Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Get Your Coffee Fix While Living Abroad

October 1st, 2015 is International Coffee Day! I've heard it said that water is essential to life because it is used to make coffee. If you agree, then this is the post for you! I'm going to cover the whole chain, starting from where coffee is the drink of choice to exploring the differences between the variety of coffee beans (Arabica vs Robusta), the types of grinds (course vs fine), the different brewing processes (French press vs cold pour vs Keurig, etc), and the several ways to serve it up (adding sugar, milk, etc).

If you want to skip to a particular section:
Turkish coffee from our recent trip to Istanbul
Who Prefers Coffee to Tea
The world can be roughly divided into counties that prefer coffee or tea, and there is a high correlation with those that prefer ground and instant coffee. Where instant coffee is more common, tea is preferred. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about that. We live in Saudi Arabia, which you might think would prefer the Arabica bean variety but you'd be wrong: they prefer tea here...So I usually end up with instant at the office and grinding imported beans at home when I get my hands on them.
Country preference: Coffee or Tea
Country preference: Fresh or Instant Coffee
Why does this matter? Well, when you find yourself moving from country to country like we do, maintaining a daily ritual like making a cup of coffee becomes an almost a zen-like meditation in the refining of an art-form. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a coffee snob. I'm far more interested in being able to make a good cup of coffee than I am in telling people that I've tried kopi luwak (which I haven't, BTW). So that's why I've assembled the following coffee guides, tips, and tricks to help you make the best cuppa joe wherever you are.


Whether for tea or coffee, these kettles heat up the water:


Coffee Bean Varieties
The most common bean is the Arabica bean variety. There's quite an interesting history on how the coffee bean spread around the world, but it kinda started right around the corner from where I'm living now.
Geographical distribution of production for the different kinds of coffees
(r : robusta, a : arabica, m : robusta & arabica). (
Source)
Probably the most interesting thing to gather from the map above is that much of Africa produces coffee, yet if you look back at the section on who prefers coffee to tea, Africa largely doesn't drink coffee. But I know that coffee is culturally important to Ethiopia, so I guess that's something you can talk about over your next half double-decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon ... if that sort of thing is your cup of tea.

Speaking of decaf, have you ever wondered how they grow decaffeinated coffee beans? Well, they don't. There is a process to decaffeinate coffee (actually, several processes).

As long as I'm talking about sourcing, you may have heard about sustainable coffee which includes terms like "organic," "fair trade," and "Rainforest Alliance." Basically, it's boils down to making sure that farmers benefit from their crops and that the crops don't damage the environment. It's worthwhile to read up on, but not the subject of this particular post.

Types of Grinds
Now that you know about the bean, you probably want to know if it makes any real difference in how it's ground. Yes! If you've ever put espresso grounds into a French press, you'll know that the grind and the brewing process need to be coordinated.
How choose the right grind and brewing method for your coffee
(Source)
In practice, the finer grinds require more expensive equipment, which is why the course grounds used in a French press make it one of the easier brewing methods. If you want to actually see what I'm talking about between course and fine grinds, I found this great visual comparing coffee grinds.

This is an excellent and inexpensive grinder


Brewing Processes
There are several processes used to get the coffee (and caffeine) from the bean into the cup. Here are examples of the general categories that most brewing methods fall into.

The Keurig (Steeper Vacuum)
Now, you may have heard that Americans like to drink bad coffee, and I admit that the convenience of a Keurig is something straight out of a science fiction replicator. But, as we found out during our first move after buying one, Keurig machines with inner tanks do not travel well because you can never really get the water out. Which means that they will either leak on the stuff they get shipped with or something might grow inside it during storage. Neither of which you want to deal with before your first cup of coffee. Not to mention that it's got electronics that are probably can't make the transition between 110V and 220V. That's why we picked up a French press.

One of the best additions to our Keurig system (when we had it), was the little reusable filter that allowed us to get fresher beans than what came in the standard boxes. It was a little thing that made a big difference.

Two of the more popular reusable K-cup replacements

The French Press (Steeping)
Admittedly, the French press initially seemed like extra effort to me, what with having to put a teapot on the stove instead of just hitting a button on a machine. But here's the thing: if you're living somewhere that you have to boil water anyways, now you don't need electricity. Also, if you're getting your drinking water out of a water cooler, many of them pre-heat the water so well that you'll be hard pressed to get 5 scoops of grounds measured out before the teapot is whistling and ready to pour. It's money well spent, I think.

These are two of the top French presses on Amazon:

Pour Over / Drip
This what you think of as your standard office coffee pot. Put the grounds in the filter, and pour the water into the machine, and it drips down into the carafe. As you may well know from experience, there's always one person who makes it way too weak or someone that prefers it way too strong. I think this is why the single serving size Keurig K-cups came into being. That said, I've seen folks at the office put a filter over a coffee mug, load some grounds on top, and pour hot water (from an electric teapot) over it to make a single-serving pour over.

You might have also heard about iced coffee and cold-pour coffee. If I want cool coffee, I usually just pour myself a cup and let it cool off in the fridge, but there's plenty of info out there about iced coffee and cold-pour coffee brewing techniques.

Pressure / Vacuum
The Aeropress is probably the best example of this particular method that can be used practically anywhere. It's effectively squeezing/pulling the caffeine and flavor out of the grounds. Like most coffee-related activities, there is a lot of tweaking that goes on. NPR even ran a story about how Aeropress fans are hacking their way to a better cup of coffee. I have one for those times I want an espresso, but it's more of a treat than a daily drink for me. Also, the fine grounds require a good filtering system to using this method, so if you're out of filters, you're out of luck. That said, it's very portable and great for strong coffee for one or two people at a time.


Mix It Up: New Ways to Serve Coffee
So, now you might be wondering: "Ok, so now that I have made my coffee, how should I serve it?" For starters, here's how the rest of the world drinks coffee. There are various things you can put into your coffee, like cream, sugar, milk, chocolate, etc...though I refuse to put butter in my coffee. My personal favorite blend is the "Weiner Melange" served with cocoa. In a pinch, I've been known use a hot cocoa mix packet as my creamer (like I said earlier, I'm no coffee snob).
Perfect ratios for 38 different cups of coffee
(Follygraph.com)
Now, achieving the any sort of foam for your drink requires some additional tool, but I have found that the battery-powered Aerolatte does a respectable job. Here's a tip: creams and higher-fat content milks make for much better foams than skim or non-dairy milks like almond or soy. Just remember to leave enough room for the foam to expand or you'll have it flying out of the cup and onto the wall, counter, cat, etc.

Summary
If you live where tea is the drink of choice, expect to drink a lot of instant coffee. If you live where coffee beans are common, you have a number of options. We went with a French press because it doesn't require any additional filters or electricity and works with coursely ground beans. Using a grinder to achieve a fine grind, we use an Aeropress to make espresso and an Aerolatte frother if we're looking to top our drink with something foamy. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for a coffee break.

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