Coffee Basics 101

When most of us picture our morning routine, a good deal of it is the overhead view of a coffee cup. How many people can you honestly say you know that don't drink at least one cup of coffee a day? The beverage is so popular, in fact, that Americans consume 400 million cups every day, adding up to 146 billion per year. And there's no end in sight to the obsession over it. In 2001, Brazil went so far as to produce a government-issued, coffee-scented stamp. Coffee accounts for 75% of the caffeine drinks consumed in the U.S., is the second most widely used product next to oil, and brings in over $30 billion to producing countries every year. America, of course, is their biggest buyer.

Texas is quite familiar with the beverage. Step onto any business street in Houston, Dallas, or Austin, and you're sure to find a coffee shop. Even most tiny towns have someplace to get a decent cup of joe. But, when really questioned, few of us have a good understanding of how coffee is grown, what varieties are available, or how it's roasted. So for all of you coffee lovers out there -- yeah, you guys and gals, the ones who have been drinking it all their adult lives, but couldn't explain what espresso is -- here's a friendly, intellectual overview:

There are sixty species of coffee trees, but only two produce most of the coffee beans consumed on the planet. Coffee arabica produces the arabica bean -- which accounts for 75% of production -- while Coffee canephora produces the robusta bean. Roasts can range from the lightest of the light -- the beans turning a pale, blanched color -- to roasts so dark the coffee is literally burnt. Terminology is just as varied, from vague references of "light," "medium," or "dark" kinds to specialized names, like "Mexican blonde," and "Viennese."

The Arabica species has been known since prehistoric times, and is believed to have originated in Ethiopia. Its trees are tougher and slower to grow than other varieties, but their beans are generally lower in caffeine and preferred as the basis for specialty coffees. Some of finest varieties come from Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Hawaii. Over 900 flavors of coffee are derived from the Arabica alone.

Coffee robusta was first brought to global attention in the late 1800s and is far less popular. Its flavor is harsher, and mostly used for commercial grade and instant coffees. The species is far easier to grow, however, and yields twice as much as its gourmet counterpart.

Well-placed criticisms have been aimed at the industry, especially in the last decade, concerning labor practices. While a good cup of coffee is purchased for at least a few dollars a cup in America, the actual coffee farmers in third-world countries generally only receive a minute fraction of this. A Fair Trade effort, gearing towards organic varieties and demanding fair labor practices, has been growing. To ease your conscience, try choosing an organic, Fair Trade variety, which most coffee shops will have.

The health benefits of coffee, or lack thereof, have been hotly debated for years. Coffee was actually first introduced in ancient historical records as a medicine. Some claim, however, that its relatively high levels of caffeine can cause hypertension, birth defects, and other ailments. Others argue just the opposite ---- that, with moderate consumption, coffee can actually lower the risk of certain diseases, and has not been convincingly linked with any abnormality or medical condition.

One series of studies reported that consumption of two to four cups of coffee per day actually lowered colon cancer risk by 25%, the onset of asthma attacks by 25%, gallstones by 45%, cirrhosis of the liver by 80%, Parkinson's disease by 50 to 80%, and, in a group of nurses, decreased suicide rates. The word is still out, to be sure. One of the few things agreed upon about coffee is the amount of caffeine in an average cup -100 to 150 mg, or three to four times that of tea.

So now that you're looking guiltily down into that afternoon cup (I know you are), realizing just how much you don't know about that delicious, addictive beverage on which you so depend, let's figure out what you're actually drinking. Is it just a simply brewed cup, or, as the ever-growing American trend would indicate, something a little more fancy?

Turkish coffee, though a less popular choice in the U.S. than other preparations, is one of the oldest ways of drinking coffee. For Turkish coffee, the Arabica bean is ground into a fine, powder-like consistency. Sometimes, spices like cardamon are added during the grinding. Seeds or grounds are boiled and the coffee is served allowing them to float to the top. As it is not strained like American or European preparations, sugar is not added after it hits the cup, but flavors vary from very sweet to very bitter.

Cappuccino coffee is a strong coffee with a frothy cream, topped by a bit of powdered chocolate. Its color is a pale brown, like that of Capuchin monk robes, and is traditionally served in a special white cup, similar to a tea cup. A quality example will be one-third espresso and two-thirds froth. To order a "wet" cappuccino, versus a "dry" cappuccino is to request less froth.

Espresso is strong, black coffee whose dark-roasted grounds have been forced through live steam. Machines have made this process much more efficient, as hot water is forced through the coffee at higher pressures than what is easily achieved by hand. Prepared in this manner, an espresso will brew in 19 to 23 seconds, and will have a surface covered with thick, foamy, golden brown crema that sugar will float on top of for a few seconds.

Hopefully, by now you at least know what you're drinking. And, with any luck, you've learned something interesting. Two things you simply can't deny about coffee, however -- it's addictive nature, and its undeniable place in American culture. I challenge anyone to walk down the streets of Dallas, Houston, or Austin during the morning rush and try to take a fellow rusher's cup of steamy goodness. Just try it: I dare you.

Moderate coffee consumption, according to many studies, has not proven to be detrimental. But what you put in your body will certainly affect your health as you age, and eventually your wallet.

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About The Author, Precremix
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at