Most people don’t realize it but coffee is technically a fruit, a type of cherry. Coffee is also a drug because caffeine is a stimulant. Despite the fact that many Americans are addicted to coffee, most people know surprisingly little about the ‘magic’ bean and the various methods that go into making a perfect cup.
Coffee has a history as rich as a Kona blend. While it’s uncertain exactly how or when coffee was discovered, there are some solid theories that suggest the origins of coffee stem back to either Arabia or Ethiopia, hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
Fast forward to post-WW II America, a pinnacle moment for coffee drinkers in the United States. This time period marked the first real wave of coffee drinkers in America, due to luxury food items becoming much more readily available after the war ended. As a result, more people were consuming coffee in their homes than ever before.
The second wave of coffee drinkers was set off by the success of none other than Starbucks. While the first Starbucks opened in 1971 in the historic Pike Place Market of Seattle, it wasn’t until the 1990s that they started seeing mainstream attention and success. Their level of success is often associated with the birth of the modern coffee shop.
In the short Smithsonian documentary, The History of Coffee, Boston University anthropology professor Merry White explains:
“You have to give Starbucks credit for talking about terroir; making a geography of coffee available to people.”
While the coffee giant that is Starbucks may be viewed as the corporate dominating force of the coffee world, they are careful to balance a massive amount of coffee production with a mindful approach. Starbucks was at the forefront of responsible coffee consumption early on, and even offers some organic and fair trade bags of beans.
They also treat their employees well. On top of offering their employees health insurance, 401k, and paid time-off, Starbucks is even shelling out free online schooling from Arizona State University to eligible baristas. Although they get a lot of gripe from coffee snobs, Starbucks actually treats their baristas better than most.
The third or current wave of coffee drinking in the United States is essentially a refinement of what Starbucks started. Coffee shops are everywhere, yet the industry continues to evolve with creativity. The industry seems to be honing in on an increasingly popular objective: coffee that tastes great and doesn’t destroy the world.
Which leads us to the nitty gritty. What is the best method of brewing coffee? What is sustainable, and what is damaging? As an experienced barista and all-around coffee fanatic, I’m well versed and have explored all the ways to brew coffee.
The Old Fashioned Coffee Pot
The cut and dry brew method. For some, the standard automatic coffee maker is a perfect mash-up of ease of use, consistency, and laziness. More than likely this is the coffee maker you’ll see at your grandparent’s house, a college student’s dorm, or at the office break room. These types of coffee pots usually use paper filters, which are wasteful. Consider buying a reusable gold cone filter instead.
The French Press Revolution
In the past decade or so, the French press technique has truly hit the mainstream. Several coffee shops rely heavily on the French press brew method to craft a characteristic cup all their own. French press coffee is full bodied, rich, and mildly acidic. The French press has fully reusable parts, and does not use a wasteful filter or excess electricity keeping a carafe warm.
The Science Of Brewing With Pressure
A more scientific looking cousin to the French press, an AeroPress takes the same rough concept and adds in a bit of little science! The AeroPress use downward pressure to achieve a quick and deliberate cup of strong coffee with acidic undertones. This brewing technique was a new concept to me, so of course I had to order one so I can try it for myself.
The Theatrics Of The Vacuum Pot
The vacuum pot is perhaps the most technical and scientific way to brew coffee. A vacuum pot is composed of a basic burner and a siphon rig: a top and bottom glass beakers and a stand. The heat source is usually adjusted manually, which gives the person brewing the coffee total control. The final product is a cup of balanced coffee with low acidic qualities and the perfect level of smoothness and slight bitterness.
For a more in-depth explanation of how the vacuum brewing process works, check out this demo video by Elemental Coffee.
Pour Overs And The Holy Grail That Is The Chemex
Pour overs are the zen brewing method. The simplicity is why I love pour over coffee so much. All that is required is a stand in which a cone filter is filled with coffee grounds and hot water. Gravity does the rest as the coffee steadily drips downward.
Recently I had the pleasure of using what most consider the holy grail of pour over devices. While visiting a friend I tried making my morning coffee with his Chemex beaker style coffee maker. In my opinion, the Chemex line of glass coffeemakers is the most streamlined approach to making coffee. You get the same incredible coffee on a consistent basis. The straightforward approach is a beautiful thing.
Keurig And The Grotesque Reality Of Kcups
About a third of Americans currently own a pod-based coffee maker, and Keurig is brand behind the hype. Sure you get a lot of variety with the plethora of coffee pod variations out there, but is it really worth the environmental toll?
A vast majority of these coffee pods unfortunately end up in landfills because most of them are not recyclable. If you absolutely must use a Keurig, do what’s right for the world: invest in a reusable coffee pod.
Mountain Style Coffee: Perfect for Camping
It doesn’t get more simplistic than this. You need a small pot, some coffee, and a fire. Coarse coffee grounds go into the small pot of boiling water. I like to use river water, it makes me feel like a lumberjack I suppose. This campfire brew method is rugged and timeless. It’s as evergreen as the pine trees you may encounter while braving the outdoors. Just don’t fret over a few coffee grounds in your cup,
Cold Brew, Not Iced Coffee
It’s common to assume that iced coffee and cold brew coffee are the same thing, or at least similar. But in reality they are quite different. Iced coffee involves brewing with hot water and then cooling down the coffee. This inadvertently waters down the coffee, especially once the ice melts. Cold brew coffee is different. As the name implies, no heat is used when making cold brew. Simply take coffee grounds, put them in water, and let stand for at least ten hours (either at room temp or in your refrigerator). Then strain the cold brew is done!
I always make cold brew in a fairly unexpected place: hotel rooms. I absolutely despise the terrible coffee and crusty auto coffee pots in hotels. So I hack my hotel room coffee station by using the room’s less than ideal coffee and making some cold brew. The coffee tastes terrible in their old school mini coffee pots but it’s much more drinkable when it’s cold brewed.
When Percolators Were Preferred
Before the conventional coffee pot took over in the 1970s, the coffee percolator was what everyone used in their homes. Although percolators are viewed as almost archaic, these stovetop wonders actually produce a decent tasting cup of coffee. If only they were easier to clean!
Moka Pot Madness
While moka pot’s technically brew espresso the resulting beverage is less like a shot of espresso and more like a decadent, rich brew. For some reason I was always under the assumption that moka pots were extremely expensive. However, in reality about $20 buys a great moka pot. This method is suitable for someone who wants a heavy and bitter drink in small portions. All the caffeine is still there, but the constant trips to the bathroom are not.
Additionally, these are some little-known facts about coffee courtesy of Thought Catalog author Lorenzo Jensen III.