What’s in a cup?

It is estimated that just about 80% of the adult UK population drink coffee every day, be it brewed at home or bought from a coffee shop. A good flat white is one of my favourite simple pleasures; however, the coffee industry itself is much more complex, and so I decided to educate myself on the supply and production chain of my favourite hot drink.  

Beans

Almost all commercially available coffee is grown in one of three major regions: Latin America, Africa and Asia. Broadly speaking, beans grown in each region are characteristically distinct. Latin American coffees are generally sweeter, African coffees tend to be fruitier or more floral and Asian coffees are usually richer and earthier. However, the two most popular types of beans, arabica and robusta, are able to be grown in each region.

Arabica coffee is generally more expensive than robusta, and the majority of espresso based drinks (cappuccino, latte, americano etc) will be made using this kind of bean - although sometimes the beans will be blended with a smaller amount of robusta in the interests of profit. Robusta beans are usually used in cheaper coffee products, and are usually the type of beans used in instant coffee. 

Robusta coffee has a higher caffeine content, and a harsher flavour profile. Although, as previously mentioned, it is cheaper, it accounts for only around 20% of the coffee consumed worldwide. 

A third, and much rarer, type of bean is the Liberica bean. It is more expensive and rarely found in high street coffee shops. A short resurgence of popularity in the late twentieth century was stifled by a trade embargo on the Philippines by the USA (which is very interesting but too complex to discuss in this context) and a disease destroying an enormous proportion of the world’s Liberica plants. It has a lower caffeine content than its relatives, but has a strong and smokey flavour which has been likened to tobacco. Although I highly recommend trying it, and would suggest that the price tag is worth it, it can be difficult to source in the UK (I have only been able to import it from Hong Kong). 

 

Roasting

The way a batch of coffee beans are roasted is the ultimate factor in dictating the taste of coffee. 

•    Light roast: beans roasted for less time/at lower temperatures. The resultant coffee is more complex and lighter, with more caffeine.

•    Dark roast: beans roasted for more time/at higher temperatures. The longer roast period means that there is less caffeine, with bolder but less complex flavours.

As a self-admittedly pretentious coffee drinker, I can tell you that I prefer a light roast for an espresso or americano, because it gives me the opportunity to feel superior and attempt to identify the flavours I read about on the packet. However, for an iced coffee or flat white, I prefer a dark roast so that I can still actually taste coffee alongside the copious amounts of vanilla syrup I’ve already put in the cup. 

 

Flat-white: the superior coffee

A ‘proper’ flat white is made with ristretto (a short espresso - less water pushed through the same amount of ground coffee) and microfoamed milk with no froth. Because of the way it is brewed, the coffee itself is slightly sweeter and the drink as a whole is stronger because it should have less milk in it than a cappuccino or a latte. 

My favourite London flat whites can be found at For The Good of The People (who can be found at Canopy Market on Fridays and Saturdays) and Black Sheep Coffee (branches all over London). The latter have one robusta bean blend, alongside arabica options, if you wanted to try an uncommonly nice coffee made from the usually ‘budget’ kind of beans. 

 

Environmental concerns

Although the great movement towards a more sustainable, eco-friendly way of living seems to have faltered in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, it is worth remembering that it takes a huge amount of water to cultivate coffee beans. Although this is unavoidable in the pursuit of a caffeine hit, don’t forget your reusable cup!