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Buying Coffee Beans – What you Need to Know

The fine art of creating a cup of coffee has changed a lot in the last few decades. Whereas coffee used to be – for most consumers – something that came from a can or a jar, today there’s so much more involved in making good coffee.

We have coffee shops on nearly every corner of our large cities, and even small towns usually boast their own gourmet coffee shack. A “barrista” makes our desired cup of java and we order them in quantities such as short, tall, and grande…not small, medium, and large.

Making coffee is now an art…one that many people take quite seriously. That means the passion for coffee has extended into the home, with coffee fanatics buying their own essential ingredients in order to create their favorite coffee concoction.

The Coffee Bean

Every good cup of coffee starts with a handful of quality beans. Most of us take coffee beans for granted, never really stopping to think about where our coffee originates. But the real coffee connoisseur knows plenty about that little bean.

Basically, there are two types of coffee beans:

  • Robusta – Of the two types of beans available, Robusta accounts for about 40% of the world’s coffee bean production. As the name indicates, it is a hardier or more “robust” bean, more resistant to the diseases that can cause problems for the more delicate Arabica variety of bean. Its hardiness makes it easier to grow and therefore more plentiful and less expensive than Arabica. It has a rather strong flavor and contains more caffeine than its counterpart. It was first discovered growing in the Congo, but now, most Robusta beans are grown in West and Central Africa, South East Asia and in parts of South America.
  • Arabica – Accounting for 60% of the world’s coffee production, Arabica beans are grown on large plants and at higher elevation. These delicate plants tend to be susceptible to frost and diseases, making them more difficult to care for than Robusta. Because it’s harder to grow these plants, the prices are higher. Arabica has a much more delicate taste than Robusta and can be fashioned into a pure Arabica drink or combined with Robusta for a coffee with a bit more of a punch. These beans taste distinctive based on where they are grown. Fertile areas for growing Arabica beans include Latin America, Central and East Africa, Asia (India and Indonesia), and parts of Oceania.

Beans are also divided by “roast” terminology. For example, city or full roast usually refers to the light brown-colored medium roast coffee that most American’s enjoy in their canned coffee products. Viennese roast is a bit darker and Italian is a rich, dark brown. The latter is used in most espresso drinks sold in the U.S. French is the boldest, darkest roast and is often used in espresso in Europe, where the coffee tends to be stronger overall.

Most beans have already been roasted when they are purchased by the average consumer. However, some people do choose to buy “green” beans and roast them on their own. Beans may be roasted in your home oven, in a frying pan, or in special machines created just for that purpose.

Grinding the Beans

The taste of your coffee is also determined by the coarseness of the grind. Some home grinding machines have coarseness settings while many inexpensive ones do not. With those grinders, the coarseness of your coffee will be determined by the length of time spent grinding; i.e. the longer you grind, the finer the end result.

Here are a few basic guidelines to follow that will help you determine the correct coarseness for your desired cup of java.

  • Coarse – Requires little grinding time and end result will leave chunky coffee particles about the size of heavy salt. Coarse coffee works best in percolators and French press devices.
  • Medium – The texture of medium ground coffee tends to resemble a coarse sand. Most automatic drip coffee makers call for medium ground beans.
  • Fine – Fine ground coffee resembles granulated sugar. It is recommended for use in auto drip pots with cone shape filters as well as espresso moka pots (stovetop espresso pots).
  • Extra Fine – Nearly powdery in texture, extra fine grounds are preferred for professional-grade espresso machines.

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