Coffee originated in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, growing on trees as cherries with a precious bean-like seed in the middle. Legend has it that sometime in the middle of the 9th century, a goatherd discovered its get-up-and-go properties when his goats got-up-and-went after eating the cherries.
But no one knows for sure, because he didn’t take a selfie, so it didn’t happen.
The goats were jumpy because a coffee cherry’s flesh—still sold as cascara—has caffeine in it. When dried, coffee cherries can be made into a hot drink called qishr. But someone determined early on that a more complicated process of pulling out the seeds, washing and drying them, and then roasting and grinding them before steeping them in hot water was the way to go.
So the beans won, and set off in all directions to conquer the world. But not everyone chose to brew it the same way.
Yirgacheffe coffee, light-bodied and bright, is named for the region where it grows, and can even still be found in the wild there. The birthplace of coffee gives it its ceremonious due. Incense is burned to drive off spirits. The beans are roasted in a pan, ground, and brewed over a fire in a clay pot, and then shared among friends in a social event often lasting more than two hours.
That’s probably not exactly how it’s done at your neighborhood Ethiopian restaurant, but nevertheless, there are similarities: served with sugar, not milk, and enjoyed as a group from a shared pot. It’s typically unfiltered or run through a strainer, and, in restaurants, may come with cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves added. In some rural areas, they may add a pinch of salt, which cuts the bitterness.
In 1884, Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy, patented the first machine that could send highly pressurized hot water through finely ground coffee, producing a thick, flavorful shot. It shortened the brewing time and made it possible to brew 100 servings in an hour so more customers could pop in and pop out, downing shots of espresso like, well, shots.
Espresso-based creations run the gamut from cappuccinos and lattes to bicerin—espresso, milk, drinking chocolate—and Marocchino, an espresso topped with milk froth served in a small glass first dusted with cocoa powder. And, of course, there’s caffé Americano, an espresso diluted with hot water in a larger cup, because, as Italians have told me, we Americans drink “brodo” (broth). However, this method doesn’t match the taste of American filtered coffee.
Not everyone had an espresso machine handy at home, so in 1933, Alfonso Bialetti, an Italian engineer, came up with a little aluminum pot stacked on a screw-on tank for water: the moka pot. A stovetop burner heats the water as if in a pressure cooker, forcing it up a central tube that leads to the espresso grounds packed in a filter. The resulting coffee bubbles up another tube, spills out the top into the pot, and voilà: espresso! (Or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.)
Cuba once produced large amounts of coffee beans, and at one point in the 19th century, the profits of coffee exports exceeded those of sugar. But after the revolution of 1956, the industry went into decline. Originally, beans were pulverized and steeped in hot water in a cloth sack. But Italian espresso came to the island and was well received. Cubans and Cuban exiles alike enjoy this island-born espresso with a twist.
Also known as a cafecito, this espresso is typically brewed in a moka pot. The first drippings are taken and whipped with demerara—large-crystal, light brown sugar—to make a creamy froth, then returned to the cup as a crema atop the rest of the coffee. Serve it with hot milk on the side and you have café con leche.
Flat White, Down Under
Australia and New Zealand are home to the flat white, but the drink has traveled to other menus, even Starbucks. It’s an espresso with textured milk, and unlike the cappuccino with stiffer foam rising above the liquid, this textured milk remains flat. How is this not a latte? That depends a bit on your barista, of course, but it should have slightly less milk than the latte, and so a bit stronger with the coffee flavor.
Mexican Café de Olla
During the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and lasted more than a decade, female soldiers called adelitas not only fought in battle and cared for the wounded, but also prepared meals. They made coffee in hopes of keeping everyone’s energy levels up.
If you find a traditional maker of this drink, the coffee may be heated in a clay pot, or olla de barro, over a smoky fire. Regardless, the brew is served with a cinnamon stick and piloncillo, a dark raw sugar. Some recipes may also add orange peel, anise, and cloves, but don’t use milk.
Turkish coffee, which is ground even finer than espresso, is first mixed with unheated water in an ibrik, a small, long-handled brew pot, along with sugar, if any, measured to the chosen sweetness: sugar, no sugar, or medium-sweet. (A Turkish friend assured me with a wink that at a restaurant, everyone at the table is getting medium so it can be made all in one batch.) The pot is heated very slowly until foam rises up. Then it’s removed for a moment, returned to slow heat, and allowed to foam up one more time.
The coffee is poured into small cups and the patron must wait a spell for the fine grounds to settle to the bottom. You sip until you get to them. If you are with the right Turkish companions, you can turn the cup over on its saucer and someone will tell you your fortune from the grounds. Arabic coffee is quite similar but typically adds a bit of cardamom.
Most coffee grown in Vietnam isn’t the popular Arabica variety, but rather Robusta, a more caffeinated, more bitter, and often less preferred bean. Yet this coffee is delicious, thanks to a roasting process that employs sugar and butter, or even vanilla, cocoa, and chicory, which give the beans a flavorful, caramelized coating.
To prepare a drink, coffee grounds are poured into a phin, a metal cup with a filter bottom that sits atop a filter plate. Another loose metal filter is settled on top of the grounds. All of this is set on top of a clear glass serving cup. Hot water is poured into the phin, and it slowly trickles through to the glass. Most take it sweetened, with two or three spoonfuls of condensed milk, or even over ice.
Siphon or Vacuum Coffee
Depending on whom you ask, this brewing method was created in France or Scotland in the 1840s, but in reality, it likely came from Germany a decade before. If you want to see this brewing spectacle in action, though, your best chance may be in Japan, where it remains popular.
Looking like some shenanigans a classmate might pull in chemistry lab, the process involves a filter in the bottom of a glass hopper connected to the top of a clear glass bulb big enough to hold about 12 ounces of water. The bulb is then placed over a blue flame, similar to a Bunsen burner, until the heated water expands up into the hopper. The brewer then adds the grounds and stirs them in well, leaving them to steep just over a minute. Then the bulb is removed from the heat, and the cooling effect lowers the pressure in the bulb, steadily sucking the coffee back down through the filter and into the bulb.
Believers contend this delicate brew is the purest, cleanest taste of coffee you can have. But whichever method you choose for your brew, at the end of the day—or rather the beginning—they all deliver the jolt those goats first relished.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and his website is TheMadTraveler.com.