Coffee

My first job was at Starbucks. I worked there for probably about 7 years. Given that the role of a barista is one that takes only about 2 years to master, my exposure is more rigorous than most. When things were slow, I enjoyed contemplating ways to explain the notoriously obfuscated menu selection at Starbucks.

It really isn't as bad as people think. Despite the fact that all the drinks follow a pretty reasonable pattern, there is always at least one comic strip in the Sunday funnies that rips on all those silly frabba-mocha-china twists enjoyed by the very haughty coffee elite.

Dear reader, I give you the fruits of that contemplation. I present to you everything you ever need to know about making coffee, drinking coffee, and ordering coffee.

The Cup of Coffee

Coffee beans aren't really beans. Think of it like the pit you would find in a berry. The coffee bean is actually the seed of the coffee berry.

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Figure 1: All coffee cherries are covered in sensual photography-friendly condensation

The pits are sifted out and roasted. All that needs to happen now is for the pit to be dissolved in water. Technically, just leaving it in a cold glass of water will give you a cup of coffee - in about a hundred years . To speed of the naturally slow process, the coffee beans are ground up and the host water is heated. This speeds up the formation of the solution.

At this point we are getting closer. We have a mug of hot water darkened by roasted pits - but naturally not everything is going to disappear into the water. Most of the bean will be left at the bottom. The rest of the process exists to simply remove the refuse from the solution. What a paper filter or a metal press accomplishes can be hastily simulated by scooping out this refuse with a spoon.

Grinding

So why even buy coffee without grinding it? It's because grinding the coffee bean makes it easier for air and light to turn all those heavenly oils into rancid garbage. In order for oils to go bad in your pantry, they have to interact with oxygen. Oxygen is a gas, so it is only going to be able to interact with the surface of the bean. Grinding the bean increases the surface area, thus increasing the rate of degradation.

If you can help it, try not to grind your beans until you are ready to brew them. If you don't have a grinder, only grind about a week's worth of coffee at a time.

Decaffeination

The process of removing caffeine from coffee is disappointingly simple. If you were like me, you pictured a super lab moving commercial quantities of coffee through a big smoky factory filled with mysterious chemicals.

But ironically, the most cost effective way of removing caffeine is with water itself. The Swiss water method simply involves brewing a cup of coffee without grinding the beans, then recollecting and drying them.

The reason why this works is because caffeine is sort of soluble in water. Additionally, it mostly hangs out on the outside of the bean within all of the oil that was sweated out during the roasting process. Running the bean through hot water leaves the body of the bean in tact while roughly stripping out the caffeine rich layer of oil on the outside.

The unfortunate part about decaffeination is that plenty of other delicious components of coffee are also sort of soluble in water. The Swiss Water method throws out the baby with the bath water, leaving a much less lively tasting coffee with 80% less caffeine.

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Figure 2: Swiss scientists are now exploring the effects of bathing themselves in hot water.

Is 80% decaf really the best that modern science can do? Walter White certainly wouldn't approve of that purity. Certainly not. Caffeine may be sort of soluble in water, but it is even more soluble in carbon dioxide. Coffee beans can be effectively 99% decaffeinated by passing them through a super critical medium of carbon dioxide. Even more appealing, many of the other tasty components in the coffee bean ignore carbon dioxide as a solvent, making the extraction much more exclusive.

So why don't we use this instead? It is because of the super critical part. This means that the carbon dioxide is subject to both insane pressure and insane heat, yielding a big hot gassy-liquid identity crisis. Performing this kind of extraction on a commercial scale means subjecting a humble coffee engineer to the dangers of exploding hot metal and glass.

The Latte

So we have coffee - a beverage which is the end product of passing hot water through ground of coffee cherry pits. Where did all this latte crap come from?

A Fake Story about France

Say you have a bunch of French people sitting around drinking this new coffee drink. They find it bitter, and they only continue to drink it to look fancy. Finally, one of their more clever trendsetters discovers that putting milk into the coffee mellows it out - making it more drinkable.

Some are content with only putting a splash in, but most still find it bitter and watery. They also notice that the more milk you add, the more dilute the coffee tastes. There had to be a way to make the coffee creamier without diluting the coffee!

Scientist began to examine the method. A solution that sounded promising at first was replacing the water with milk. Instead of pouring hot water through the filter, why not use milk instead?

It turns out milk sucks at being water. The milk took much longer to pass through the filter, and it barely took up any of the beans' flavor. Another approach was needed.

Water was necessary - but not as much . The coffee was brewed with as little water as possible, using the extra help of grinding the beans much smaller and forcing the water through a much finer filter. What spit out of the prototype was a powerful, concentrated shot glass amount of coffee. The french were delighted to find that adding milk to this form produced a creamy cup of coffee - fundamentally a cup of coffee with most of the water replaced with milk.

Making the Story Real

None of that actually happened that way. I would never expect a serious group of French scientists to try to pour hot milk through a coffee maker (I tried it with lemonade once. Maybe I was on to something there…). But the components are true to their form. The concentrated coffee in the allegory is espresso . It is concentrated coffee brewed in a shotglass amount of water. It is much stronger, and most prefer to dilute it with hot milk. Doing this yields a latte . Because the milk is heated with steam, froth forms at the top of the drink. When the espresso is diluted with half milk and half foam, this yields a cappuccino .

Every other drink on the Starbucks menu is a modification of these drinks. What happens when you take a latte and add chocolate ? It is a cup of coffee brewed with hot chocolate instead of water. Starbucks calls it a mocha . Add vanilla to make it a vanilla latte. Add hazelnut to make it a hazelnut latte. Finally seeing a pattern?

The Sizes

Tall. Grande. Venti. Starbucks opts to use these words instead of "small", "medium", and "large". I've heard a lot of people see this on our menu and give up on the whole experience - as if learning these three words is the most information they have ever had to commit to memory. The words are there because they are fun. Starbucks customers don't want to feel like they are ordering a diet coke from a 7 Eleven. It just adds to their experience - and since you have no problem turning a blind eye to your 19 year old son binge watching My Little Pony , you should have no problem allowing people to do something that makes them happy that has nothing to do with you.

Just say "small", "medium", and "large". As much trouble as Starbucks gets in for cultivating a culture of arrogance, we just as much love the regulars that trudge in dry wall dust from their work boots and plop down $1.50 for a "small coffee" - exact words.

So no more complaining about those ridiculous sizes at Starbucks, ok? Just be yourself next time.

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Figure 3: And if this guy demands you use his fancy words, you just take your $1.50 elsewhere.

Conclusion

So there is pretty much everything you need to know to get to know your coffee shop. Don't use this knowledge for evil. Always be nice, ask questions when you care about the answer, and don't ever pretend you know all about something when you don't care about it to begin with.

And tip your Baristas, too. At some point of any given day, they probably will have to clean a toilet.