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The Buzz on Coffee



— April 29, 2017

The Buzz on Coffee

  • Coffee—oh how we love thee. It’s an eye-opener, a social elixir and a comforting ritual. But like the interesting blind date you may have just met at Starbucks, the murky beverage has baggage—a checkered past and worldly origins that hint at international intrigue. Here’s the ‘brew-ha-ha’ behind this potent pick-me-up, plus tips on how to perfect your own small batch.

First, A History Lesson

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.

The Dark Period

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 Vicki Wilson, president of Door Country Coffee (, @dccoffee), a family-owned artisan coffee roaster in Door County, Wisconsin. 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.


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.

Boston Tea Party Ignites

Coffee Craze 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.

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, Ph.D., owner of Coffea Consulting in Honolulu, and author of The Little Coffee Know-ItAll (Quarry:, @QuartoKnows). 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, such as Mr. Coffee, 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, such as Mr. Coffee, are set at 180 degrees, but 200 degrees is optimal because of hotter water yields more flavor,” Steiman says. “It’s just chemical extraction.” 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’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. Pour and enjoy it. “French press makes the best coffee there is, particularly if you start with great coffee,” Wilson says. Because there’s no filter, expect a bit of grit. Another caveat: Studies have shown that long-term French-press coffee consumption can raise LDL cholesterol levels (the “bad” heart-harming type). So, consider it a splurge. 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

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 now for good reason: “It’s fabulous,” says Vicki Wilson of Door Country Coffee. 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. 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 (, @coffeereview). (For more on coffee-induced acidity, see page 73.) “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, says 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. 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, making cold brews off-limits. It’s easy to brew your own cold stuff at home. First, grind high-quality whole beans to the texture of sand. (Wilson starts with Door County Coffee’s elite espresso beans.) 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.”

Beauty Buzz

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; it’s an antioxidant, making it great for anti-aging benefits; and it’s a stimulant, making it ideal for increasing circulation and reducing the appearance of cellulite,” says Alexis Wolfer, author of The Recipe for Radiance (Running Press). 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. The stimulant may live up to the buzz. One study found caffeine to be effective against cellulite because it prevents excessive accumulation of fat in cells. As Wolfer points out, caffeine’s diuretic effects allow it to dehydrate fat cells, making them appear flattered—at least temporarily. (Henderson notes that clinical trials often use higher concentrations of caffeine than those used in most cosmetic products.) In other tests, caffeine has been found to stimulate hair growth; one small study showed that caffeinated shampoo helped slow the rate of hair loss. And although it shouldn’t replace sunscreen, Rutgers Unversity researchers found a caffeine-based lotion to reduce by more than half the number of cancer tumors in hairless mice exposed to UV radiation. However, caffeine might be the only natural ingredient on a label. “Review the other ingredients used in any beauty product,” Henderson says. “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 reduces 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.” – Linda Melone

Is Coffee Good for You?

Coffee has been linked to lower risks of type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and neurological diseases. It may even help you live longer: A study in the journal Circulation analyzed the coffee consumption of 208,501 people for more than 30 years. Those who drank one to five daily cups were less likely to die prematurely than non-coffee drinkers. Caffeine boosts brainpower, makes you feel more vigorous and improves mood. It blocks the action of adenosine, a compound in the brain that promotes sleep. Blood levels of caffeine peak about 30 to 45 minutes after consumption. But don’t gulp down two cups first thing to turbocharge your day. One study found that an average of 300 milligrams of caffeine (equivalent to three cups of coffee) consumed throughout the day is optimal for most people for peak mental and physical performance. If coffee makes you feel jittery, keeps you up at night or gives you heartburn, go easy. Remember that the darker the roast, the lower the acidity, or you can look for a low-acid brand or products such as Coffee Tamer, which helps reduce the acid without killing the taste. You should also consider cutting your coffee intake if you are, or want to be, pregnant. Consumption of more than four daily cups by either partner may increase the risk of miscarriage or low birth weight. Still, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists maintains that moderate consumption— less than 200 milligrams of caffeine per day—is safe for most pregnant women.

Hot Property

Coffee beans are grown near the equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 60 countries. “The coffee belt is really the center of the world,” Wilson says. 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,” Wilson says. “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. They’re 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.

Decaf Deconstructed

Coffee beans naturally contain caffeine. To make decaf, caffeine is extracted.

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.

Coffeehouses Rule

Not to dis Starbucks—you can find an SBUX practically anywhere, for starters—but java lovers can only applaud the growth of coffeehouse culture, in which local establishments serve up the good stuff along with a place to hear local bands or poets, or where you can simply hang and check your feed. Here are some favorites from cities across the country.

Baltimore, MD

Nell Fultz, 30 Paralegal, and law student

Dovecote Café 2501 Madison Ave #1F

Why It’s The Best: Great food, coffee, and wifi, extra points for the lovely employees and atmosphere. You never feel like you’re hanging around for too long nor do you feel uncomfortable doing a coffee grab-and-go.

Katie Blaha, 29 Assistant Alumni Director at McDonogh School in Owings Mills

Artifact Coffee 1500 Union Ave

Why It’s The Best: It offers the three things I look for: parking, fresh local products, and ingredients that are of great quality, and the quintessential rustic, cozy ambiance you want when you enter a coffeehouse. The staff is incredibly friendly and accommodating.

Ryan Bandell, 27, Real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Columbia

Firehouse Coffee Company 1030 S Linwood Ave contact via Facebook

Why It’s The Best: The employees are very friendly and welcoming. Evan, the owner, is a local guy who relates to a lot of the patrons, and the atmosphere he has created is great. Their coffee and breakfast wraps are fresh and amazing!


Common Ground Café and Coffee 819 W 36th St,

Daily Grind 1720 Thames St

Order & Chaos Coffee 1410 Key Hwy

Charlotte, NC

Ryan Foreman, 26 Financial analyst

Central Coffee Company 719 Louise Ave 704-335-7288

Why It’s The Best: The location is perfect, walking distance from home, and it’s a great atmosphere to chill with a laptop. The crowd is eclectic— it’s not a typical hipster coffee shop—and they make great black coffee and breakfast casseroles.

Elaney Katsafanis, 35 Emergency management planner

Smelly Cat Coffeehouse 514 E 36th St

Why It’s The Best: It’s got a fun vibe, different from the corporate feel of larger coffee chains. Staff is always willing to offer suggestions if I’m undecided before my first dose of caffeine. It’s a great place to hide out and read a book or work on a project.

Zoe Zink, 17 Student

Sunflour Bakery 2001 E 7th St

Why It’s The Best: Great music, great coffee, and really good food. The vegan banana-and-chocolate-chip muffin is to die for. I go at least once a week to hang out.


Amelie’s NoDa 2424 N Davidson St #102

Not Just Coffee 224 E 7th St

Waterbean Coffee 616 N Tryon St

Denver, CO

Jess Ryan, 26, Community manager and tech industry writer

Wash Perk 853 E Ohio Ave

Why It’s The Best: I’m pretty much obsessed with Wash Perk. I always feel welcome, whether meeting up with friends or crocheting solo, and there are plenty of outlets for people who work on their laptops. Try the honey cinnamon latte—it’s unreal.

Jennifer Cormier, 28, Digital marketing program manager

The White Whale Room 415 S Cherokee St #125

Why It’s The Best: I love how they offer something for everyone, but my favorite is their chai lattes. The funky décor and patio make it an awesome place to chill after work or to meet friends for a quick drink.

Josh Ortega, 34 Works in marketing

Bardo Coffee 238 S Broadway

Why It’s The Best: It’s an ideal place to study or work if you don’t mind sharing tables. It’s a great spot to meet people and crowdsource ideas. Plus, it’s open until 1 a.m. on weekdays and until 3 a.m. on weekends.


Amethyst Coffee 1111 Broadway #101

Hunter Bay Coffee Roasters 5600 Olde Wadsworth Blvd, Arvada contact via Facebook

Purple Door Coffee 2962 Welton St

Los Angeles, CA

Hillary Jackson, 24 Freelance writer

Jones Coffee Roasters Two Pasadena locations

Why It’s The Best: The coffee and atmosphere are presented in beautiful, minimalistic ways. Space lends itself to high productivity or good conversation.

Eric Espino, 34 Cofounder of travel tech startup TourMega

Haus by Coffee Hunter 3826 W 6th St

Why It’s The Best: This bustling coffee shop is largely known for its desserts and chill atmosphere. It’s a coffee snob spot without the snobbery.

Jane Chung, 31 Healthcare company project manager

Maru 1936 Hillhurst Ave, Los Feliz

Why It’s The Best: The clean and bright minimalist interior, coupled with perfect natural lighting, makes for a really nice experience. The baristas and shop owners are passionate about their craft.


Go Get Em Tiger Two LA locations

Paper or Plastick 5772 W Pico Blvd

Tierra Mia 10 SoCal locations

Miami Beach, FL

Matt Wilson, 31 Bartender at Twist

Ocoas Breeze 1147 Washington Ave (305) 531-7833

Why It’s The Best: There’s a little window on this storefront where you pay $2 for this great Cuban coffee in this little white cup. It will keep you up all night, and all of us bartenders go there before work. The coffee wires you, and you talk all night, which is essential in this line of work. And you don’t have to drink a lot of it.

Alexander Smith, 25 Hotel bellman

Primo Café 3924 Collins Ave (305) 674-1886

Why It’s The Best: I know the folks there and I always have a great laugh in there. They keep me entertained. And, not to lie, I enjoy the women. They’ve also got great Cuban sandwiches, empanadas, and pastries. Their Cuban coffee’s got a nice kick, and it lasts.

Monique Polk, 25 Lingerie retail sales

Puerto Sagua 700 Collins Ave (305) 673-1115

Why It’s The Best: Café con leche is their signature drink. Every morning there’s a long line for it. It’s Cuban coffee and it’s strong, but not over-the-top strong. It’s just enough for me.


La Locanda 419 Washington Ave

Shepherd Artisan Coffee 919 Collins Ave

The Local House 400 Ocean Dr

Brooklyn, NY

Emilia Wojdylak, 26 Photographer

The Little Choc Apothecary 141 Havemeyer St

Why It’s The Best: It has a really nice seating area upstairs where you can work with a laptop or have lunch with a friend. There’s a lot of vegan food; I’m not vegan, but it helps me explore other foods.

Lauren Carpenter, 34 Account executive, Design Within Reach

Colson Patisserie 253 36th St

Why It’s The Best: They use Stumptown Roasters, which is good coffee, and make their pastries in house. The vibe is fun and they play alternative music. After having a card stamped nine times, you get a free coffee.

Jessica Meany, 30 Apparel industry worker

Brooklyn Kolache Co 520 Dekalb Ave

Why It’s The Best: They sell little kolache pastries from eastern Europe. Their beans are roasted in Brooklyn—I like that it’s a locally owned business.


Devocion 69 Grand St

Freehold 35 S 3rd St

Parkette 4022 5th Ave

Portland, OR

Zemie Barr, 32 Gallerist

Pearl Bakery 102 NW 9th Ave

Why It’s The Best: Friendly staff, strong coffee, and to-die-for almond cake.

Joshua Bruno, 27 Assistant program officer

Simple.Local.Coffee 115 SW Ash St @local.simple

Why It’s The Best: The great service and the coffee’s nutty flavor.

Steven Parton, 29 Web developer

Rocking Frog Café 2511 SE Belmont St

Why It’s The Best: Zero pretention and a beautiful bamboo garden.


Coffee Time 712 NW 21st Ave

Deadstock Coffee 408 N Couch St

Sisters Coffee Company 1235 NW Marshall St portland-pearl-marshall

An $18 Cup of Coffee Brews in Brooklyn

It is barely a month after the Extraction Lab coffeehouse opened its Brooklyn doors, and the P.R. surrounding what is being pegged as the country’s most expensive cup of coffee is as hot as the brew. So hot, in fact, that the $18 cup of Semeon Abay coffee is temporarily sold out. So I opt for a $14.75 cup of joe instead— Extraction Lab’s Panama-grown variety dubbed Stephanos Domatiotis.

A red-headed barista leans across a table so I can sniff the grinds she holds before she brews them in the company’s special machine, called a Steampunk. The aroma of candy drifts up, not an overwhelming cotton-candy sweetness but something more subtle and appealing, something I could keep beneath my nose for a while. Once brewed, the coffee retains its subtle sweet aroma but with notes of lavender. Despite being served black, the recommendation of Chief Executive Thomas Perez, the coffee is gentle and smooth.

Alpha Dominche, the parent company of Extraction Lab, started its business as a maker of the Steampunk machines that do the brewing. The machines, which the company sells to other coffeehouses, cost up to $15,000. The machine doles out coffee based on precisely configured algorithms digitally controlled via a barista’s tablet. It looks like an industrial beaker of sorts, which fits in nicely—as does the coffee house’s minimalist, hip design with the Brooklyn warehouse district that houses the space.

But the double-digit cost of Extraction Lab’s coffee is owed to the bean, not the machine. Extraction Lab sources the beans for its higher-end coffees from Ninety Plus, which grows a varietal of coffee called gesha in the highlands of Panama, where there is a perfect trifecta of conditions—soil, topography, and climate.

“The yield is relatively low,” explains Perez. “Only ripe cherries are picked, which drives the price up.”

But don’t worry about emptying your wallet—Extraction Lab also brews coffee that costs a mere $3 a cup.

The digital precision of the coffeehouse’s Steampunk machine doesn’t mean the human touch is lacking at Extraction Lab. The long table between barista and consumer is narrow and houses the machines, so there’s plenty of talk about how that cup o’ joe is made. It’s a coffee klatch on so many levels. —Allan Richter

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