Coffee. Such a simple word. Such BIG emotion. You know I’m right! Just mention the wrong roast, dare to add creamer, or own an auto drip…GOD FORBID. You’ve just set yourself up for hard core side eye and immediate excommunication from underground coffee culture. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It shouldn’t be like that.
As someone who is borderline obsessed with the beverage I do “get” wanting other people to “get” why I love it. First, I’ll make one thing super-duper clear before we jump on in. This blurb isn’t being written to convince you that you’re doing it all wrong. It’s me wanting to make the world of coffee approachable and enjoyable. If at the end of this post you’ve learned something new or are interested in trying something new I’ll be doing the happiest happy dance there ever was! Because sharing what I love and watching someone else eye’s light up with that AHA moment is literal joy to my heart!
Make it the way YOU like. Because at the end of the day you should love what you eat and drink regardless of whether or not someone else finds it “uneducated” or “disgraceful”. They’ll live 😏
Table of Contents
Susanna + Coffee Love
As cheese as this sounds, when I say I love coffee I’m talking soul level love. I was the 7 year old who snuck little white styrofoam cups from the adult table in the church kitchen. Which was totally forbidden, but. You know how that goes. The smell was just too much to resist, and once 10 packets of sugar and a whole bunch of cream were added. WHEW. We’re talking over the top excitement.
At 12, my bestie and I would walk to Starbucks for fraps. The OG kids who grew up on Starbucks… back in 2000 when we were all sure computers wouldn’t switch over to a new millennia and the entire world would end. Back with PSLs first came out and were legit legit. It was a safe space to crash and do teeny bopper things. Coffee was front and center of crushes, glitter roll ons, butterfly hair clip swaps and burned versions of Nelly’s Country Grammar. Who just went down memory lane with me… raise that hand!!
When I worked a soul sucking job, one of my only office joys was the coffee club. A club that kept better tasting beans and cream stocked eagerly waiting for a THAT moment when you just could not. There were a whole lot of those could not moments made possible via a hot cup of coffee.
Despite being married, I found myself alone ALL the time. Solo mornings were shared with my pooch over a cup of coffee. Somehow, everything just felt better. I told you it was a soul level love!! But I was in a rut. Drinking the same coffee the same way everywhere I went. I’m not sure when it hit me, but when it did nothing stayed the same. I no longer wanted to just participate in coffee, I wanted to understand it – appreciate it. So began the journey I’m still on today! Hoping that what I’ve picked up and self taught over the years helps you kick start your own love affair 😍
What to Expect from This Coffee Guide
If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that there’s always more to learn. Which, I hope, is as exciting for you as it is for me! I mean. The goal isn’t to arrive at perfection. The goal is to simply- never stop exploring which immediately opens an entire world of possibility on any given topic. Including coffee.
To explore is to learn. To learn is to evolve. To evolve, well, that is what makes an ordinary journey beautiful.
I’m choosing to start this coffee guide at the beginning and we’ll walk through all the basics together. Already know the answer to some of these questions? Fab. You rock. Just skip on down till you find one you’d love to learn more about! If you’re a coffee connoisseur please feel free to drop any helpful, insightful, friendly tidbits below so that we can all learn together! Sharing is caring.
Without further ado let’s hit it.
What Exactly is Coffee?
Simply stated coffee is a berry harvested from the species of Coffea plants. These berries are called coffee cherries. The seed that we know and love as the “coffee bean” is cloaked in a thin parchment like skin which is housed inside the fleshy, slimy part of this fruit/berry/cherry. There are over 80 types but only 2 dominate the industry today. They are: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (Robusta). If you’d like to rabbit hole into the differences between these two, I’ve hunted down a super helpful article- Arabica vs Robusta.
Coffea plants are tropical in nature and are predominately farmed (called nurseries) along territories in the equator. After initial sewing, harvesting can begin after 3 to 4 years with each plant producing up to 20 years. Countries known for providing us with steady supplies of coffee beans are: Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Ivory Coast, Thailand, Sumatra, and Vietnam to name a few. This Bean Belt Map was a fun reference for me, and I think you’ll enjoy too!
What and Why Freshness Matters
Ok. So. Coffee comes from a berry-cherry. Which means it’s a fruit. Which means it’s seasonal. Which means a whole lot of things if you think about it. You know how there’s a natural strawberry season? Or peach season? And while we certainly have access to strawberries and peaches year round- YOU KNOW there’s nothing like a fruit or vegetable that’s in season from it’s natural habitat.
If you’ve wondered why a certain bag of beans all the sudden hits the market at $20 a pound THIS is typically why. Let’s connect some dots on this one… if fruit different foods are seasonal, coffee beans/cherries would be as well. Which immediately tells you- the bulk of coffee you’re drinking, although it may have been recently roasted, could very well be last years harvest. Or the one before that. As in, not “fresh” in the way we tend to think of “fresh”. The $$$ ones labeled as “limited edition” or “seasonal” tend to in fact be limited and in season.
This doesn’t mean you can’t still get a bomb cup of coffee from an older bean. But hopefully this sheds some light on why you’ll notice certain beans rotating through coffee shops (including Starbucks) for a limited time only. More than likely that coffee was just in season, which means it’s as fresh as you’re going to get this side of a coffee plantation.
In fact, some smaller roasters capitalize on seasons by only offering certain beans at certain times of the year. Which does, in my opinion, elevate their brews to the status of novelty. They aren’t providing for the masses. They are providing for a specific demographic of informed buyer who is willing to drop $$$ for this experience.
How is Coffee Prepared for Distribution?
This one might be obvious, but most fun facts in life can be missed by this assumption. First, said coffee berries/cherries are picked in one of 2 ways: stripped by machine all at once or hand selected for perfect ripeness. Once weighed, it’s sent immediately for processing to avoid spoilage.
Like everything in life there is more than one way to arrive at a finished product. The same goes for coffee! Whenever you’re checking out a bag of coffee and see terms like Dry or Wet that company is referring to a process.
This method is typically used in countries with limited access to water. It’s the traditional, ancient way to prep coffee for consumption. A process in which the coffee berries spread to dry in the sun and manually rotated several times a day to avoid issues will mold or mildew. These large drying areas are also covered a night to help keep dew or inclement weather from molding or souring. This process is repeated for several weeks until the majority of moisture from said coffee berries has been released. The magic number everyone shoots for is 11% which. The remnants are then ready for export.
In a nutshell…the pulp, or fleshy bits, of the berry are removed through a process of washing which leaves behind the thin parchment link skin surrounding the bean. The process goes a little bit like:
These beans are first sent through by weight into vats of water, where the ripest of berries sink to the bottom and are sorted mechanically into different drums of water based on size. The berries will hang out here for up to 48 hours until all the slimy flesh is naturally removed due to the fermentation that occurs. The beans are then rinsed after this process and sent to be dried until that coveted 11% moisture level we just chatted about.
Ultimately it will be individual roasters who take the beans and roast, blend, and bag for public consumption.
Let’s Talk About Roasting
Roasting coffee beans is the process of applying varying levels and/or types of heat which chemically and physically alters the bean naturally. This process makes the coffee bean soluble and ready for consumption. It takes years of practice to consistently nail different styles of roast and as much an art as it is science.
This might come as a bit of a shock to some, but in the industry of coffee there is actually no standardization of what makes a certain roast a certain roast. There are general rules of thumb, and guidelines, but much like the word “organic” there’s a whole lot of room for folks to play around. Which is why you might love a dark roasted bean from X company and hate a dark roasted bean from Y company. All the more reason I encourage folks to branch out and try new brews!
I’ve also chatted about this on my Coconut Beef Curry recipe…. when people say they hate curry… they are usual unaware that there are over 19 countries who make curry at least 115 different ways. That one green sauce you had that one time isn’t the world of curry. It was just one dish from one place. Same can be said of coffee wink wink.
Fun fact time- most people assume the dark the roast the higher levels of caffeine they must be drinking. In reality, it tends to be lighter roasts that have higher level of caffeine concentrations!
Now it’s time to get to the main types of roasts you’ll find out and about: Light – Medium – Medium Dark – Dark. A complete breakdown on these roasts and their properties can be found here. The MOST important thing to remember is that there isn’t a wrong answer. This is 100% percent a personal preference and often heavily included by culture and geographic area.
I cannot tell you how insulting it is to ask a barista for their darkest roast, only to be told- “I’m sorry we don’t serve burnt coffee here”… at which point all you can do is laugh and say- “I’m sorry I don’t do rude here”… and leave. True Story. My preferences might not be yours. And yours might not be mine. And believe it or not, that’s not only ok- it’s a beautiful thing!!
How to Select Coffee for the Home
I know you’re probably looking for a 1-2-3 kinda answer. There isn’t one. UGH. However, there are some pointers I can drop that will be helpful:
> Look for a roasting date printed on the bags you purchase, both at your local grocery and at your local coffee house. Roasted coffee is technically shelf stable for years, but the initial freshness of a bean is lost within 7-10 days of being roasted. Which is why I typically refer to grocery store coffee as stale coffee and am a HUGE fan of purchasing directly from kitchen boutiques or coffee shops who roast.
> I do recommend always trying a sip of a new-to-you-coffee without any additives. EVEN IF you prefer cream and sugar, just a sip of the black stuff will help you better understand the flavor dynamics of the mixed drink you’re preparing. You might be surprised, and discover there’s a better roast or bean to pair with that cream and sugar. Heck, you might stumble across a brew you love so much you’ll consider drinking it black 😉
> While I always have a bag of trusted goodness on hand, I do make a point to experiment frequently. Much like I encourage trying new-to-you-foods, I’m going to encourage you to try a new region and roast as often as possible. That might look like buying smaller bags. Or treating yourself to a coffee shop where you branch out from your usual order. The more you try, the more certain you can be about why you like and why you like it. Kinda like wine and beer, and really… everything.
Grinding Coffee at Home
If you are unsure how to grind your coffee at home, start by asking your local coffee shop to grind their beans for you according to the type of method you want to try at home. Most shops will offer this service for free! That way you can purchase a bag of their freshly roasted beans, have it ground properly so you have something to compare it to at home.
I’m a super visual person, and this is how I initially learned. I still have the same simple $20 grinder I had 10 years ago, and being able to compare a professionals grind to my grind changed everything! I now know exactly how long I need to buzz my little blade to achieve the perfect consistence for my Moka pot and French press.
In fact, there’s a whole world of information out there about grinders and grinding. If you want to rabbit hole into that world, I found this Beginners Guide to Coffee Grinding super helpful and think you will too!
So mine is white, and 10 years older than this one. While there are fancier...much fancier.... grinders on the market, I have ZERO complaints with this guy. He is used several times a week and works like a champ. It's totally up the the user to determine how fine or course to prepare their beans (which depends on your brewing method), so you've got to pay attention the first few times you use it. After a few gos, you'll figure out the sweet spot of how many seconds for exactly how you like your grind! I have yet to upgrade, which should say something.
Popular Methods for Brewing Coffee in an American Home
For those of you interested in getting into the nitty gritty of each brewing method, I’ve tracked down a comprehensive yet succinct guide to walk you right on through! This article is a super basic intro, a dip your toe in the world of home brewing kinda post.
Each one of these methods has an established cult all their own. The only method I have not personally tried in my own home is the vacuum/siphon! And there are a few methods such as Cold Brew, the Auto Drip, and Greek or Turkish not mentioned. And we can’t forget about coffee pod machines like Nespresso.
Prepare for a blasphemes confession: I OWN AND LOVE my Nespresso Pixie. It’s perfect for a super quick cappuccino or iced latte. Comes with a frother that makes both hot and cold foam. The pods are recyclable, and for a pod system they offer the BEST espresso on the market. We’ve had our Pixie for 6 years now. And I wouldn’t change the convenience for anything in the world. Is it top tier espresso. Honestly, no. But it’s solid enough.
My husband works crazy hours. A ton of overnight shifts. Hours of studying in between... life is not on a "normal" schedule around here. It never has been. Enter this little guy. Dan specifically asked for this. A way to make good espresso, quickly. Who was I to say no? BONUS that it came with a frother that creates both hot or cold foam. So it's perfect for cappuccinos and lattes, and also perfect for iced chais and dessert martinis. We've had this Pixie for 6 years now, and not one issue. When our frother started acting up out of the blue, Nespresso was amazing and sent us a brand new one free of charge. So ya. Fab customer service too.
While I’m not getting into the details of every brewing method in this post, I will drop a few important tidbits that should clear up a number of misconceptions:
> If you are interested in making different types of coffee at home (ie espresso, French press, pour over etc) it will be important that you purchase whole beans. Why? Because each brewing method requires a different grind of bean. Some course, some fine. Plus, whole beans ensure that you have a more fresh cup of coffee. The moment beans are ground they start to loose their flavor.
> The coarseness of your grind will affect the taste of your coffee depending on how you brew it! It is entirely possible to hate a French press that was brewed with powder fine grounds. A French press wasn’t made for that. Your cup will be bitter and sour and burnt. What if this whole time it wasn’t you? Or the bean? Or the brewing method? What if you’ve simply been matching the wrong grind with the wrong brewing method this whole time?!
> Espresso. It’s not a bean or a drink. It’s a brewing method! Many roasters will label certain beans as espresso as a way to let their customers know what to expect flavor profile wise. Typically beans roasted for espresso tend to be robust as they are meant to be consumed in small quantities or mixed with other liquids. Don’t be confused, any coffee bean can be ground for an espresso!
> Keep in mind that each brewing method requires a different ratio of water and grinds. I don’t get all crazy with the scales and filtered water. Not to that level of purism yet. I just use a trusty old coffee scoop! You might want to get more into the nitty gritty of each method, and I’d definitely encourage you to look that up. A great place to start is right here.
The French Press
Personally, my favorite way to brew a great cup of coffee at home is the French press. Tried and true. Ready in under 10 mins. Totally hands off. Smooth and balanced cup of black. I never add cream and sugar when good beans are brewed this way. And because this is my favorite way to brew and appreciate coffee at home, I’ll spill all the details below:
> This method ensures and even, all over brewing of each coffee granule- I’m here for the whole maximum flavor with minimal effort thing.
> You’ll be grinding your beans to the coarseness of sea salt or sugar in the raw. You want to feel that bumpy grit in your hand.
> Blooming. Something that holds true for pour overs as well. This is a step SO often skipped by the home brewer, but it truly makes ALL the difference. Blooming is also referred to as wetting. A process in which some hot water is gently poured over the beans allowing them all to be thoroughly soaked. What does that look like?
> I usually make a 32 ounce (called an 8 cup, bc in most of the world coffee is consumed in 4oz quantities) which requires 4 coffee scoops of course ground beans. Once those are in the bottom of my press, I pour my boiled water over the beans- just enough to cover them- and let sit for 30-45 seconds. You’ll notice an aggressive bubbling, which is chemistry in action!! What you’re witnessing are the little pores on each granule opening up and expanding due to their release of carbon dioxide. WHA? Yup. Super cool.
> Then you simply add the rest of your hot water right on top and brew for a minimum of 4 minutes. Traditionally, brew time is 4 minutes, and if you’re new to this method or trying out a new type of bean I’d encourage you to start here! Taste. Determine if it needs to be stronger (ie a longer brew might help) and adjust next time. Personally, I prefer a press at 7 minutes. Again, this all goes back to the concept of making and enjoying what you love– guilt free from other’s expectations. Definitely try the thing they way it’s supposed to be done so you can have an accurate gauge.. but then feel free to play. This applies to all things food and beverage. SO liberating once you embrace!!
> After your timer goes off, plunge and enjoy! If you have a hard time lowering your plunger it means your beans were ground too fine. If your plunger flies towards the bottom without any resistance, your beans were ground to course. Again, adjust and improve on it next time.
Classic. My personal favorite way to brew coffee at home. And this is one of the best French Presses on the market, I've tried at least 10 of them... and Bodum comes out on top every time. Fun Fact: This press is often referred to as an 8 cup press. Because most of the world consumed coffee in 4oz increments! Instead of microwaving their 15oz mug every 15 minutes. This French Press is actually what kickstarted my love affair with coffee. What prompted me to start learning about beans and roasting and brewing at home! I've got an entire How To tutorial over on my Instagram under highlights. Hoping to have an entire blog post on brewing coffee at home shortly.
How to Make Coffee House Coffee at Home
This could be it’s own entire post, and probably will be one day! But I did promise to pull together a helpful resource, and what would a helpful resource be if we didn’t actually get to MAKING COFFEE. This is another one of those loaded coffee topics… but honestly so much boils down to lifestyle, personal preference, and level of passion for the beverage. Different strokes for different folks as they say.
Over the years I’ve learned how to make my own kitchen or patio feel like the one of a kinda cafe it truly is! And after the year 2020 was, there has never been a better time to make your own space feel like THE space you want to be.
If you’re curious, you can actually Shop My Coffee Favorites to see exactly what I own and why I own it.
A selection of one of a kind coffee mugs/cups in different sizes for different drinks. I often thrift these and have a variety that are season specific. Trust me when I say I’m READY to go with my quail cups the moment the air hits a crisp 55f/12c. Thanksgiving mornings are filled with amber cut glass. When the first signs of frost hits my windshield, out comes Santa. The first greenery to hit those brown branches means I break out my pink spring birds. It may sound silly. But it makes a HUGE difference when you start off each morning with a sweet little reminder of what season of life you’re in. Plus all your friends will be like woe- ok girl.
While you’re on the hunt for super duper cute mugs, keep an eye out for adorable little spoons. One of my favorite places to find both cute mugs and spoons is a a thrift store. Sometimes you’ll hit the mother load and others there won’t be anything you dig. Don’t be in a rush, just grab those finds when you see them!
A frother is a must. At least for me. I received on with my Nespresso Pixie, and while I may not be making espresso every day I sure use that frother all the time. And because it makes cold foam I get to play around with iced chai lattes. Creamed martinis. And frothy spiced apple teas. Millions of little bubbles that transform an ordinary drink into a coffee house level beverage for a fraction of the cost.
Simple syrups. Either make or purchase. Some of my favorites to purchase are for a small, woman owned business based in Arkansas called Pink House Alchemy. Their lavender is everything during the warm spring and summer months, and their cardamom is the cherry on top of any fall or winter beverage.
OOOO. If you're not familiar with lavender in coffee or cocktails... you need to be! Light and bright and floral without tasting like your grandma's potpourri. Perfectly pairs with ice tea. A dream in lattes. The best when shaken with cold brew. Plus you can use to flavor whipped cream, cupcake frostings and more. Skies the limit with this one folks!
Don’t feel like splurging for premade? Easily make your own with 1 cup of boiling water to 1 cup of sugar. You can add any flavors to that water, such as mint leaves or rosemary or orange peel etc… just make sure to strain and cool completely before bottling for the fridge! Then use as desired for 1-2 weeks. Any good simple syrup immediately levels up a beverage- whether that’s coffee, tea, soda water, or a spirit of choice.
I mean, this entire post was written about coffee. Without a solid base, you won’t have a solid experience. If you’ve been on the Folgers train for forever, it’s time to branch out. Start at a coffee shop you LOVE and asking if they roast in house. If they don’t, ask what roaster they purchase beans from. Or, you can try something totally random and new and pray for the best! If you don’t feel like grinding at home, consider asking the location of bean purchase to grind their whole beans to your liking. Most kitchen and coffee shops offer this free of charge! You’ve just gotta ask!
A Sense of Adventure
I chat about just HOW important this one is allllllll the time. In fact, I’ve got a whole post covering Kitchen Basics in 7 Practical Steps which includes opening yourself up to adventure. New experiences. New-to-you “name it”. Did you just have an amazing cappuccino? Snap a pic of the menu description and try to recreate at home. One of the most random delicious cappuccino combos I’ve ever had was beet root and pistachio. SO glad I tried it, and def on my list to recreate at home one day. Same with burnt orange and rosemary. Just wow. Not my normal go to, but truly amazing.
This also applies to brewing methods. While a pour over or auto drip might feel comfortable, step a bit outside that comfort zone and try a French press. Or a Moka pot. Worst case scenario you hate it and don’t make again. Best case scenario, you’ve just found a new way to love coffee! Total WIN WIN if you ask me!
EEEK. Ok. So sure you can drink a cup of coffee solo in the morning while running out the door. But there are also other options. Like pairing a honey infused latte with my Cornmeal Crunch Jam Bars. Or a cinnamon dusted cappuccino with my Classic Stovetop Apple Oatmeal. Have fun playing around with flavor combos that enhance each other. And if you’re not sure where to start… Google is fab. You’ll find me all the time asking Google questions like: What flavors pair with strawberry. LOL Yup. Never can be too experienced for a good ol Google search.
Let Me Know!
When I told you I was going to hitting with all the info. I HIT with all the basic info I could. Did this help you understand the world of coffee a bit better?!
I’m sure I missed bits and pieces, left out crucial info, and said a few things folks might not agree with. I’m not stating gospel coffee truth here, but breaking down the basics I fully understand at this point and time of my journey! As I continue to learn and grow you can bet I’ll be back to update, expand and add.
Feel free to jump into the comments with questions, feedback, helpful tips, or suggestions. Let’s encourage each other to keep learning and creating. Sharing sure is caring- so get to it 😍
While you’re at the sharing and commenting, please Save to Pinterest or Share on Facebook. I need all the support I can get to keep on growing this dream of mine. A place where practical beats perfect- and simple, delicious food is a lifestyle. A place where together, we can begin filling homes and tables with joy.
Hugs, because handshakes are awkward~