There are many stories and theories regarding the discovery and use of coffee. There are accounts of the ancestors of today’s Ethiopian Oromo people chewing the leaves and berries of plants for their invigorating and relaxing effect.
Some people credit the discovery of the coffee bean we know today to an individual named Sheik Omar. Ancient chronicles state that he was once exiled for a period of time in the desert. He came across a plant with berries on it. Being desperate and in a state of hunger, he chewed these berries but found them bitter tasting. He then roasted them but they became too hard to chew so he placed them in some water to soften them and drank the resultant dark coloured liquid. He found this liquid sustained him and revived him so that he was able to survive his ordeal in the desert.
This is thought to be the first account of a beverage which we now recognise today as coffee.
Through time it was discovered that by pounding or grinding these roasted berries or beans it produced a type of material, which, when added to hot water produced a most palatable beverage. It was also possible to vary the flavour by roasting these beans or berries for varying periods of time. Hence, we now have beans which vary from lightly roasted to dark roasted.
This, through time, has become the ground coffee which is purchased and consumed the world over. It found its way to Egypt and Yemen and, from there expanded to Turkey, Persia and Indonesia and, of course, to Italy and thereafter the rest of Europe.
In fact, one of the first accounts of the properties of coffee published in Europe was in 1583. It came from Leonhard Rauwolf, a German doctor, on his return home after a 10year sojourn in the Near East. He described it as ‘A beverage as black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses, particularly those of the stomach. It’s consumers take it in the morning, quite frankly, in a porcelain cup that is passed around and from each one drinks a cupful. It is composed of water and the fruit from a bush called bunnu. ’
It was not until the 16th century that roasting and then grinding coffee beans became more commonplace. They were then placed in boiling or hot water and the resultant liquid was drunk as coffee. Before that, the beans were merely dried and then eaten.
Then in the 18th century, the French developed a drip method of brewing coffee. This method consisted of using a cloth bag in which the coffee grounds were placed. Hot water was then passed through the bag of grounds and the liquid produced was drunk. This method had the benefits of not only separating the grounds from the liquid but it reduced the bitterness of the taste because it reduced the period of time required to extract the same flavour. It also allowed for additional ‘steeping’ time for the coffee.
However this method did not become widespread until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This, of course, is the forerunner of our filter coffee of today.
There are several methods of brewing coffee from the grounds and different types of ground coffee are available for each method.
One of the first machines available for brewing coffee was the percolator. It was available as a separate, electric, machine or a stove top type of pot.
In 1889, Hanson Goodrich, the son of an Illinois farmer, patented the first percolator. On the application for the patent it was described as a machine which will make ‘a liquid which will be free of all grounds and impurities.’ However, because of the method of brewing it used, and the process of continually heating the water and passing it through the grounds, the coffee produced was found to be very bitter tasting.
Nowadays, the best and most common methods of brewing coffee are:-
By automatic drip brewing machine, using paper filters.
By using a French Press, or more commonly known as, a Cafetiere.
By using, the filter cone, method.
All of these methods require a different grade of ground coffee:
- Coarse grind for French Press brewing.
- Medium-coarse grind for automatic drip brewers.
- Medium grind for filter cone method.
- Fine grind for espresso.
When brewing your ground coffee, there are several factors to be taken into consideration in order to produce the optimum tasting cup of coffee.
First of all you must consider the ratio of coffee to water. The stronger the coffee is, the better the flavour. For a good, reasonable tasting cup of coffee, with good strength, use 2-3 tablespoons of coffee to approximately 6 fluid ounces of water.
The type of grind helps with the flavour of your coffee. Generally, the finer the grind is, the better the flavour. This is because more of the surface area of the coffee is exposed leading to better flavour during the extraction process.
Obviously, since water is used in the brewing of coffee, it is an important factor to be taken into consideration. If the water you use in brewing coffee has a taste on its own this will be passed on to the coffee itself. Hard water can actually stifle some of the more subtle flavours of your chosen brand of coffee and water softeners only make this worse. By using spring or filtered water this can be avoided and is recommended. The Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends using water with 50-100 parts per million of minerals in it for the best tasting coffee.
The temperature of the water can also be a factor, since this determines the extraction of the coffee oils which gives it its flavour. Generally, speaking, the higher the temperature is the quicker the extraction and the better the flavour. If the temperature is too low it can produce a bitter tasting coffee lust like water which is too hot. Water temperature of between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit (just below boiling) is considered to be ideal.