Category Archives: General

Cafe de olla: A Mexican tradition

Next week, on Monday 2nd November, Mexico celebrates the Day of Dead (Dia de muertos): a combination of prehispanic traditions in Mexico and the Catholic influence as the Catholic Church celebrates All Saint’s Day on November 1st and All Soul’s Day on November 2. But only in Mexico these celebrations became a festivity, a moment not only to remember those who have died but evem more to celebrate their life, legacy and memories. By celebrating with them, they remain with us!
Life and death are important symbols in Mexican culture.

The day of the death used to be a prehispanic celebration that, when the Spanish conquered what is now Mexico, was moved from summer to November 2nd. On this day we honour death: we show her that we are thankful and not afraid of her. Yet we show her in the most playful way that we rather stay away for her for as long as possible. The celebrations begin weeks in advance when families create a shrine at home, decorated in colorful paper, orange flowers called Cempazuchitl that flower around this time of the year, sugar skulls, pictures of the dead family members and their favourite food, drinks and possessions. On the day itself the cemeteries get these colorful decorations too and families go there with the Mariachi to play music next to the tombs. It is a party!

During this whole celebration time we eat a special sweet bread called “Pan de muerto” (bread of dead) that is decorated with little bread bones. And what better companion for sweet bread than warm coffee? So for the occasion we prepare one of Mexican finest traditions: Cafe de olla (coffee of the pot). It is called in this way because it is prepared in a big clay pot as a drink for the whole family. I will give you the recipe of my family, but reduced to make only 3 cups:
3 cups of water
3 tablespoons of coarse ground coffee
1 clove
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 orange peel (zest)
Small cone of “piloncillo” or about 30 gr of brown sugar
“Piloncillo” in Mexico, panela in other Latin American countries is unrefined whole cane sugar.

Let's spice it up!
Let’s spice it up!

To prepare the Cafe de olla, first put the water, sugar, clove, cinamon and orange peel in the pot at high heat until boiling point, then lower to medium heat before adding the coarse ground coffee. Let it in the heat for around 5 mins. Then, sieve it through a fine cloth for the spices and the coffee to be retained. Serve the coffee in a traditional clay pot.
I choose a Mexican coffee for Cafe de olla, of course. I prefere to use a mild coffee to complement the flavour of clove and cinnamon, such as the Coatepec coffee from my store. This is a balanced coffee and rich in aroma. The added orange peel will give a fresh note to the beverage as well as a smooth sweetness.

Rich in aroma, smooth in flavour coarse ground Coatepec coffee
Rich in aroma, smooth in flavour coarse ground Coatepec coffee
Cafe de olla
Cafe de olla

The smell of the spices combine with the coffee immediately reminds me of home!

Coffee and Chili

Starting from this post I will write every week about my favourite coffee beverages. Some of the recipes are my own creations but many are drinks I have had at coffee places or recipes taken from coffee books.
Even if you love your simple espresso or cappuccino every morning there is no reason why to not have fun with coffee. You can pair coffee with many complementary flavours to create exciting drinks. For instance, you can try citrus or sweet tastes, or go bold with spices, or traditional with alcoholic drinks.

One of my own favourite coffees is a chili espresso: one of my own inventions. I am born in Mexico thus I like spicy food. Well, funny enough, I don’t like it too spicy though. When I’m in Mexico with my husband (a very tall blond Dutchman who really enjoys very spicy food) we usually order a medium spicy and a very spicy dish. The waiter then usually gives me the very spicy dish and my Dutch husband gets the medium spicy one. Which we immediately switch to the surprise of the waiter.

From all the chili’s used in Mexican kitchen, I like the ones that are rather mild and are full of flavour: the Chile Poblano, it’s dry version Chile Ancho, Chile Chipotle (which is smoked-dry Jalapeno) or the Chile Guajillo, which is a dry chile Mirasol. I’m not really into chilis that are just spicy without adding much flavour.

Now for pairing with coffee I chose Chile Guajillo because of it’s taste: a bit acid, smokey and fruity, but not overpowering the flavour of the coffee. I first cut it in small pieces and then I grind it in a mortar. Obviously, the more chili powder you prepare the more flavour it will infuse into your drink and it’s to everybody’s personal taste how much chili should be added. Then I add the chili powder to the ground coffee in the portafilter and brew an espresso as usual.

Fine chop some Guajillo
Fine chop some Guajillo
Then grind it in a mortar
Then grind it in a mortar

I first tried with a strong coffee, like the Manabi that I sell in my webshop, but the coffee flavour overpowers the spice of the chili and so I tried another coffee: one with mild body and less acidity like the Cariamanga Lavado (

Extract as usual
Extract as usual

The chili-infused espresso with this coffee has a smooth flavour that first fills the mouth as with a regular espresso, and then comes a tingly feeling in the tongue and in the throat with an aftertaste combined of coffee and chili. Different as when eating spicy food, there is not burning or glowing feeling, no pain. I’m pretty sure that when adding enough chili the burning feeling can be obtained, but that is of course not the purpose here: we want to combine coffee and chili and not make hot chili water.

This beverage should be enjoyed without milk, though. Milk is a traditional cure for overdose of chili. The active ingredient in chili is capsaicin, and this dissolves in both alcohol and vegetable oils. However, it doesn’t dissolve in water (that is why when you eat something too spicy, drinking water won’t help relieve the pain). Milk, from mamals, contains casein, a fat-loving substance that has a detergent effect on the capsaicin from the chili’s. Thus, if you prepare a cappuccino then the effect of chili in your drink will be unnoticeable.

I can imagine that not everybody has dried chili’s at home, though your local store may sell some, or otherwise try a toko (an Asian ingredients store) as they may also have some stock on dried chili’s. As a last resort you can buy premade chili powder of course. But if you do so, please check that the chili powder has no salt….because I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how espresso with salt will taste!

Chili espresso!
Chili espresso!

Who’s who: Espresso, Ristretto, Lungo, Doppio, Americano and Long black

As you probably already know my favourite coffee beverage is espresso, and espresso is the base for many other drinks that I enjoy and that I will describe in the following blogs.

Espresso is a brewing method and the name of the produced beverage, but it is not a level of roasting or a type of beans. In fact, any type of beans and any level of roast can be used to make an espresso.
The espresso brewing method involves pressure, in fact a rather high pressure. The beverage produced this way contains lower levels of caffeine per serving than other coffee-related beverages produced by methods that require longer brewing periods. Espresso, the beverage, is extracted out of 8 to 10 grams of finely ground coffee. According to some Italian sources it should be less, about 6.5 +- 1.5 gr. It should be served in a small cup with a capacity of 50 ml, half full, and it should have a distinctive thick layer of brown foam from tiny bubbles, known as the crema.

Espresso is meant to be prepared on purpose (expressively), at the moment and to be drunk immediately. If not, the crema will shrink and break into patches. So when you order an espresso and it is brought to your table without crema, you know there was too much time between brewing and serving which is not good. Without the crema the surface of the liquid is exposed and cools down faster. Hence, the drink loses the smoothness and the balance of its taste. With time, regardless of cooling, a perceived acidity increases.

Espresso has a little brother: ristretto, and two bigger brothers: lungo and doppio, and also two cousins: Americano and long black. I personally prefer the one and only espresso, but allow me to introduce you to the whole family.

Ristretto means limited in Italian so it is a limited espresso. It is made from the same amount of ground coffee as an espresso but with a reduced brew time, only 15 to 20 sec., instead of the usual 25 to 30 seconds for an espresso. The result is a smaller espresso (15 to 20 ml) with a concentrated flavour, thick texture and usually strong aftertaste.

An espresso and his little brother ristretto
An espresso and his little brother ristretto (both in 60 ml cups)

Lungo means long in Italian so it is a long espresso produced by letting the extraction continue for more than 30 secs. Usually a lungo is a 60 ml beverage with more solubles and more caffeine than the ristretto or the espresso. Lungos have a thinner body and a dryer and more acid taste.

Doppio means double in Italian, so it is just a double espresso.

Now, enough with Italian lessons as the two other relatives of espresso are not italian inventions. The Americano nevertheless has an European background. Legend says that during the second World War the American soldiers found espresso too strong for their taste so they added hot water to it (to the disgust of the Italians, so the name Americano for this kind of beverage is actually not positive). So, that’s it, an espresso with added hot water. The amount of hot water varies according to the taste of the drinker.

Long black is a name for a beverage that comes from Down Under: Australia and New Zealand. Sometime in the 80’s when their coffee preferences started shifting from instant coffee to espresso-based beverages they came up with names such as short black (espresso), long blank, flat white. Long black is basically espresso + hot water but, different from the Americano, in this case you should add the espresso to the hot water so that the crema is not disturbed. Also the water to espresso ratio is kept to 2 to 1, so that the drink remains strong. One can argue whether an Americano and a Long black actually taste different, and to be honest: not really.

A long black with undisturbed crema
A long black : the Aussie cousin of espresso (250 ml cup)

So with just an espresso and some hot water we can already produce 6 different beverages. And this is just the beginning! We can add milk and produced a whole new range of beverage and not to mention adding herbs, or alcohol or….  But that will be something for other blogs in the near future.

International Coffee Day!

Today 1st October is the first International Coffee Day though you may have not heard about it yet. I myself learned about it not so long ago: I was browsing through internet and wanted to check a future event from the International Coffee Association and then I stumbled upon it.
Personally, I am not so in favour of all those international days, but hey, it is coffee and we love it, we drink it everyday and so maybe everyday should be international coffee day. Anyway, I was curious and read about why they came up with this… and I liked the story behind.

Apparently many countries already had a National Coffee day (I didn’t know that either) so the association wanted to gather all these smaller celebrations and come up with a special day for all coffee lovers worldwide:
To honour the men and women who grow and harvest the coffee we love
To celebrate the journey of coffee from the farm to the coffee place
To celebrate a journey of diversity, quality and passion

And they got me! So at my coffee business we subscribed an event to also celebrate 1st October:

I feel that the International Coffee Day is a good reason to consider not only the coffee as a drink but everybody involved in making this coffee possible.
Most people who love and drink coffee are not aware of the long journey each cup of coffee has followed so I will try to write about it in this blog in the coming months. In a nut shell: there are a lot of people working hard to be able to plant, grow, harvest, clean, dry, transport, roast, pack and sell coffee. Even though we nowadays appreciate coffee more for its taste and for the whole feel-good-experience of drinking it, the coffee market is still mainly a commodity market which main purpose is to commercialize a brown beverage containing caffeine while taste is just secondary. But let us start to change this: let us today honour the people who grow and harvest the coffee. How? Maybe by learning a bit more about your coffee and its taste knowing when and where it was grown. So many factors influence the coffee taste among others: the type of bean, the altitude and the soil where it was grown, if it had shade
or not, the amount of rain. Another interesting factor is the way the coffee bean was cleaned out of the coffee cherry. So you could understand better how your coffee got its flavour.

Labour conditions of people growing coffee vary a lot in different countries. Fair trade coffee typically assures that coffee farmers get a reasonable price for their coffee and additionally some fair trade brands also require that coffee plantations that fulfill a minimum standard of labour conditions. However, note that those minimum labour conditions may vary among different fair trade organizations. Also, if a coffee is not fair trade it doesn’t automatically mean that the coffee growing people live under bad conditions or that coffee farmers get underpaid. Small coffee roasting companies with a passion for coffee often trade directly with the farmers and thus also do fair trade (though they are not certified) whereas companies that see coffee mainly as commodity may just try to get the coffee at the lowest possible price. If you’re curious how your coffee was obtained you could for instance check the website of your the store where you buy the coffee and see if that information is available.

Since most of the coffee is grown between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer while the highest coffee consumption (per inhabitant) is registered in countries above the tropics international trading is an important and necessary part of production and consumption of coffee. It could be interesting to know how many kilometers your coffee traveled to get to you.

Lets today celebrate the diversity and the quality of our coffees but most of all lets share our passion for it!

Cheers (with coffee) and lets all enjoy a happy coffee day!


Resting time

I am not talking about our coming vacations 🙂 but about letting the coffee rest between roasting and brewing. How fresh is fresh and should we brew immediately after roasting? These are common questions that I get from my costumers. The first question I answered in a previous blog:

I always recommend my costumers to use fresh roasted coffee and so I sell coffee that is roasted-on-demand which implies that I don’t have a storage of roasted coffee. However, sometimes it happens that i get a coffee order accompanied by an email with subject: urgent. In these cases it takes a bit of explanation to the customer that I really cannot ship that coffee first thing in the morning since I actually first have to roast it.

But to return to the topic: should you brew the coffee immediately after roasting? Personally, I think coffees taste the best not shortly after finishing the roast but after another 2 to 4 days.
During roasting the coffee beans undergo physical and chemical changes. Due to the chemical reactions taking place during roasting CO2 (carbon-dioxide) is produced which is initially retained in the beans. This CO2 will be released over a period of weeks after roasting, the so-called degassing. The speed of degassing is inversely related to time after roasting: fast degassing takes place during the first hours after roasting and slowing down gradually. Adding hot water to coffee will release some of the CO2 that is still bounded to the bean structure and we can “see” this CO2 in the crema formed while brewing the coffee.

If you brew your coffee with an espresso machine then this fact is very important for you. Espresso brewing takes places under high temperature and pressure, so if there is alot of carbon-dioxide left in the coffee beans it would make the brewing process more difficult and can prevent the proper extraction of the coffee flavours. It will also lead to an excessive amount of crema and sometimes the espresso cup may have more crema than actual espresso which is a clear indication that the coffee has not rested long enough.
For other brewing techniques as for instance filter-coffee this can still be an issue since the coffee will swell-up from the release of CO2. In an open-drip filter this wont be a problem but in closed-dripping as a common electrical filter machine it may lead to the machine to overflow.

You can also use the release of CO2 as a freshness factor! If you prepare an espresso and the crema is too thin and even shows holes through which the espresso liquid underneath is visible then you know the beans are no longer fresh, since most of the CO2 has been released already. The same counts for filter coffee: if the coffee remains flat during the brew cycle, the coffee is old.

Old coffee leads to thin, light crema
Old coffee leads to thin, light crema

The coffee I roast and send always mentions the roasting date, which is typically 2-3 days earlier than the day you receive your package. Though it is tempting to immediately open the package and prepare some coffee, it may actually be better to wait a few days more to get the best flavour. Therefore it’s recommended to not wait with your new coffee order until you really run out of coffee, because otherwise you may find yourself in the antagonizing situation that you can’t make your favourite cup of coffee since you run out of the previous coffee while the new coffee you just received is actually still too fresh to use.

Rome was not made in one day

Coming Sunday is Mother’s Day and I cannot stop thinking about my mom. It has been too many years since the last time I celebrated it with her because we live far apart, but I was lucky to spend some time with her a few weeks ago.

As many other mothers my mom is wise. Thanks to her most used phrases that are engraved in my brains, her wisdom can reach me even with an ocean in between. “Rome was not made in one day” is an all time favourite. How does this relate to coffee? Allow me to elaborate…

Four years ago I started my coffee business out of passion for coffee. During these years I had a daily job working as a researcher at a university in The Netherlands. Before that I worked as a civil engineer in Mexico and Ecuador. Coffee was just a hobby until I had this brilliant idea to make it a business: my business. But I am not the only one with this passion in The Netherlands. Competition is fierce, but at the time I thought that the coffee that I import and roast is sooo good that it will sell by itself. Well, not really. How can it sell by itself if people cannot easily find it online, or if no one has tasted it?

And so the biggest adventure began when I realized, after selling coffee only to my parents-in-law and my husband’s best friends during the first months, that I will need much more than just delicious coffee to run a coffee business.

During my lunch time at the university, in the evenings, weekends and even on the plane going to a conference (as part of my daily job) I have learned more about coffee, I have learned about marketing, psychology, blogging, latte art. And there is sooo much more that I need to learn. Engrano has more customers now (thank you all!) and also retailers. Engrano keeps growing every year not only because of my effort but also because of all the help I have had. My husband has helped enormously on daily basis. My costumers are helping spreading the word. Friends keep giving us great ideas. And, with an ocean in between my mom has helped too. Every time some new idea fails or just doesn’t work as well as I thought it would I can hear in my brain my mother’s words: Rome was not made in one day. Ok, she says it in Spanish: Roma no se hizo en un dia. Indeed, neither Rome nor Engrano will be successful in one day, or in one month. So then, comforted by my mom’s wisdom, I look for a plan b, for a new idea, for something else to try.

And now for Engrano to grow even more I have decided to stop with my daily job and make my passion my full time job.

This month the story of Engrano is published in Ecuador in a monthly magazine called Vistazo. I think my mom will be proud!

Coffee Ambassador
Coffee Ambassador

Fresh for longer time

Another frequent question that I get from our costumers is how to keep the coffee fresh for longer time. Good question! I sell freshly roasted coffee, so freshness is kind of an obsession because it makes a word of difference. You know what I am talking about if you have tried and compared both freshly roasted coffee and packed coffee that has been standing for weeks in a shelf before you purchase it.
You have noticed that the smell of coffee decreases with time and so does the flavour, the crema in the espresso too.

So, how to store your coffee to keep it fresh? Well, coffee should be kept away from oxygen, moisture, foreign odours, heat and light.
It may sound complicated but it is not, let me explain.

Oxygen and moisture: Roasted coffee is a dehydrated product and immediately after roasting coffee it will start ageing. Contact with oxygen is one of the factors that contribute to shorten the life of coffee. It is responsible from the typical stale flavour of old coffee. Every time that you open your coffee bag your coffee comes into contact with oxygen and moisture. Thus to reduce the amount of times that your coffee is in contact with oxygen I suggest that you keep in a container the amount of coffee that you will consume in a short period of time, one or two weeks. If you buy coffee in a bigger amount then you better first split the coffee into smaller containers.

Due to a higher exposed surface ground coffee can absorb a considerably higher amount of moisture compared to beans. So, water-tide storage is even more critical if you purchase ground coffee. And please, don’t store coffee in the fridge and never freeze ground coffee!
If you store your coffee in the fridge, when you open the container moisture will come in, then you put back the container in the fridge and that moisture will condense into water droplets… dripping in your coffee… not good.

If really necessary you could freeze beans (not ground coffee). You may need to adjust your grinder to a finer ground when you unfreeze your beans. And if you do freeze the beans then you can only defreeze them once and use them.

Heat: Increases in temperature (starting from about 10C) will speed up the release of CO2 and volatile compounds (which include the nice coffee smell that we love).
Light: Light also plays an important role in ageing of coffee, it has a catalytic role in many chemical reactions.

You may have noticed oil droplets appearing in your coffee, especially in dark-roasted coffee. It starts during roasting and goes as the coffee releases gas because CO2 tends to push oil outwards. The problem here is that the oil on the surface of your coffee will also speed up ageing.

So our advice to keep your coffee fresh for a longer but not indefinitely time is to keep it a grease-proof, air-tight container. Consider glass, ceramic, metal or a polymer as used in the Engrano bags. Place the container in a cool, dry and dark place to ensure the full flavour and freshness of your coffee. That’s it!
But even in this optimal conditions please don’t store coffee for long periods of time, the best you can do with your coffee is to drink it and then get some more freshly roasted beans and every morning enjoy the magic of full aroma and flavour in your coffee!

keep this time of containers in a cool place in your kitchen
keep this time of containers in a cool place in your kitchen
Keep this type of container in a dark and cool place in your kitchen
Keep this type of container in a dark and cool place in your kitchen

Looking for a good cup of coffee

When you are in a country that grows amazing coffee you may think it would be easy to enjoy a good cup of coffee…. well, that is more easily said than done!

Currently I am in Mexico visiting family and looking for coffee to bring to NL. A few months ago I wrote about some delicious coffees from Mexico (Mexico grows coffee in 9 out of 31 state) and now we are one more step closer to have them permanently into our coffee stock []. My passion and love for coffee was born here in Mexico, but as in many other latinamerican countries it is easier to find good coffee beans here than to find a decent cup of coffee.

I don’t know exactly why but in most latinamerican countries coffee is not truly appreciated and usually it is prepared either too weak (probably the huge American influence) or too sweat. Even worse, to make it taste “stronger” instead of using more coffee they used coffee that has been roasted way too far ending up in a bitter but tasteless cup of coffee.

Argentina is a different story. In Argentina about 60% of the population has some degree of Italian descent and because of this huge Italian influence coffee culture in Argentina is similar to Europe and different from the rest of Latinamerica. Funny enough no coffee is grown in Argentina.

Traditionally Mexicans prepare their coffee as “cafe de olla” coffee from the pot infused with unrefined whole sugar, cinnamon, sometimes aniset or clove. In a clay pot water, cinnamon and sugar are heated up to boiling point, then ground coffee is added and mixed. The heat is turned off and the beaverage should rest for a couple of minutes. Then the coffee is sieved and served. Please imagine a household smelling like coffee and spices, perfect!

In Ecuador, as in Peru and Colombia, the tradition is to prepare a heavy coffee syrup called “cafe pasado”. The coffee is prepared as filter coffee, sometimes with a metal or cloth filter, but always with huge amount of ground coffee. The warm water is then added slowly and once the coffee is ready it is cooled down and saved. When someone wants a coffee, just add warm water to a portion of the “cafe pasado”.

With the more busy modern life these traditional slow preparations of coffee have been replaced with filter coffee. In the last 10 years espressos arrived to Latinamerica and the coffee scene is slowly changing. People are now learning about their own delicious coffee. More local coffee companies are offering a variety of single-origin coffees, but still the fashion is weak coffee. Last week I found a cozy coffee place where they roast their own coffee and the smell was amazing! They had a menu with coffee from 6 different regions of Mexico. To my surprise they even have coffee from Nayarit. I didnt even know they grew coffee there! Nayarit is a state in the Pacific coast and it wouldn’t suprise me if together with coffee from Zacatecas and northern Veracruz it is the most northernly grown coffee in the world!!

I was ecstatic! I bought beans from Nayarit that I will soon taste. And since it was early in the morning I asked also for a cappuccino thinking this should be THE cappuccino. But instead I got a 280 ml cup filled up with warm milk and almost no coffee. I heard them prepare an espresso for my cappuccino so my conclusion is that they use too little coffee for a too big cup of milk…dissappointing. The same story happened at different coffee places and restaurants. One time I sent the cappuccino back and asked them to pour an extra espresso on it. They didnt understand why. Even at a famous italian restaurant I got a soup-size bowl with warm milk and just a hint of coffee when i ordered a cappuccino, see the image below.


My luck changed when I came to Queretaro. The coffee at the hotel is still hideous, burned and bitter, but when visiting Amparo, the coffee distributer whose coffees I intend to bring to NL, I got a real espresso with aromatic coffee from Coatepec! So I see the dawn of decent coffee glimmering at the horizon: if a coffee distributor can make a good espresso it’s matter of time and that knowledge spreads down to coffee places and finally the consumers. Who knows, maybe in a couple of years we will see espresso bars all over the place in Mexico ?

The Secret of Sugar

It’s funny to see that more and more I’m confronted with the fact that people (either friends, family or customers) seem to think I have a kind of teacher function and I may even hold them accountable for how they drink their coffee. Of course this is complete nonsense…

One of those things is: sugar. Some people drink coffee with sugar, some don’t. Personally I don’t but for instance my husband does like some sugar in his coffee and we even have friends that kind try to saturate their coffee with sugar. But when we’re on markets with our mobile espresso bar we get customers ordering an espresso and then look at me in an apologizing way saying that they really want to have some sugar in their coffee “although they realize that is not how coffee should be drunk”. Well….let me put it like this: you should drink it the way you like it most, independent of what others think is good. It makes little sense, in my opinion, to drink coffee the way others expect you to drink it and actually dislike it.

But I’m wandering off. Sugar is a taste enhancer that happens to taste sweet just like salt is a taste enhancer that happens to taste salty. That may sound all very obvious, but what I’m trying to say is that we can add sugar or salt to food in order to make it taste either sweet or salty, but we can also add them to food just to enhance the taste. For example, bread contains salt but bread doesn’t taste salty. However, leave the salt out and it really tastes horrible (well, I think it does). This counts for many food products that contain salt without tasting salty.
However, we can also do this with sugar, though that may be more rare. But let’s now take coffee: we can put in enough sugar so that our coffee tastes sweet just because we like sweet. But I would like to challenge you to have a coffee and actually put in very little sugar: typically something like 1/8 of a teaspoon for an espresso, maybe slightly more for a filter coffee. This is so little that the coffee won’t taste sweet at all, but you may discover a dramatic change of taste!
Sugar has the ability to really enhance the acidity of coffee. So a rather bitter coffee with the smallest amount of sugar may actually significantly improve in taste and become very nice and balanced. Of course we cannot do this for every coffee. A coffee that is very dark roasted and has almost no acidity left cannot be made into a balanced flavoured coffee: the sugar enhances the acidity, but if there is no acidity left there is simply nothing to enhance.

So to everyone, whether you drink your coffee with or without sugar, I would suggest to give it a try. Start with a coffee without sugar, have a sip, add a very small amount of sugar, have another sip, add some more sugar etc. You will notice the coffee change flavour until at some point the sweetness of the sugar becomes noticeable and the flavour of the coffee remains the same. It’s an interesting experiment, especially with strong coffee drinks like espresso or from a mocca.

Now next time someone tries to convince you that real coffee drinkers (whatever that may mean) drink their coffee without sugar you can tell them: a) sugar in small amounts actually enhances the flavour of coffee and b) you drink coffee the way you like it, and not the way other people think you should like it!



The caffeine issue

A usual topic discussed with Latinamerican friends and costumers is caffeine. I am Latinamerican myself, but my business is based in the Netherlands: a country where you hardly find decaf coffee. On the other hand, last week I was visiting friends in Barcelona (Spain) which typically is a country where it is easy to find good quality and tasteful decaf coffee. So caffeine seems to be more an issue for some of us than for others, but choosing for decaf coffee is a solution with consequences. Allow me to elaborate….

I have a more than average interest for caffeine since I am intolerant to caffeine. Yes, indeed, I love coffee and I run a coffee business but I cannot handle caffeine as diagnosed back in the days when I was still living in Mexico City. And so I stopped drinking coffee, coke, tea and eating chocolate. After a few weeks I could handle most of the absences but coffee, and so I started drinking decaf coffee. Unfortunately it is hard to find decaf coffee that doesn’t have that typical burnt taste, but after lots of screening I found a brand for which the taste was not so bad. As I was living in Mexico, my options for preparing my morning coffee were either a filter machine at my office or a little french press for my personal use. Decaf coffee brewed by either of these two methods still has caffeine so I could only drink 1 cup of french-pressed coffee a day to not damage my health.

Then I moved to the Netherlands and I discovered a wonderful way of preparing coffee: espresso! This may shock you but 7 years ago it was almost impossible to drink an espresso in Mexico City! When moving to the Netherlands I also became a researcher, and so besides doing research for a university I also did research for my health. That is how I learned that espresso is the best way to enjoy your coffee while having very little caffeine in it. A standard serving of espresso is 30 ml and contains about 70 mg of caffeine per serving for a 100% Arabica espresso. This amount varies depending on the type of coffee: Arabica has considerably less caffeine than Robusta. To see it in perspective: one gets the same amount of caffeine when drinking 730 ml of Coca Cola. So when friends come to my place and are drinking coke the whole night but refuse an espresso after dinner because it has too much caffeine and they may not sleep until late, I usually suggest them to stop drinking Coca Cola and enjoy a good espresso!

Other ways of brewing coffee do lead to a high consumption of caffeine. Filter coffee or percolated (french press) contain between 100 to 200 mg per serving for a serving of 150 to 190 ml. Coffee brewed with a Moka contains about the same amounts but for smaller servings, usually 40 to 50 ml.This is because caffeine exhibits high solubility in hot water. Therefore, because of the long contact period between water and ground coffee when brewing coffee with a filter machine, a french press or a moka the caffeine content in your cup of coffee is higher than for an espresso. In total 80-98% of all the caffeine in the ground coffee will end up in your cup. When percolating an espresso only 70-80% of the caffeine in the ground coffee is extracted. The time of percolation for an espresso (which should be 30 ± 5 sec) is just too short to extract much caffeine from the cellular structure.

As mentioned before, the caffeine content of your cup also depends on the type of coffee. Arabica has lower levels of caffeine, amino acids and chlorogenic acids in comparison to Robusta, but it has 60% more oils. It makes sense: producing caffeine is a chemical mechanism of defense for a coffee plant. Robusta coffee grows at warm and humid climates of tropical lowlands (below 1000 m altitude, 22-26 °C) while Arabica coffee grows at higher altitudes (1000-2100 m) where temperatures average around 18 to 22 °C. Arabica coffee can grow at lower altitudes as much as downto 400m in regions further away from the equator. In environments ideal for Robusta plants to grow there are simply more birds interested in eating nice coffee cherries and therefore the plant protects itself by producing caffeine and chlorogenic acids.

Decaf coffee has considerably lower levels of caffeine, not more than 70 mg per liter, but decaffeination is unfortunately a chemical process. In the earliy days it was done by steaming the beans and then solve the present caffeine in benzene, but obviously for health issues the use of benzene is no longer allowed. Less harmful chemicals are now used, but nevertheless they’re still synthetically produced chemicals with their environmental impact. More environmentally friendly methods involve soaking coffee beans in water to slowly desolve the caffeine, but this also leads to dissolving other componenets of the coffee bean that in fact make the flavour of the coffee. This can be resolved by soaking the coffee in water saturated with those other components from another batch of coffee, but in the end the coffee will be altered in more ways than just reducing the amount of caffeine. So in all those processes many things can go wrong during this chemical process which lead to terrible flavour. Is there no perfect way to make decaf coffee? Well, actually, the best way that only removes the caffeine is to soak the coffee for hours in carbondioxide under immense pressure, but as one can imagine this is an expensive process that consumes quite some energy as well.
Therefore I always have a bit of a laugh when I meet people that drink fair-trade organically grown….decaf coffee. They’re clearly not aware of the environmental issues that may come with the decaffination process.

Anyway, if you, like me, have issues with caffeine and either cannot find decaf coffee with decent taste or refuse to drink coffee that has been chemically treated, then go for an espresso!