For the past couple of weeks, our coffee class has benefited from some serious expertise from the folks at Cafe Grumpy and Blue Bottle Coffee. I learned a ton from them about sourcing beans, roasting them up, and turning them into deliciousness, a bit of which is below.
What's a coffee bean anyhow? I don't think I'd ever really considered where coffee comes from, biologically and botanically. Turns out it's the seed of a cherry-like fruit which grows on a coffee plant, a bushy thing that falls somewhere in between a shrub and a tree. (You can totally eat the fruit, should you ever come across any.)
Once the fruit's picked, you need to get that valuable seed out, and this can be accomplished one of two ways - wet vs. dry processing. Dry or "natural" processing is just that; the berries are left out to dry until the fruit falls away, exposing the seed (the bean). In its simplest form, wet processing speeds things up a bit by using water to wash the flesh of the fruit away. (There's also a semi-washed method.) Some people say wet processed coffees are cleaner, while dry processed coffees are more earthy, but like with everything else, it's just about whatever you prefer.
As far as roasting goes, as long as it's done by a competent professional, you should be fine. Neat fact: lighter roasts actually have way more caffeine than darker roasts!
And when it comes to buying beans, sure, you could spend $50/lb. on some Jamaican Blue Mountain, but you're much better off buying beans from people who actually care about the quality of the coffee they sell, roast it freshly, and buy it from good farms. Now that there's a bunch of really good roasters and cafes in the city, it's even easier to do that. It's also a good idea to not buy too much at once, say half a pound, since the beans lose a lot of flavor as they get older.
Making it at home: No matter how you're making your coffee (drip, French Press, whatever), there's four different variables that come into play when you're brewing coffee at home.
* Water temp: Make sure it's not boiling! You want it to be more like 195 - 200 degrees, so let your kettle boil, then take it off for 30 seconds before you start pouring it on your grounds.
* Size of the grind: Different methods need different grind consistencies (which is why it's great if you can grind at home, right before you make your coffee). For a filter cone, you need something finer than you do for a French Press. Here's a guide.
* Proportion of coffee to water: A good rule of thumb for drip and French Press is about 3-4 tablespoons for 8 ounces of water. It seems like a lot, which it is, but you'll absolutely notice the difference!
* Brew time: For a French Press, you want to let is sit for about three minutes. When you're using a filter cone, it's all about trusting your eye. Before you even start brewing, pour in a bit of water to bloom the grounds; they'll absorb a bunch of water and get lighter in color. Once this happens, you can start pouring your less-than-boiling water in circles, using a thin stream of water if you can. You'll know the grounds are used up when they get really light (and you'll probably have a full cup of coffee).