Coffee for Beginners
a definitive guide to making, and enjoying, a good cup of coffee
Preparing a cup of coffee doesn’t have to be difficult, and in fact, there are a number of simple preparations. Easy peasy. But, I’ve been brewing java for over fifty years, so of course I think it’s a simple process.
I forget about the fact that I’ve acquired knowledge and specific tastes over the years. And there is so much diversity, between the types of coffee, the strength of the brew, the method of the brew…it can be overwhelming.
So, if you’re just tippy-toeing into the coffee-drinking world, this simple yet thorough guide was created for you. Think of it as Coffee for Beginners, the Definitive Guide.
The goal of this guide is two-fold. First, to provide a little bit of history and helpful information. I think it helps to know some of the why of what you’re doing. And second, to guide you through the process of making a cup of good coffee in a way that is helpful, not too full of java jargon, and thorough without going down the road of TMI.
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Origins of coffee
THE LEGEND: It's kind of fun to check out the legend behind the practice, so let's begin with popular coffee lore about the origins of coffee. Because, why not?
It seems that a goat herder named Kaldi found his goats frolicking and full of energy after eating a particular red fruit. So, Kaldi decided to try some for himself, and lo and behold, he also abounded with energy. This was witnessed by a monk who decided to try this fruit, along with his monk friends. Yep, you guessed it. This red fruit kept them awake and alert at night.
This was due to the caffeine content in the coffee, which was, of course, the mystery 'red fruit'.
THE HISTORY: Before it is processed, coffee looks like a cherry type of fruit, with the bean being at the center. In the early days, the fruit was mixed with animal fat to create a type of snack bar.
The fermented pulp was used to make a wine-like drink at one point, and around 1000 A.D. another drink was prepared using the whole coffee fruit - beans, hull, and all.
The actual roasting of the coffee bean began in the 13th century, and that evolved into the process we use to make coffee today.
THE NAME: Another question that many ask is, how did coffee get it's name? It's theorized that the term is rooted in the Ethiopian word for coffee bean, or bunna. That word morphed into the Arabic phrase Gahhwat al-Bun, which means wine of the bean.
This phrase was then Gahwa/Kahway/Qahwa, then to the Turkish word Kahve. The Italians changed it to caffe and then, finally, it became the English term, coffee.
So here we are today with our guide, Coffee for Beginners - the Definitive Guide. This beverage has traveled a long way!
Caffeine or decaf?
Whether to drink caffeinated coffee or opt for the decaf version is a personal decision, and one that may be influenced by other health factors.
That being said, if you're here at Coffee for Beginners - 101 because you sincerely want to learn how to make a good cup of coffee at home, there is no decision to be made. Caffeinated, baby, caffeinated.
Let's' compare the caffeine in a regular cup of coffee to a cup of decaf. There are about 100 milligrams of caffeine in an 8 ounce cup of coffee. In general, it is thought that consuming about 400 milligrams, or 3 to 4 cups of coffee per day, is okay. Remember that caffeine is found in other foods and beverages, too, such as chocolate, tea, and some soft drinks and energy drinks.
Compare that to decaffeinated coffee, where it would take 5 to 10 cups of decaf to ingest the same amount of caffeine in 1 or 2 cups of regular coffee.
When might it be a wise decision to opt for decaf coffee?
If you are pregnant, or suffer from:
Ultimately, it is up to you and your physician to determine if caffeine intake will affect your health. I'm a healthy person and generally make life choices in moderation, so I take care to keep my coffee consumption to 3 cups per day, and always go for the caffeine!
Quality counts with coffee
All coffee is NOT created alike, and as you acquire a taste for your perfect cup of java, you'll find that you prefer a certain type of roast, or brand, or method. Let's look at some of the details...
One important fact to remember is that coffee is a perishable food, and as such will have a 'best by' or 'use by' date. It doesn't last forever, friends.
Good thing to remember #2: Choosing whole bean coffee over pre-ground will make a significant difference in the taste and overall coffee experience. When coffee is pre-ground it will go stale quicker. Grinding your own brew doesn't take long and the results are so worth the effort.
And, I've come to really enjoy the process of brewing my coffee using freshly ground beans. It's a bit of a 'thing' for me to make the coffee.
Finally, you might want to see if there are local coffee roasters (check coffee shops and smaller markets) and what they have to offer. Usually, they love to tell you about their roast, answer questions, and help you make a tasty cup of java.
Get to know your beans
Here's an interesting fact. When you drink a cup of coffee, most likely you're enjoying one of two types of coffee beans: Arabica or Robusta. There are dozens of varieties, but only two that really matter.
Arabica coffee beans represent about 70% of the beans used in coffee production today, so it is by far the most dominant bean. The beans are more oval and flat in shape, and are considered to be the merlot of coffee, with a mild, smooth taste, light and airy, and a little bit of sweetness as well as a higher acidity level.
Grown in higher altitudes most of the time, it takes arabica beans about seven years to fully mature.
You'll find the majority of gourmet coffees to be high quality, mild varieties of arabica.
Robusta coffee beans represent about 30% of global coffee production, and are characterized by a stronger, harsher taste than their counterpart, as well as a peanutty aftertaste. In contrast to arabica beans, robusta beans are slightly smaller and rounder in shape.
Robusta beans have less oils in them than arabica, so they naturally have an earthy, heavier flavor, sometimes bitter.
In general, robusta coffee beans are considered to be of inferior quality to arabica, although some are valued for their deep flavor and good crema in espresso. Note, too, that robusta beans have twice the caffeine as arabica, and are typically used in espresso blends as well as the production of instant coffee.
Why do you want to know these facts about arabica and robusta coffee? Well, coffee preferences are very personal. If, as you develop your particular likes you find that a lighter, sweeter taste is what you prefer, you'll probably gravitate to an arabica blend.
Check the label of any brand or roast of coffee and you'll know what type of beans it is made from.
Here are a few examples of best-selling arabica coffee. If you read the description you can get a feel for the anticipated taste of the coffee. And, as you can see, the amount of coffee in the package, as well as the price, vary greatly:
- One 2.2 lb. bag of Lavazza L'Espresso Gran Aroma whole coffee beans
- Delicate and aromatic espresso with chocolate undertones and a delicate crema
- Non-GMO, 100% Arabica
- Blended and roasted in Italy
- Best used with espresso machine or moka pot; also suitable with drip coffee maker and French press
- 100% PREMIUM ARABICA – Our medium roast whole bean coffee is a 100% Arabica coffee with a smooth, delicious flavor and amazing aroma. Each cup is a truly satisfying experience!
- MEDIUM ROASTED – Our Koloa Estate Medium Roast ground coffee delivers a bright aroma with light floral notes, making it the perfect cup of coffee to drink, day or night.
- WHOLE COFFEE BEANS – Grinding your own coffee provides a delicious, stronger flavor. Our dark roast whole coffee beans are roasted to perfection and ready to be freshly ground!
- ECO-FRIENDLY – From growing the coffee to roasting and packaging, we employ sustainable, environmentally sound practices throughout every step of the process.
- HAWAII’S LARGEST COFFEE GROWER – Kauai Coffee is Hawaii’s largest coffee grower. We have just about 4 million coffee trees grown on 3,100 acres – a true Hawaiian coffee estate!
- Classico Medium Roast: Composed of 9 of the finest Arabica coffee sources worldwide, Classico, Medium Roast is our classic roast coffee has a lingering sweetness and delicate notes of caramel, orange blossom and jasmine.
- World’s Most Ethical Coffee: illy caffè was named on Ethisphere’s list for the seventh consecutive year, among just a handful of honorees in the beverage industry, highlighting illy’s achievement of leading with integrity.
- 100% Arabica Coffee: We could offer you every roast and blend under the sun, but we’d rather give you the perfect one. We’ve spent eight decades refining a singular, signature blend of ground coffee—celebrated as the pinnacle of what coffee can be.
- Unique Pressurized Coffee Packaging: Our unique pressurized packagaing preserves the flavor and complexity of the illy blend while enhancing the coffee’s aroma and ensuring optimal freshness.
- Sip. Savor. Be Inspired: illy believes in sustainable quality and boasts more than 30 years dedicated to perfecting coffee bean growing methods to obtain a harvest that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable and responsible.
Fresh, whole beans, please
Am I a coffee snob? Yes. Do I grind my own coffee beans? Yes, most of the time. But I also purchased and used pre-ground coffee for many years. (I consider coffee pods in a unique category because although it is technically ground coffee, it is also prepared and packaged in a way that enhances the freshness).
So, grinding your own beans is my suggestion, because you'll get the freshest taste. Honestly, there's no comparison.
But if the thought of purchasing a coffee grinder just doesn't fit your lifestyle, budget, or preferences, you can certainly brew a tasty cup of coffee using pre-ground. Again, experiment and see what level of brew you prefer. More on that below.
Understand the roast
Generally, there are three types of coffee roasts: light, medium, and dark.
LIGHT ROAST: A light roast is usually lighter in color and milder in taste. You won't find oil on the surface because the beans have not been roasted long enough for the oils to break through to the surface.
MEDIUM ROAST: A stronger taste, medium brown color, and non-oily surface characterize a medium coffee roast. Many times it is referred to as American roast because it's generally preferred in the U.S.
DARK ROAST: Dark roasted beans are roasted long enough to develop their oils and bring them to the surface, so the body of the coffee will be thicker. The flavors are bolder and straight-forward.
My suggestion? If you are a true coffee novice, it doesn't mean that you only will want to try a light roast coffee. Brew some of each type of roast and see what you palette prefers.
My palette prefers a strong, bold coffee brew that is also smooth. So when I search for coffee, that is my goal. At the top of my java list right now is Peet's - Major Dickason's blend. It ticks all the boxes for me.
Invest in some coffee gear
The goal of Coffee for Beginners, the Definitive Guide, is to keep things simple for a coffee novice. So I'm not going to regale you with every type, size, method, and cost of coffee brewing equipment (or, as the really cool people say, gear) because I think it's overwhelming at this point.
Instead, I'm suggesting three coffee brewing methods:
Standard coffee maker
Ah, the coffee maker. The staple of many a kitchen for years. It's simple, easy to operate (coffee+filter, water, flip the switch), and can be oh-so-budget friendly.
You can spend anywhere from about $25 to hundreds of dollars. At the high end, your coffee maker will do just about everything except put the brewed coffee to your lips.
As a coffee novice, and one who might not want to invest hundreds of dollars into the gear, here is a highly rated coffee maker that will fit nicely into the 'coffee for beginners' category:
- Brew two ways: Enjoy either a single-serve cup (travel mug not included) or full pot of coffee with the 12-cup carafe.
- Fully programmable: Wake up to a hot cup of coffee with fully programmable functionality and auto-shutoff.
- Adjusts to your cup: Can brew directly into the carafe, a travel mug (not included) or a short cup (not included)
- Convenient single-serve: Brew a cup for one using loose, ground coffee.
- Smart features: Includes brew strength selector (regular or bold), keep-hot warming plate and more.
With almost 10,000 customer reviews and a rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars as of this writing, this Hamilton Beach 2-Way Brewer will serve up a single cup, ready for dashing out the door (or sipping on it at home), or up to 12 cups of coffee.
It's well-priced and proven.
If a smaller, compact unit is what you're considering, here are the best 4-cup coffee makers as rated right here at The Coffee Files.
My suggestion? If you are "drinking alone", use the single cup option. If you make several cups of coffee and let it sit in the pot for hours, it's gross. Just sayin'.
Standard single cup coffee maker
I've been a single cup coffee maker girl for almost a decade. They're convenient as you can get, quick, many models don't take up a lot of space, and in general, they product a tasty cup of coffee.
So, I felt that this option needed to be included in the Coffee for Beginners guide. A single cupper will give you a nice and easy option for trying a number of different blends and strengths of coffee in a budget-friendly way.
My advice is to stay with a proven, highly rated name brand. I've gone down the other road of the inexpensive yet unknown model, as well as the name brands, so I have experience with both.
What's the #1 recommendation from me? Hands down, it's this one:
- Brews multiple k-cup pod sizes: (6, 8, 10 ounce) – the most popular k-cup pod brew sizes. Use the 6 ounce brew size to achieve the strongest brew.
- Large 48 ounce water reservoir: Allows you to brew 6+ cups before having to refill, saving you time and simplifying your morning routine. The water reservoir is removable, making it easy to refill whenever you need to.
- Descaling: An important part of cleaning your keurig brewer. This process helps to remove calcium deposits, or scale, that can build up inside a coffee maker over time.
- Auto-off: An auto-off feature is easily programmed to turn off your coffee maker after it has been idle for two hours, helping to save energy.
- Simple button controls: Just insert a pod, select your desired cup brew size, and brew a great-tasting cup in under a minute.
The Keurig K-Classic Coffee Maker is rated 4.4 out of 5 by almost 21,000 customers as of this writing. That is a LOT of satisfied folks. My experience was definitely positive with Keurig. Easy to use, easy to keep clean, and you can find Keurig coffee pods in just about any brand.
Yes, the coffee is already ground when put into the pod. The process for roasting and grinding coffee for K-Cups is very different than the ground coffee you'd purchase at the store. And that's how a really tasty cup of coffee can be achieved.
If you'll regularly make one cup of coffee at a time, and are inclined to go with simplicity and efficiency, a single cup coffee maker just makes sense!
A couple of comments about the Keurig coffee pods. You can recycle the cups. Depending on your location and the brand of coffee purchased, there might be a pull-off tab that makes it really simple to discard the little filter and recycle the cup. By the end of 2020 Keurig hopes to produce all of their K-cups this way.
In the meantime, you can purchase this handy little gadget that easily removes the top of the K-cup.
I created a quick how-to video a while back, if you want to take a look:
Pour Over method
This simple brewing method produces a clean cup of coffee that you can really taste. No packaging, no coffee maker mechanics... just you, the beans, the filter, and the cup.
Here is a very simple step-by-step (you can learn much more about pour over coffee and watch my video here):
- Generally, you'll use two tablespoons of coffee per 6 ounces of water, more or less to suit your preferences. The typical coffee scoop holds two tablespoons. For me, two scoops gives me the strength I want.
- Grind just enough for this cup of coffee
- Place a cone filter (usually #2 unless your pour over is larger) in the ceramic cone, and put the ground coffee in the cone
- Place the ceramic cone over your coffee cup
- Heat your water (your preferred amount of 6, 8, 10, or however many ounces you want) to 195-200 degrees Fahrenheit.
- When the water is ready, pour just enough water in to cover the grounds. Then...wait about 30 seconds. The coffee will 'bloom' and give you a tastier experience. The aroma is amazing!
- Then, pour about half of the water slowly into the cone, starting around the edges and working your way in...and let it drip through to the cup. Be patient and give it a minute...this is where the magic happens.
- Slowly pour the rest of the water into the cone and let it drip through to the cup
Using the pour over method does't have to cost a lot of money. I've put together some examples of the tools you'll need to efficiently prepare a single cup of pour over coffee.
If you don't want to mess with filters there are a lot of options using a reusable filter cone pour over.
Try a few methods
There are a number of nifty coffee making methods, and they deserve a mention in this Coffee for Beginners Definitive Guide!
We've already seen the affordability and efficiency of a standard coffee maker, a single cup coffee maker, and the pour over coffee method.
A french press produces an interesting, full-bodied cup of coffee. It's a little bit of a process, but still very simple and quite fun. All you need is the french press, ground coffee, hot water, and a timer. Want the details? Here's a simple tutorial for preparing a tasty cup of french press coffee.
A stove top percolator may bring back some nostalgic memories, maybe even sitting around the campfire with the percolator on the gas stove. In any event, it's yet another method for brewing a cup of coffee at home. If you enjoy a retro feel to your experiences, percolating your coffee on the stove is a method to consider.
Take notes and learn what you prefer
Brewing a fresh, tasty cup of coffee isn't rocket science, but if you're a newbie to the world of java, it could seem a bit overwhelming at first.
If you're going to try several different methods of brewing your coffee, but sure to write down what you thought about that process. What appealed to you? What didn't you like?
The same goes for the brand and strength of the coffee you try. Trust me, my friend. If you don't make a note of what you enjoyed, why you enjoyed it, or why you didn't care for it, they're all going to become one big caffeinated blur.
Allow your palette some time to create preferences, enjoy the process of making the coffee, and most of all, take a few minutes (or more) to savor the java.
Then, before you know it, you'll be brewing coffee like a pro!
Candi Randolph is a coffee lover, blogger, and content creator who loves to share her knowledge with the coffee-drinking world. You'll often find her tending to her coffee bar at home, deciding which method to use to brew her next cup of java. Life is full of important decisions.