Coffee in the Cusp of Covid

Nadge Ariffin on how to appreciate the heritage and art of good coffee while in lockdown.

Coffee? It begins – like it has been since the first cup ever brewed over a thousand years ago – with a sip. It has to be a conscious sip, because unlike wine it should be hot. Even if it’s not, it still begins with a sip, because unlike for example tea, it has an expectant bitteresque taste and one does not want to overwhelm the tongue with a big gulp.

That, in a nutshell (literally), is how we differentiate this exceptional beverage that is coffee from the world’s other great drinks.

From its Arabian beginnings as early as 575AD, to its spread from Al-Mukha to Cairo to Istanbul, then to Vienna and the other European cities by the 1700s, diffusing to the Americas and the world, coffee has become a global cultural phenomenon – enjoyed or at least tried by more people on earth than any other drink.

After all, coffee is now grown all over the planet’s equatorial belt from Indonesia and Malaysia in Southeast Asia, to Central America and of course, at its home in the central bulge of Africa. Coffee is a global crop.

Although in this global time of Covid-19, it may be sipped more personally, less so communally, as coffee shops bow to the coronavirus.

Photo by Mew Wy

Still Global, Yet Intensely Personal

Yes, coffee is intensely personal. It may have begun as a plain boiled dark brew, and still enjoyed by many in that way too. But today coffee can be drunk in a mind-boggling variety of forms, from the most exquisite gourmet preparation to decaffeinated mass production, in a straight black espresso, in caffe latte mode with milk to varying proportions, or foamed cappuccino-style, mixed with chocolate as in mocha, and finally added with every kind of spice or flavoring imaginable from cinnamon, cardamom and cloves to vanilla, chicory and honey.

Coffee choices are endless and thus rightfully it is impossible to say that any specific kind is ‘the perfect coffee’. A minority, like myself, actually have no particular preference for plain coffee, no matter how acclaimed the beans or trees or area it came from. But the beauty of coffee is that it is one of the most versatile in pairing itself with other ingredients, until there is bound to be one blend or couple or sprinkle that will make everyone enjoy their style.

However, commercially-speaking, the ‘high-value’ coffee beans come from the Coffea arabica species. It was first cultivated in the then Arabian colony of Harar in Ethiopia, where it is native, and is the most popularly grown worldwide. There are others, equally famously the robusta, which grows in tougher environments and liberica, from its origin in Liberia, as well as other lesser-known cultivars, for which each has its proponents.

Nonetheless, as with wine, there are certain qualities or characteristics that many can agree are traits that make a great coffee. Connoisseurs and culinary scientists have found that coffee beans register about 800 discernible flavor nuances on the human tongue, which is double that of wine. All in, there are five qualities to look for in coffee.

The Characters of Coffee

Flavour – While the actual preferred flavour or taste is subjective, good coffee does have a ‘character’ that defines it. This would be a strong or mild bitter component that gives it the kick, sometimes a nutty tinge that is an acquired taste. Some coffees have a naturally nice earthy, ‘berry’ or even ‘citrus’ flavor. In fact, even the term ‘winey’ is now often used to describe a desirable hint of red wine-like reminiscence. Meanwhile ‘spicy’ is also a term used for example in Java coffee.

Acidity – No, this does not refer to the physical pH acidity, but to the pleasing sharp aftertaste. It is sometimes called the liveliness or ‘brightness’ of the coffee, from low or smooth to high and lively. Some prefer a lower acidy taste, but generally a complete absence of acidity is undesirable and this is called ‘flat’.

Aroma – Yes, this is the smell and is critical because the human sense of taste and smell do work together. In fact the more subtle or complex character of coffee comes from aroma as much as taste. Connoisseur tasters or ‘cuppers’ will smell the coffee, and describe its fragrance as its bouquet. This can be mild or strong, ‘floral’, ‘fruity’, and ‘winey’ as well. 

Body – This refers to the taste sensation that lingers on the tongue, and is more of the feel of the coffee in the mouth rather than flavor. Think of the viscosity, thickness or heaviness as it is drunk that leaves a feeling of richness. Espresso is valued for its ‘full-bodied’ character, while a filtered drip coffee is considered light as the coffee flavor oils are removed. A watery coffee would ‘lack body’ and is called ‘thin’.

Finish – A more recently defined description i.e. the overall sensation the coffee leaves on the senses after it is drunk. Some coffees ‘develop’ in their finish, as in how pleasurable is the aftertaste, which may differ from the first sip.

“Covid Killed Coffee”

Now this is where Covid-19 can hit us right in the mouth and nose, literally. Among the possible symptoms or effects of the Wuhan-originated coronavirus is its unexpected assault on these two senses, taste and smell.

Between a quarter and up to half of Covid-19 sufferers at some point find that they have a diminished sense of either odour or taste, or even both. Obviously, this denies them the enjoyment of food and drink, especially a smell-intensified one such as coffee.

For those who recover from the infection, the lucky ones will regain these critical senses. But for an unfortunate minority, the diminishment is long-term, or sadly maybe permanently.

Can you imagine not being able to taste or smell food and beverages anymore? A cruel and unusual punishment indeed.

It gives a whole new meaning of loss to the common and pleasure-related saying, “Wake up and smell the coffee”. In fact, it’s all lost; the odour of the fresh beans, the smell of the brew as it whiffs under your nose, and the tastes as different coffee types caress your tongue. All killed by the Covid.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Covid Gave Coffee a ‘Roasting’, But Life Has to Go On

Oh, the roasting – whether it’s home-brewed or especially shop-served, the best coffees are freshly roasted, and the blessed beans should be ground just before brewing in preferably a ‘presser’-type coffee maker, using pure water right off the boil.

While coffee came to Europe from the Arabs and Turks, the Italians have arguably perfected the art of coffee making and drinking. Even the espresso, which as its Italian name suggests is meant to be made and drunk expressly so, needs to be prepared and to taste a certain way, perfected by the machine invented by Acchile Gaggia in 1946.

In Italy there are even customs to observe with types and timing of coffee, for example, caffe latte is considered a breakfast drink while cappuccino is a stand-alone, not to be mixed with lunch or dinner.

But in the rest of the world, the art of drinking is pretty much the art of finding what works best for the drinker’s pleasure. Feel free to have your choice of coffee anytime and anywhere you please, as long as it’s within the Covid-19 protocol procedures in place.

Just begin drinking with a conscious, and grateful, sip.