Every day I buy a coffee from a little wagon near my home (yes, it is a converted horse box) and what I get is always good. But when I come to make it at home, it’s never quite the same. Sometimes it’s fine, other times it’s pretty disappointing. So where am I going wrong?
Well, who better to turn to for advice than Robert Bell, Managing Director of SD Bell, Ireland’s oldest independent tea importer and coffee roaster. His great-grandfather started the business in Belfast in 1887 and it’s been one of the foremost names in coffee here ever since.
Here’s a few of Robert’s insights into what makes a good brew.
Coffee beans are not really beans at all
They’re actually seeds inside a cherry-like fruit. “All coffee in its raw form has no flavour,” says Robert: “The taste comes from how the beans are roasted.”
Coffee – let’s call them beans, everyone does - can be divided into two main families: Arabica and Robusta. A lot of Robusta goes into instant coffee. It’s fast-growing but needs more roasting, whereas Arabica is a smaller, fuller bean that provides a longer flavour. “All quality coffee is Arabica,” says Robert.
‘Americano’ is actually a derogatory term
The origins of the name stretch back to the latter part of the Second World War, when American GIs based in Italy demanded the local coffee be diluted because they found it far too strong. The Italians sniffed at this insult, christened the diluted espresso ‘Americano’ and looked down their noses at anyone who ordered it.
“If you’re making an Americano at home it’s better to carefully add the boiling water to the espresso rather than the other way round,” says Robert. “That way you have the chance of retaining the coffee’s ‘crema’ – those lovely wisps of brown froth on top.”
If you haven’t got a machine, use a cafetiere
To make an espresso you really need an espresso machine. Robert reckons that to get a decent one you need to spend anything from £300 to £1,000. “With a stove-top pot you won’t get that close to the coffee shop experience,” he says. “Usually in the office I use a cafetiere – it’s probably the most common form of coffee-making in Europe.”
Avoid coffee that says ‘suitable for filter and cafetiere’ on the packet
Grinding is a crucial part of the coffee-making process, says Robert. Beans for a cafetiere need ground to a sand-like consistency, whereas filter coffee needs to be much finer. “If it’s ground too finely for a cafetiere the result will be a muddy drink, and if it’s ground too coarsely for filter-making the water will run through it too quickly, leaving you with dishwater.”
For home grinding, the best option is to spend up to £100 on a ‘burr grinder’ which allows you to choose the size of the grains. If your electric grinder has a simple spinning blade, what you’ll usually get is very fine coffee. To get a coarse cafetiere grind, pulse the grinder rather than leave it running.
Once it’s ground, how much of it do you put in your cafetiere? Push down the plunger in your empty pot and the space left at the bottom is what you should be filling with coffee, says Robert. Leave it to infuse once you’ve added water. “Once you’ve plunged, the infusion ends.”
You need to keep your powder dry
Coffee will start to degrade the more it’s exposed to air. The best way to store ground coffee is in a cool, dry place in an airtight container. And ideally use it within two weeks.
You can freeze coffee beans and grind them straight from frozen - they’ll keep for months this way. You can also freeze ground coffee but it will degrade if you keep thawing and refreezing.
All coffee comes from the Tropics
Generally, you can split the world into three growing zones, says Robert. The middle East and Africa, where the drink is said to have originated, produces what he describes as ‘winey’ or ‘gamey’ coffee. Coffee from Asia and the Pacific rim is lighter in style, with a lower acidity, and Caribbean coffees are similar. Central and South American coffee is often described as ‘nutty’ – especially from Brazil, the world’s largest producer – with a ‘clean taste’ that is more robust than coffee from the Asian regions.
Not all Blue Mountain is Blue Mountain
“Jamaica has some of the best coffee in the world but is the only one where the Blue Mountain label means anything,” says Robert. “Ignore it on any other coffee, and don’t buy Jamaican coffee unless it is Blue Mountain.”