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The Buzz on Coffee

Coffee—oh how we love thee. It’s an eye-opener, a social elixir and a comforting ritual. Here’s what you need to know about one of the world’s favorite beverages.

The History of Coffee

Coffee goes way back. According to legend, coffee was discovered in ancient Ethiopia when a goat herder noticed that his goats didn’t sleep at night after eating the berries from a certain tree. (Coffee beans are the pit of a red berry; they’re technically a fruit.) The herder reported his findings to a local monastery and soon word about the energizing berries, and the drink that could be made from them began to spread.

By the 16th century, coffee was being grown and traded in Persia (Iran), Egypt, Syria and Turkey. Known as the “wine of Araby,” coffee made its way to New York (then called New Amsterdam) in the mid-1600s, when the British brought it over.

Tea was more popular until 1773 when the colonists revolted against King George III’s heavy tax on tea—the famous Boston Tea Party. At that point, Americans began preferring coffee, according to the National Coffee Association.

Today, 85% of Americans consume at least one caffeinated beverage a day. When it comes to coffee versus tea, it’s coffee 80% of the time.

Types of Coffee Beans

Coffee beans are grown near the equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 60 countries. Hawaii is the only US state that grows coffee, although it isn’t one of the world’s main producers.

There are two basic types of coffee species: Arabica and Robusta.

Arabica coffee beans are grown at 2,500 feet above sea level. Only 30 of the places that produce coffee, such as Brazil, Columbia, northern Sumatra (an island that’s part of Indonesia) and Mexico, grow coffee at this lofty elevation. Due to a mystical combination of geography, atmospheric conditions and rainfall, “Arabica beans make the best coffee,” says Vicki Wilson, president of Door Country Coffee, an artisan coffee roaster in Wisconsin. “They’re a more flavorful bean.” They’re also some of the most costly coffees in the world.

Robusta beans grow at lower altitudes, in countries such as Vietnam as well as the lowland areas of southern Sumatra and the island of Java in Indonesia. Robusta is typically less expensive. Canned coffee in the supermarket, for example, is likely Robusta unless “Arabica” is on the package. Robusta flavor tends to be less intense, which some coffee consumers prefer.

Coffee Roasting and Caffeine Counts

Before roasting, Arabica and Robusta coffee beans are green (think split peas). During the roasting process, however, when over 700 chemical changes take place, they become dark, plump and lightweight because they lose about 20% of their water weight.

“Some beans are roasted longer than others,” says Wilson. Wilson generally roasts her specialty class 1 Arabica beans—the top 2% of what’s grown in the world—in a commercial air roaster at 650 degrees for just 12 minutes.

The darker the roast, the less caffeine the bean contains. “It’s the opposite of what most people think,” Wilson says. What’s more, Arabica beans have 50% less caffeine than Robusta beans, according to the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee.

The brewing method can also affect caffeine content. Espresso, for example, which uses finely ground beans and a machine designed to extract coffee at high temperatures, contains 63 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce (one shot). Regular brewed coffee, on the other hand, contains 12 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce, according to the USDA. But because you typically drink eight ounces of regular coffee at a time, you’ll consume more caffeine in one sitting (95 milligrams) from regular coffee than a single espresso or a latte or cappuccino made with a single espresso shot.

To make decaf, green coffee beans are steamed open and soaked in water, which leaches out the caffeine and some of the bean’s flavorful oils. Caffeine is then removed from the water through a chemical or filtration method. The beans then get returned to the decaffeinated water to reabsorb the flavorful coffee oils.

There’s still a tiny amount of caffeine in decaffeinated coffee beans (2 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce cup of brewed decaf) and there’s a slight difference in taste. But you still get the flavor and aroma.

Although caffeine’s effect on blood pressure remains under some debate among experts, those with high blood pressure are often advised to reduce caffeine in their diets due to its potential for creating a spike in pressure.

Tricks to Brewing the Perfect Cup

Start with fresh whole beans and grind them right before brewing. (Sorry K-Cup fans. Coffee aficionados consider them the fast food of coffee.)

“Starting with whole beans is the single most important thing you can do,” says Shawn Steiman, PhD, owner of Coffea Consulting in Honolulu and author of The Little Coffee Know-It-All (Quarry). That’s because once whole roasted coffee beans are ground, gasses such as carbon dioxide start to escape from the beans, while oxygen gets ushered in, both of which can affect freshness and flavor.

Use the grind that’s the best match for your coffee-making method. For an old-school percolator, choose super-coarse, as in bread crumbs; for a French press, go with coarse grind akin to sea salt; and for a drip coffee maker, use medium grind (think sand). For an espresso machine, use finely ground coffee.

Use hot enough water by setting your coffee maker. “Most drip coffee machines are set at 180 degrees, but 200 degrees is optimal because of hotter water yields more flavor,” Steiman says.

To maximize freshness for next time, store whole coffee beans in a sealed container, even just a Ziploc bag, anywhere you’d like—on the counter, refrigerator or freezer.

What the Coffee Geeks Prefer

What’s the best way to make coffee? Both Wilson and Steiman prefer French-press coffee, which doesn’t use a filter.

In this brewing method, water and grounds mingle in the pot together for a few minutes. The gist? Using a French-press coffee pot, pour boiling water over the specified amount of grounds (check the instructions on your pot) and steep for two to four minutes with the lid on. Then take the plunge: Push the grounds to the bottom of the beaker, to separate the liquid from the solids. Because there’s no filter, expect a bit of grit.

“French press makes the best coffee there is, particularly if you start with great coffee,” Wilson says.

The worst-tasting coffee is made with a percolator. “No one should ever use one,” Wilson advises. With a percolator, water boils and goes over the coffee grounds, again and again, producing a scorched taste.

Going Cold Brew

Do you do cold brew? Not to be confused with iced coffee, which involves pouring the hot liquid over ice, cold-brew coffee never involves heat. Instead, coffee grounds are steeped in room temperature or cold water for an extended period, typically overnight or 12 hours or more. In a coffeehouse setting, this process can take up to two or three days.

Cold-brew is trending for good reason: “It’s fabulous,” says Wilson. The mellow, sweet taste and reduced acid content have made cold brew a popular coffeehouse option—even among those who don’t enjoy the traditional hot brew.

What’s more, the cold stuff may be easier on your system. “Since you don’t use hot water you don’t get as many chlorogenic compounds, which can cause stomach irritation,” says Jason Sarley, associate editor of an online coffee connoisseur guide called Coffee Review. “The process reduces the extraction of many of the particularly bitter compounds found in low-quality coffees. It’s clean and sweet with floral notes.”

“I compare it to sun tea,” says Kevin Sinnott, author of The Art and Craft of Coffee: An Enthusiast’s Guide to Selecting, Roasting, and Brewing Exquisite Coffee (Quarry), referring to putting tea bags in a container of water and placing the brew in the sun to steep. “The goal of cold-brewed coffee is to keep the bitterness in check,” although Sinnot notes that a little bitterness is a “valid” part of coffee.

Tasting cold brew leaves no room for error. In fact, coffee experts conduct cupping (coffee tasting) sessions by tasting samples at room temperature. “Defects or flaws become most obvious at room temperature,” says Sinnott. “You may not taste these flaws in hot-brewed coffee.”

Switching to cold brew may not be a good idea if you’re trying to reduce your caffeine intake. The longer extraction process increases the caffeine in cold-brewed versus hot-brewed coffee, explains Sinnott. Traditional drip coffee contains approximately 65 to 120 milligrams of caffeine. Compare this to Starbucks’ 12-ounce cold brew, which clocks in at 150 milligrams.

It’s easy to brew your own cold stuff at home. First, grind high-quality whole beans to the texture of sand. Add the ground coffee to cold water in whatever ratio you prefer; one part ground coffee to four parts water is a good bet. (That is, if you use 40 ounces of water, use 10 ounces of ground coffee.) Let the coffee/ water mixture steep in the refrigerator or at room temperature for 16 to 20 hours. Filter the grounds and serve over ice.

The best way to drink cold brew? “You can add milk and sugar as with traditional hot coffee,” says Sarley, “but good cold-brewed coffee is naturally sweet, so milk should be enough.”

Coffee for Beauty

Need a cup of coffee in the morning to perk up? Your skin might benefit from a jolt of caffeine, too.

“Caffeine has a constricting effect, which is great for reducing undereye puffiness and facial redness. And it’s a stimulant, making it ideal for increasing circulation,” says Alexis Wolfer, author of The Recipe for Radiance (Running Press). And as Wolfer points out, caffeine’s diuretic effects allow it to dehydrate fat cells, making them appear flattered—at least temporarily.

Gregory Henderson, MD, a dermatologist with UCLA Health, believes that home remedies such as putting cool tea bags on the eyelids to reduce redness might have been the inspiration for adding caffeine to beauty products. “Caffeine is thought to have a number of potential physiological effects,” he says. But he adds, “If you do not tolerate oral caffeine, you may want to be cautious with topical preparations.” Wolfer suggests checking for irritation by applying any product to a small patch of skin first.

If you want to go DIY, Wolfer notes that a chilled-coffee compress may help ease post-exercise redness and chilled caffeinated coffee grounds can be mixed with coconut oil for a scrub that she claims “increases circulation and constricts blood vessels to reduce the appearance of dimpling.”

**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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