Well, practically speaking, the coffee roast you choose to use will ultimately affect the overall flavours and health properties in everything from your morning pick-me-up to your raw tiramisu. And if you’re after a perfect no-split, curdle-free Americano, you may be surprised to know that the degree of bean roast will ultimately define whether or not your coffee resembles cottage cheese or a smooth, creamy emulsion. For years, I picked coffee off the shelves based on two things: the packaging and the ethical growing standpoint of the company. Now? I’m a bit more of a coffee snob. With no shame! Next, I show you how to become the ultimate coffee connoisseur (turning up your nose at instant granules – optional).

Light Roasts

If a pack of avocados with the perfect level of ripeness is the needle-in-the-haystack of the supermarket, then light roast coffees are the comparative in the world of coffee perfection. In fact, so rare are these beans that I struggled to source any from my designated supermarket of choice Ocado, finding only one brand listed on their website. (Samphire is another rare ingredient that is constantly out of stock online.) These beans are often a very light brown-green colour, having been roasted for minimal amounts by specialist roasters, and you’ll be more likely to find these beans online by companies such as Union Coffee or at specialist coffee merchants.

What makes light roasts unique is the distinct lack of bitter compounds that typically develop with an increased level of heat treatment (chlorogenic acid lactones, if you want to get scientific about it). The flavour of lighter roasted coffee is likely to be sweeter, with notes of chocolate and woody tones – lending this roast most perfectly to raw desserts and cold-brewing. What’s more, due to the delicate nature of this roast type, the beans that you’ll be using are more likely to be of a higher quality with less defects – guaranteeing you a better bean for your buck.

Brew it: To perfectly brew lighter roasts of coffee, you’ll need to purchase a decent cafetiere, and add an ounce of patience to your coffee routine. Getting the correct balance of water temperature and brew time is somewhat of a science, and without a coffee qualification or an entire weekend’s worth of spare time, I would advise simple trial and error. I’ve found using a 4 cup cafetiere with around 90°C water for 4 minutes works very well.

Serve it: Sorry latté lovers, this is best served black and sugar-free to appreciate the delicate flavours and aromas this rare roast has to offer.

The ultimate guide to coffee

Medium Roasts

A slightly darker roast means a richer flavour will be produced from your beans during brewing. This type of roast ensures the beans reach what is technically known as first crack point, whereby the beans release vapour and CO2. Flavours of vanilla, butter and caramelised sugar begin to develop from the compounds that are being formed inside the beans. Medium roasts are usually a happy medium for most coffee newbies, and are far easier to come across. These beans have a lower acidity compared to lighter roasts, but pack quite a punch, making this a good pairing for fruity flavours in desserts and cooking and a great accompaniment in chocolate recipes.

Brew it: Medium roasts are more versatile in their brewing techniques than their lighter cousins. Popular with home-brewers, medium roasts come in many forms – everything from espresso capsules for the office coffee machine to fresh beans. Personally, I find the fresher the grind, the better your coffee will taste. If a home-grinder is out of budget, then opt for a cafetiere grind. Better still, purchase some freshly ground coffee from your local independent coffee shop. Be sure to store the coffee in an airtight container away from heat and sunlight to preserve the aromatic compounds within the beans.

Serve it: Despite being an overall all-rounder of a bean roast, medium coffees don’t mix well with many mylks without the use of a stabilizer. If you prefer to use organic or non-thickened/stabilized/gum-free mylks, chances are your coffee will split and curdle. Not ideal. If you can, serve black or with a professional brand of mylk such as Alpro, Oatly or Almond Breeze – all of whom do a range of professional or barista standard mylk that will guarantee a creamy coffee.

The ultimate guide to coffee

Dark Roast

Drinking a high-street coffee regularly? Chances are, you’ll already unknowingly be well accustomed to the darker roasts, particularly if you prefer your coffee on the mylky side! Darker roasts of coffee have a deeper and more intense flavour, with a high level of intensity and a low level of acidity, allowing your coffee to be punchy, aromatic and distinctively strong whatever you may add to it. Darker roasted beans are often of a lower overall quality. This is because the longer roasting process allows for any defects to be concealed. As a result, there will be fewer delicate and intricate flavours found in this roast’s brew. However, due to the richness of the flavour produced by the beans, darker roasts are far more versatile for use in higher temperature cooking methods and indeed baking. The distinctive flavour will shine through despite competitive flavours, and will be ideal in complex dishes such as chillis and richer baked-goods such as dark chocolate cakes.

Brew it: Darker roasted beans, like medium roasts, are far easier to brew and can be done so in a variety of different methods. Personally, I still believe that the fresher the coffee grind, the better the taste of the coffee produced, even with the darker roasts. However, if you’re an irregular drinker or don’t happen to have your own espresso machine, pre-packaged and ground dark-roasted coffee can be used in a cafetiere, and stored in an airtight container for up to a month.

Serve it: This roast is your secret weapon to creating the perfect latté art pattern. The lower acidity of darker roasts makes the brew more stable and less inclined to split with the addition of non-stabilized mylks. Personally, I have found oat mylks and coconut mylks work very well with most roasts, but especially so with a darker roast. This is because the intrinsic sweetness of both mylks combat the strong bitter taste of the darker roasts.

The ultimate guide to coffee

Coffee alternatives

This is all good and well, but what if coffee is not… well, your cup of tea? Luckily, there are many lovely hot beverages that can give your body a boost, without the strong taste of coffee.

  • Matcha green tea lattés – You’ve seen it. You’ve heard of it. And you’ve probably tasted it. Matcha green tea has many health and body-boosting benefits, boasting some serious antioxidants, detoxifiers and polyphenols. Matcha green tea is the “it” drink of 2017.
  • Maca powder – used in a similar way to that of matcha green tea, maca powder is a Peruvian root extract (similar to that of a turnip), which is rich in B vitamins. Maca is also an adaptogen, giving your body a much-needed energy boost while supporting mental functioning and adapting to the body’s needs. Bonus – tastes like caramel!
  • Chicory coffee – no really, it’s a thing. The root of the chicory plant has been used for centuries for medicinal properties. The roots are first dried, then roasted and ground in a similar fashion to coffee beans. The result? A series of similar flavours are produced, minus the caffeine and oils in coffee. Chicory will give you a hit of HDL (healthy) cholesterol and increase bile production, aiding digestion.

Grounds for reincarnation

What is left behind after your beverage is known as the “grounds”, which are fibrous, rough and indigestible. However, there are many different ways that you can actually use these unconventional ingredients in your everyday lives. In the garden, your coffee grounds can act as an excellent source of nitrogen for composting, allowing for a greater amount of nutrition in your homemade compost. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that by sprinkling the grounds around your plants, you can help to repel slugs and pests.

Not a gardener? Other ingenious ways to use your old coffee waste include adding them to your body wash to create a scrub. You can even add the grounds into home-made soaps to exfoliate the skin or create your very own anti-cellulite scrub by using warm water, coffee grounds and a spot of apple cider vinegar for external use on those problem areas. Alternatively, use them as a natural odour absorber alongside bicarbonate of soda and fresh lemon juice inside your refrigerator.

Written by

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis is an Assistant Psychologist at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and has a MS degree in Clinical Neuropsychiatry from Kings College London. Charlotte is also a marketer for ethical brands, author of Vegan: Do It! A young person’s guide to living a vegan lifestyle, and a regular contributor to sustainability and plant-based publications.

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