A coffee affair

In Canada, it's estimated that 67 per cent of adults drink an average of three cups of coffee every day. But how many of them drink good coffee? To choose, prepare and store coffee is an art and a pleasure we'd like to introduce to our readers so that you can truly appreciate your coffee, cup after cup.

The varieties of coffee

For a long time, our choice of coffee was quite restricted. Now coffee is grown in more than 70 countries and the flavours vary enormously from one variety to the next. The principal species offered on the market are arabica and robusta, two very different varieties. Robusta is less perfumed and much more bitter. Growing at low altitudes, it is easier to cultivate. Though its sale price is lower, it accounts for only 30 per cent of world production. Robusta is generally used more for blends, where its pronounced taste adds character.

As for arabica, it grows at altitudes between 800 and 2000 metres. It has a perfumed and delicate taste, sometimes a bit fruity, at times acidic. Representing more than 70 per cent of global production, arabica is the oldest known strain of coffee. More sensitive to disease and frost, the fruit of the coffea arabica linné is more difficult to grow, and thus more expensive. Moka and Blue Mountain are among the more recognized varieties of arabica.

For connaisseurs, Blue Mountain is synonymous with quality and higher prices. With a global reputation, this Jamaican native is valued for the balance it offers between flavour, aroma and acidity. Its high price is explained first by the difficulty growers experience in cultivating the strain. On one hand, the bush produces fewer beans and is more fragile. On the other, the branches that produce the blue-green beans grow on mountainous terrain, where it is almost impossible to employ mechanical harvesting techniques. Production costs are therefore much higher.

To all that, importer and roaster Carlo Granito (of Montreal-based Terra Coffee and Tea) adds that if Blue Mountain is more expensive than other coffees, it's not necessarily because it's the best. "Supply and demand must also be taken into account," Granito says. "As the Japanese import practically all the harvest, there is very little left for the rest of the world. This partly explains its high price."

A truly good coffee

As much as variety accounts for the different aromas of coffee, torrefaction and the method of preparation are equal factors to consider in producing a good cup of coffee. Torrefaction consists of roasting the coffee beans at temperatures up to 230°C. This is no simple thing; it's more like an art. If, for example, the coffee is over-roasted, it could have a burned taste.

Before torrefaction, the green coffee bean is filled with caffeine. It's the cooking that makes the coffee more or less strong. As well, longer torrefaction produces a darker coffee, less rich in caffeine yet a lot more strong. On the contrary, brown coffees require shorter periods of torrefaction, contain much more caffeine and generally have a smoother taste.

A good coffee is usually the result of a judicious blend between different types of varieties: light-medium, medium-dark, medium and dark. To find a blend that suits you, our specialist recommends that you visit a torrefactor where you can taste different mixes. "Once we find a coffee character that pleases us, all that's left is the fun," he concludes. "Just like with wine!"

Coffee 101

If you own a coffee grinder, it is preferable to purchase whole beans and mill them at home to keep them as fresh as possible. Don't forget that grinding beans finer than your filter will leave coffee silt in your cup while giving a more bitter taste and a thicker texture. Conversely, not grinding the beans fine enough will produce a drink without taste, one that tastes like water! A specialist can advise you on grinding techniques if you explain your preferred taste.

Contrary to popular belief, coffee should be made with cool water and not with boiling water. The essential oils of coffee will evaporate if the water is too hot.

On proportions, the ideal is to count one rounded tablespoon per cup. And if some people abstain from drinking coffee because they fear overstimulation from the caffeine, here are a couple tricks. Choose an arabica instead of a robusta, which contains twice the caffeine. Next, opt for espresso which has less caffeine than filtered coffee: the smaller amount of water passing over the ground coffee produces less caffeine in the cup.

Best before

Whether in grain or ground form, coffee should always be stored in an airtight container. Coffee beans can be stored one month on the counter. Coffee will keep its freshness for at most a week once it is ground. The best choice is to therefore keep it in the freezer. In this case, the beans will stay fresh from six months to a year, while ground coffee will last up to three months.

Stories and legends

Several legends recount the origin of coffee. The most credible of these is that of Khaldi, a goatherd who lived in Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia, around the middle of the ninth century. Worried that he couldn't see his flock, he went looking for his animals. He found them oddly excited and agitated when normally his goats were so peaceful. He noticed the herd happily munching on the red fruit of a tree unknown to him.

After tasting the beans himself, he found himself growing agitated. He would take his discovery to the monks, who prepared a concoction. They were pleased by the euphoric effect this liquid procured, helping keep them alert during their long nights of prayer.

It wasn't until a few centuries after Khaldi's discovery that coffee became popular, this time in Yemen. The country's main port, from which the coffee cargo would be shipped, gave its name to the variety that is still very popular today: Moka.

At the time, coffee was considered a miracle remedy in Yemen and all over Arabia and could only be consumed with a doctor's prescription. But it was quickly credited with the virtue of intellectual stimulation. It was during the 17th century that establishments called "cafés," or coffeehouses, were first established in Europe. Venice was the first city, in 1645, in which this commerce began.

"Coffee should be black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel and sweet as love." – Talleyrand

Frédérique Laliberté