Updated for 2021. So you find yourself here, looking for answers on the Whole Latte Love website. Maybe you came here to find out what’s the buzz on this espresso thing or your friend Lisa won’t stop rambling on about the Tall Vanilla Triple Shot Latte that she gets every morning before work. Whatever the reason, we’re here to give you an all-encompassing snapshot on all things coffee and espresso from the origin, the coffee species, processing, roast, blend, flavors, and machines so that you’ll have the information you need next time Lisa goes on about “coffee-jargon” and you can finally narrow down on the perfect cup of joe for you.
To start, the origins of the coffee are just as important as the final product. The environment in which the coffee plant grows can affect the flavor of your coffee. Other factors that contribute to the flavor are processing, the temperature of the environment, the altitude, humidity and the mineral content of the soil. Knowing where your coffee originates is an important factor in deciding your preferred flavor because you’ll have a better understanding of the quality and consistency of the beans and know exactly where your coffee is sourced from.
Some of the most prominent regions where coffee is sourced are Ethiopia, Guatemala, Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, and Tanzania. All of these regions have varying climates and thus produce coffee that varies in flavor. Try taste-testing coffee from these different regions to narrow down on your preferred flavor.
Arabica vs. Robusta
If you’re just learning about all things coffee, you’ve definitely heard talks about Arabica and Robusta. Simply put, Arabica and Robusta are the two main species of coffee that you’ll often see on coffee packages. These give you a snapshot of the variety in the quality and flavor of the coffee.
Robusta is most often described as having the least desirable characteristics in terms of range in quality and flavor and is most likely to have defects. It can also have harsh flavors and produce a lot of crema and is, therefore, most frequently used in espresso blends. Check out our article on crema for more details.
Arabica has a larger variety of varietals and cultivars. These are subspecies of the Arabica coffee plant that has produced a plethora of desirable flavors and traits. The most common varietals and cultivars include:
You can find out more about the specifics of each varietal here.
Coffee Processing Methods
So I briefly mentioned processing and you might be scratching your head wondering what exactly that means. No worries, we’re just getting started. Processing refers to preparing the coffee bean using three different methods:
Often referred to as the oldest method of processing coffee, natural processing simply allows the coffee cherry to dry out in the sun giving the coffee a more ‘natural’ taste. This method prefers a drier environment.
This method involves soaking the beans in water for up to one week, also known as fermentation. Timing is crucial in this process to avoid overly sour or mold/mildew flavors. Fermentation of the beans aids in bringing out the fruitier and more acidic flavors in the coffee bean.
This process is a balance between natural and wet processing. Once the outer layer of the coffee cherry is hulled, the beans are washed and dried immediately to prevent bacteria growth due to the sugars from the mucilage.
These methods have a significant impact on the final result of the taste and flavor of the beans. Based on the method used to process the beans, they can vary from sour/fruity to sweet and sugary. This is another scenario where the origin of the coffee and the way the coffee is processed is important in determining the type of flavor you prefer.
Roasting the coffee uses heat which brings out a varying degree of flavors. This is the step that will truly determine which type of coffee you love best. Roast varies between light, light/medium, medium, medium/dark, and bold. But, to keep it simple, let’s stick to light, medium and dark roasts.
Light Roast, Medium Roast, and Dark Roast Coffee Comparison
Lightly roasted coffee has the most natural taste because the heat hasn’t completely stripped or “burned” the natural flavors of the coffee. This coffee has been roasted before, during or right after the first crack. If you prefer natural-tasting coffee, light roast just might be for you.
At this stage, the flavor compounds begin to roast out of the bean so there will still be a well-balanced flavor to the coffee. The sugars within the bean become caramelized and will still carry much of the original flavor. This occurs between the first and second crack.
The sugars in dark roast coffee are almost completely masked by the caramelization of the bean. This occurs near or after the second crack and will result in bold, smokey, and bitter flavor notes. It’s important to make sure you are purchasing high-quality beans to avoid burned or undesired flavors.
Caffeine vs. Decaf
What’s the deal with decaf coffee? You can’t seem to understand the difference between caffeinated and decaffeinated, or if you do know the difference, why would someone opt for a decaf coffee?
Decaffeinated coffee can result from a variety of the processes above that affect the caffeine content. However, there is a specific process called decaffeination which strips the beans of its original caffeine content. The result is a coffee bean that has about 2%-3% of its original caffeine content and if you’re looking to keep all of the original flavors pre-decaffeination, this might not be the route for you.
School’s Out: Your Family Will Love This Caffeine-Free Triple-Berry Latte
Decaffeination changes the original flavor of the beans, however, depending on the techniques used, you might still be able to savor some of the original quality flavors that you love. Take a look at our article on how coffee is decaffeinated to learn more about the different techniques.
Ground Coffee vs Whole Bean
“But wait, should I get ground coffee or whole bean?” Fortunately, consumers have the option to choose between the two so they’ll have complete control over the coffee and espresso-making experience. However, if you’re just starting out, we recommend purchasing the coffee as a whole bean, here’s why: the quality of the bean goes down as it ages, by purchasing it as a whole bean, you’re reducing the rate of decay because it hasn’t had much exposure to surface area and won’t oxidize rapidly.
Preground coffee absorbs oxygen and therefore masks the process of decay. By purchasing whole bean coffee, you can tell when the quality of the bean isn’t at its best and you’re reducing costs by avoiding purchasing rapidly decaying coffee.
However, I personally prefer preground coffee and I’m certain that I’m not the only pre-ground coffee lover out there. So, here’s why preground coffee might be a great option for you:
- There’s no need to purchase a grinder so if you’re looking to save money, preground coffee might be the way to go;
- Simplicity — if you don’t have a lot of time in the mornings before work or if you’re a simple coffee and espresso lover like me, one less step is a lifesaver and can save you time when you still want a nice cup of joe before work but don’t have a lot of time to grind, dose and tamp your coffee.
- Perfect for beginners — the world of coffee and espresso can be daunting for anyone just getting into brewing their own coffee and espresso. If you’re just starting out, try your hand at preground coffee, machines like the Gaggia Classic Pro are forgiving with preground coffee and it’s perfect for at home or in the office if you’re looking to switch between using decaf and regular coffee!
Coffee Makers and Espresso Machines
To round out our list of all the things you need to know about coffee and espresso, the final aspect of getting a great quality drink is your machine. You might’ve followed these steps, taken notes, and ordered the perfect bag of coffee beans that satisfies your taste palate, but if your coffee or espresso machine doesn’t agree with your coffee beans, you’ll be left with a pretty disappointing cup of joe. That’s why we’ve listed our top favorite espresso machines for beginners to ensure you’re getting the best quality coffee from start to finish.