I’ve just spoken to a colleague, who asked me the question, “Is all coffee the same?”. This is someone who drinks coffee daily, but who admits that he’s never really given it much thought other than taking a lid off a jar and spooning it into a mug. He had heard of Robusta and Arabica, but other than that his thoughts were that the difference in coffee was mainly down to branding, and that when all said and done it’s all the same stuff with a different label.
The answer to this question is a mega mammoth hugely massive NO, coffee is not all the same, and the fact that some people think this may be the case just goes to show that there are people who really would benefit from broadening their coffee horizons.
A simple analogy to use to describe just how wrong this statement is, that all coffee is the same, would be to ask how true is it that all wine is the same?
Most people would instantly realise that wine can be made from different grapes, from different blends of grapes, it can be red, white, rose, still, sparkling, and so on – and coffee has even more variants that wine, when you take into account the different brewing methods.
These are the main variations:
The most common species of coffee, are Arabica and Robusta, and most of the coffee consumed will be either a blend of the two, or 100% Arabica. These aren’t the only species, there are more – and for far more info on coffee beans see “coffee beans, what you need to know before you buy them“.
When it comes to Arabica, similarly to grapes & wine, there are lots of different types of coffee plants which produce different tasting coffees.
There are several coffee growing regions known in the coffee industry as “origins”, along what is known as the “Bean Belt” which stretches between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Coffee grown in different coffee growing origins tends to have a different characteristic taste.
The altitude that coffee is grown at makes a bit difference to coffee, and the highest quality coffee is usually the coffee grown at the highest Altitudes.
There are several different processes that coffee producers can use, which means the process of removing the seed (what we know as the bean, it’s actually not a bean) from the cherry, and drying it out. The process used has an effect on the taste.
The roast makes a huge difference to the taste of the coffee, and there are different kinds of roasters. Small batch coffee roasters also known as artisan roasters, roast in smaller batches with all of the emphasis on getting the very best taste from the coffee. Bulk roasting for instant and commodity ground coffee and whole-bean is a different process which often produces a less complex taste, which is why you will usually find a more complex and interesting taste from speciality coffee. There are differing degrees of roasting from light through to dark roast, and it makes a lot of difference to the cup.
Coffee is often blended, there are blends of different beans from the same origin, blends of beans from separate origins, and blends of Arabica and Robusta.
There are several different coffee brewing methods, which also make a difference even when brewing the same coffee. Cafetiere, pourover drip filter such as V60, Kalita, Cafflano, Clever dripper & Chemex. Hybrid methods such as Aeropress & The Oomph. Espresso style coffee makers such as Stove top & Minipresso, electric drip filter machines, espresso machines, Nespresso machines & other single serve coffee makers.
There is then of course instant coffee, which isn’t really a brewing method. Instant coffee is already brewed, and then dried, ready to be rehydrated – so when you make instant coffee, you’re not actually brewing coffee, you’re rehydrating dried coffee that was brewed in bulk.
So why are some people under the impression that all coffee is the same?
In my humble opinion, this is partly the result of the prominence of instant coffee in the UK, and partly due to the fact that most people add milk or sugar, or both.
Instant coffee is coffee which is brewed in large volumes from bulk roasted coffee beans, which is then turned into a powder, usually by freeze drying. So it’s brewed, frozen and smashed up into granules. See the difference between instant and fresh coffee.
Most of us in the UK are introduced to coffee with instant, and in terms of the process of producing instant, I don’t have any issue with it at all – I’m sure that it tastes just the same when re-hydrated at the time it had all the moisture removed. What I don’t like about instant is simply how it usually tastes. To be fair to instant coffee though, I don’t actually think there’s a massive amount of difference between instant coffee and freshly brewed commodity coffee, especially once milk and sugar are added. There is a whole world of difference though between instant or freshly brewed commodity coffee, and freshly brewed freshly roasted speciality coffee.
I’m not saying all instant coffee tastes exactly the same, and in fact instant coffee manufacturers have done some really clever things in recent years, even with instant coffee which appears to have an espresso crema (which is done by mixing very finely ground coffee beans with instant coffee granules). But in my opinion there is usually isn’t a huge amount of difference in taste between one brand of instant and the next, especially once it’s sweetened with milk and sugar or other sweeteners.
If you were under the impression that all coffee is the same, and if you mainly drink instant, and / or supermarket bought coffee that you brew freshly, get hold of some freshly roasted speciality coffee beans from a small batch coffee roaster, brew it fresh – and try it without milk and sugar, and you may change your mind.
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