We couldn’t get through most days without a cup (or six) of coffee – but how much do we really know about the delicious, brown nectar of the gods?
You probably have your go-to order memorized, but you might not know your macchiato from your mocha, your Arabian from your African coffee, or what exactly goes into your rocket fuel. We’re here to demystify your java journey and maybe even give you a lightbulb moment akin to the caffeine kicking in with that first cup of the day.
Like wine, coffee is a complex beverage that’s very much a product of its terroir. That’s what makes Ethiopian beans taste completely different from Colombian ones. Technique means one bag of coffee brewed in two ways can offer different experiences for the drinker. The result is that no two cups are truly the same and even the most seasoned coffee drinkers have plenty to explore.
We chatted with local coffee experts and outlined the bean basics to whisk you through the fundamentals faster than you can say triple, venti, soy, no-foam latte.
Stamp your breakfast’s passport with well-travelled coffee beans.
This is one of the most bountiful growing regions on the globe. Coffee in Kenya is planted at a high elevation in the volcanic soils around the base of Mount Kenya, south of Nairobi and on the hills of Mount Elgon near the border with Uganda. Colder conditions mean plants grow slowly but produce a more flavourful end product as a result. Beans are wet-processed for a clean taste and a bright, almost wine-like acidity. Expect a fuller-bodied brew with notes of berry, citrus and a fragrant, floral aroma.
The high altitudes, consistent rainfall and mineral-rich soils of this Central American country are excellent coffee-growing conditions, especially in the valley of Antigua which is surrounded by three volcanoes. While rain in this particular region is low, volcanoes have produced soils rich in pumice, which helps coffee plants retain moisture. In Antigua, ample sunshine and cool nights produce coffee beans with a medium-to-full body, spicy flavour and velvety, almost chocolate-like character. The Coban and Huehuetenango regions of Guatemala are also known for their beans.
Known as one of the best specialty coffee-producing regions on the globe, Colombia’s mountains, steep ridges and rich biodiversity produce world-renowned coffee. The heat that accumulates in lower-lying zones rises in the night to help balance the colder climate of higher mountain elevations. Mules are still used to help transport harvested coffee beans over rugged terrain.
Jack Aldous, resident bean-slinger of the coffee truck Jacked Up, guides us on a java-tasting journey.
Just like wine, coffee has different flavour profiles depending on the region, how it’s harvested and whether it’s natural or washed. And there are a few different stages in between. What method you’re using to brew also makes a difference. If you’re having it at home in a French press or if you’re making espresso-based drinks, that can vary the flavour profiles.
Coffees from Brazil tend to be on the chocolatey side and have a nutty flavour that’s really approachable. That’s why coffee roasters often use Brazillian beans for their espresso. At Jacked Up, we use a single-origin Brazil because it works well both as an espresso and in milk-based drinks.
There’s this misconception that espresso beans are just for espresso, and filter is for everything else. But it’s the same bean, it’s just roasted for a particular method.
I love coffees from East Africa because they tend to be more on the adventurous scale. They might have notes of red cherry, blueberries or strawberries.
But some of these coffees are so bright and fruity that, as a filter or pour over they’re funky and cool, but they might not work as well in milk-based espresso drinks.
Coffee beans are actually the seeds of fruit – the coffee cherry. With naturally processed coffee (as opposed to washed), the farmers leave some of the fruit intact when they pick the cherries. During the drying process, the seeds soak up all the juices and the sweetness from the fruit.
By the time they finally get stripped of their fruit, the seeds have soaked up so much sweetness, that after the coffee is roasted, it can taste like blueberry cheesecake. And it’s funny to talk about it that way because a lot of people don’t think about coffee tasting like a fruit pie, but it can.
Coffee is one of the most universal drinks – even if the method varies.
Medium-roasted beans are finely ground and simmered in hot water in a jezve, a small steel pot with a long handle. The coffee is then poured, grounds and all, into a small cup. Let it settle before drinking. Try it at Istanbul Café, 174 Eglinton Ave. E.
Because all things are better with ice cream, this Italian treat pairs a scoop of gelato, typically vanilla, with a hot double shot of espresso poured over top. This drink’s name comes from the Italian word affogare, which means “to drown.” Try it at Bluestone Lane, 2 Queen St. E.
Vietnamese drip coffee
To make this Vietnamese speciality, hot water is poured through coarsely ground coffee in a French drip filter positioned on top of a glass or mug. It’s traditionally served with sweet, condensed milk. Try it at Coffee Dak Lak, 283 College St.
Ethiopian coffee ceremony
Fresh green beans are roasted in a pan then ground and brewed in a clay pot (called a jebena) with hot water. It’s poured at a height into small, handle-less cups and presented with burning incense. Try it at Buna Coffee, 1176 Queen St. W.
A few spoons of coffee are stirred vigorously with a spoonful of sugar until a froth develops. The rest of the coffee is poured over top and the foam rises. Try it at the Little Havana Café truck.
Home brewing tips
Gabriel Navarro, founder of the coffee consulting firm Napoleon’s Hat, gives us an overview on how to make coffee at home that your barista would be proud of.
I am half-Mexican, half-Italian so I like a bright and fruity coffee, but everyone’s palate is completely different. So pick one that you really enjoy. Within specialty coffee, I recommend trying something that’s a bit different.
The method I enjoy the most is the Kalita Wave – it looks like a pour-over but the bottom is flat. This evens out the odds with all the water, meaning that you’re brewing everything.
White filters are my preference and some companies are coming out with compostable ones. I recommend wetting your filter so it’s ready to go. Coffee has oils that will get stuck on the paper – wetting it ensures that the oil mixes with everything else and goes through.
I like to age my beans for 7 to 10 days. Freshly roasted coffee is still degassing so I rest it to give it a little bit of time to prep and avoid foaming. Leave your coffee in a dry space and don’t store it in the freezer because it creates water that mixes with the oil.
Grinding is very important, but how you grind it depends on whether you’re making espresso or filter coffee. I use a coarser grind for pour-over coffee. If your grounds are too big, the water is not going to find a lot of resistance, but if it’s too fine the water will over-extract your coffee.
If I was being picky, I’d use alkaline water. It plays one of the most important roles in coffee. If you want your coffee to be more sweet, you can use a special filtration system to remove the zinc or add magnesium.
If you go above boiling, you burn the bean. Once it boils, put the water to one side, and wait until it cools to 180-190 F.
It all depends on where the coffee is from, but my sweet spot is a ratio of 1:15. For every gram of coffee, that’s about 15 ml water.
Dial in the coffee convo you need to get the perfect cup of joe on the go.
We’ve all heard one of those orders – the barista calls out a string of words that seemingly have no meaning, and some mysterious stranger steps forward to claim this concoction. But cracking the coffee code isn’t as tough as it seems.
The thing to remember when you’re classifying espresso-based beverages is that it’s all about the milk. A latte (shortened from the Italian ‘caffè e latte’ or ‘milk coffee’) is an espresso with lots of steamed milk and a little foam. It can be a popular drink for those uninitiated into the world of espresso, since it mostly tastes of warm milk and hides the stronger flavours. The next step up is a flat white, a similar drink but with less milk and less foam.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, an americano does away with the white stuff all together, instead using hot water to dilute the espresso. It has the consistency of drip coffee, but the flavour profile of espresso.
The cappuccino is the frothiest of the bunch, with equal parts foamed and steamed milk. For just a small amount of steamed milk foam on top of your espresso, go for a macchiato.
When in doubt, ask your barista. They can recommend the perfect espresso drink for you.