Wake Up!

People drink coffee all the time, but most don’t really know what it is or how it is made. Most think it’s just roasted beans that have been ground and have hot water poured through them. While that a simple explanation, there is so much more.


The legend goes back to about 800 A.D., when an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats eating the coffee cherry and dancing around. Kaldi tried a cherry and noticed the energizing effect as well. He took a branch to a nearby monastery where the monks brewed the cherries but their efforts met a bitter outcome. The monks tossed the branch into the fire and the wonderful aroma of roasted coffee was born.

The process evolved over time to end up where it is today: Ripe cherries are picked, the pair of pits or beans are removed from the cherry and beans are roasted, ground, steeped in hot water and strained.


Coffee grows in the coffee belt, between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Hawaii is the only U.S. state with a coffee crop. The cherries are harvested and sorted (they don’t all ripen at the same time). Through one of two common methods, the pits or beans are removed from the cherries and dried natural or wet. In the dry method, the beans are laid out in the sun for up to four weeks. After removal of the outer pulp and inner skin, or mucilage, the green or unroasted beans inside are ready to roast. The wet process removes the outer pulp with a machine and, after a short fermentation, the mucilage can be removed. Wet-process beans are ready after a much shorter drying period.

Roasting, in theory, seems like a fairly simple process but there are numerous factors to consider as the beans are roasted. Knowing those factors is what separates those who toss beans in the oven until they are brown from an expert roaster who is creating artisanal coffee.


Most people think espresso has been around in Italy forever. In the larger scheme of things, though, it has only been around a short period of time. The first record of espresso was in 1901. Luigi Bezzera created a coffee machine that would make individual cups of coffee fast. (Espresso roughly translates to “fast” or “quickly” in Italian — an express process.)

The keys to brewing espresso are pressure, temperature, time and grind. If you have an espresso machine, the pressure (about 9 bars or 130 psi), and temperature (about 203 degrees Fahrenheit), are standard. There is a direct correlation between the time that the pressurized hot water takes to go through the portafilter and the grind of the coffee. The finer the grind, the longer it takes to go though; the coarser the grind, the quicker it brews. The sweet spot is around 30 seconds; this allows ample extraction of flavor, color, body, aroma and caffeine. Too little time and your espresso falls short of your expectations; too long and you’re left with a bitter, sludgy mess.

Frothing Milk

Many baristas have turned the act of frothing and foaming milk into an art form. They can top off your cappuccino with foamed milk creations of flowers, hearts and other designs. With a few basic steps, you can froth your own milk on an espresso machine with a steam wand; the art may take a bit more practice.

The cold milk must first be frothed or stretched. This process is done with the steam nozzle only a half-inch or an inch below the surface with a slight up and down motion to aerate the milk. Once the milk has reached the desired aeration (more for cappuccinos and less for lattés), the steam wand can go to the bottom of the pitcher for further heating. Optimal milk temperature is between 140 and 155 degrees. The easiest way to determine temperature is by holding your hand on the side of the pitcher. When the side is too hot to hold, you are in the correct range. Rap the pitcher on the counter to release large air bubbles, and you are ready to go.

Depending on the type of drink you are making, you can let the milk rest or pour right away. Cappuccinos require a much higher ratio of foam, so they can be poured right away. Lattés should have a higher ratio of steamed milk to foam, so 30 to 45 seconds of resting time helps set the top froth and lets the steamed milk sink to the bottom of the pitcher.

Columbia is blessed with lots of coffeehouses that serve espresso, as well as two local roasters (Lakota Coffee Co. in The District and Z-Best Coffee in Sturgeon). You don’t have to have an espresso machine to appreciate espresso. Even though it may only take a few minutes, you can appreciate what your barista does for you each day.

Java Jargon

Expand your coffee knowledge with this glossary of terms:

Barista: Person in charge of operating an espresso machine in a café or coffeehouse. Some cafés require the baristas to train for more than a year before being allowed to run the machine on their own.

Cappuccino: Espresso drink based on thirds: one-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foamed milk.

Latté: One part espresso, two parts steamed milk and a few dollops of foamed milk.

Pulling a shot: The original and some traditional espresso machines use a lever to pull or create the pressure for the pressurized brewed coffee.

Frothed or foamed milk: Milk heated and aerated using steam to create a thick foam.

Steamed milk: Milk that is only heated — not aerated — using steam.

Macchiato: Shot or shots of espresso topped with a few dollops of foamed milk.

Portafilter: Filter with an attached handle used to brew one to three shots of espresso. It locks into the group head to pressurize the brewing process.

Group head: Locking mechanism for the portafilter; contains a screen that dispenses the hot water for pressurized brewing process.

FACT: Arabica and robusta are the two most commonly grown types of coffee.

Brook Harlan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He is a culinary arts instructor at the Columbia Area Career Center.