A coffee drinker’s dictionary

A coffee drinker’s dictionary

A good cup of coffee begins with where in the world the beans are from. (©istockphoto/Lise Gagne) A good cup of coffee begins with where in the world the beans are from. (©istockphoto/Lise Gagne)


By: Dan Meade

Provided by WorldNow

Odds are, whether you walk into your local Starbucks or into your favorite hole-in-the-wall coffee bar, you are presented with a bevy of beverage options. You've probably even found yourself asking "What's the difference between a coffee from Africa and one from South America?"or "How is an Americano different from a 'normal' cup of coffee?"

While the menu may look complicated with all its options and variations, there are four key ways to distinguish one kind of coffee from another. Once you know what the four keys are, and they are not that hard to understand, they will allow you to order any kind of coffee with confidence.

Arabica vs. Robusta

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the trade association for the specialty coffee industry, there are two basic kinds of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. The Robusta beans are considered the "common" beans - they are often used to make instant coffee and are found in commercial blends.

Arabica beans, however, are what "specialty" coffees are made of. Grown at high altitudes (2,000-6,000 feet), Arabica beans require an average temperature of 70 degrees and plenty of rainfall. The exact conditions required to properly grow Arabica beans can only be found within one hundred miles of the equator. These are the beans that most "specialty" coffee shops will use.

What this means - If you are looking for a high quality cup of Joe, make sure it comes from Arabica beans. If any cup of coffee will do, aim for Robusta beans.

Where the coffee beans come from matters

Good coffee, like fine wine, comes from certain regions of the world, and each region has its own unique taste. The narrow Equilateral section of Earth that can grow Arabica beans can be broken down into three distinct regions: Central and South America, Africa and Arabia (the Middle East), and Indonesia and the Pacific.

Africa and Arabia coffees are described by Waves Coffee, a specialty coffee company based in Vancouver, as having a "winey flavor that's alluring and complex ... [with] intense berry and floral aromas and flavors of berries, citrus fruits, cocoa and spice."

Central and South American beans, as the West-Coast coffee chain Peet's Coffee & Tea puts it, get "the sweetest, spiciest coffees" due to "altitudes over 5,000 feet, volcanic soil, and temperate climates with sunny days and cool nights."

Indonesian and Pacific coffees are "on the opposite of the taste spectrum from Latin American coffees," explains Waves. This is due to their "full-bodied, earthy and smooth" flavor.

All coffee beans are often mixed together in a "blend" of coffee, combining their individual tastes for a new and distinct taste.

What this means - Coffee is not given a regional name solely for effect. Depending on your taste, where a coffee comes from may be the most important factor when choosing which brew is for you.

How a coffee is described: Flavor, Acidity, and Body

When it comes "drip" or "brewed" coffee - straight from the roaster or coffee maker - a true caffeine connoisseur can use many words to describe a cup of coffee, but the three that you are mostly likely to hear are "flavor", "acidity", and "body."

The SCAA defines these terms as follows:

Flavor - the overall experience of drinking the coffee, including both the taste and the aroma.

Acidity - not to be confused with the pH scale of scientific acidity, the term here refers to the "refreshing, mouth-cleansing quality, a sparkling, lively taste" that can help you wake up in the morning.

Body - the sensation that the coffee elicits from your tongue, whether it feels "heavy", "thick", or "oily."

What this means:

Coffee from Central and South America will have a mild flavor, light-to-medium body, and high acidity - a good combination for early mornings.

Coffee from Africa and Arabia will have an "intense" flavor and a "bright" acidity - think a mid-day perk-me-up.

Coffee from Indonesia and the Pacific will have smooth and rich flavors and low acidity - more of a late afternoon or after dinner coffee.

Espresso Drinks

Espresso is a quickly brewed cup of coffee that is thick and concentrated. It is prepared differently than "drip" coffee and should be made fresh only after it has been ordered. It is also the basis for all of the seemingly impossible to decipher coffee options available. Some of the most common espresso drinks are explained by the SCAA as:

Cappuccino - equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk.

Caffé Latte - espresso and steamed milk, with little or no foam

Caffé Mocha - a caffé latte infused with chocolate

Espresso Macchiato - espresso "marked" with a dollop of milk foam

Caffé Americano - espresso diluted with hot water to drip coffee strength

Each of these drinks can be altered and added to with various flavors, such as caramel or peppermint. The basic composition of the coffee will remain the same, only the "flavor" will change.

What this means - You can "translate" a coffee drink by breaking it down. For example, a "double non-fat white chocolate mocha latte" would be a coffee drink made from a double shot of espresso and non-fat milk, which has some foam at the top and is flavored with white chocolate.

Now that you know the difference between an Arabian and Pacific bean and understand how Caffé Latte is different from a Macchiato, the next time that you go out for coffee, you can impress your friends and co-workers with your java knowledge.

You no longer need to order "the usual" - you can experiment and change your order depending what you feel like having, rather than ordering only what you understand. Go ahead and order one of the "complicated" espresso drinks with caffeinated confidence, it just might taste better than usual now that you know exactly what it is.

*DISCLAIMER*: The information contained in or provided through this site section is intended for general consumer understanding and education only and is not intended to be and is not a substitute for professional advice. Use of this site section and any information contained on or provided through this site section is at your own risk and any information contained on or provided through this site section is provided on an "as is" basis without any representations or warranties.
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