A delicious cup of coffee is a terrific pick-me-up first thing in the morning or during an afternoon slump. Coffee is also perfect after a fabulous dinner. People’s tastes regarding coffee are very different, and some are satisfied with everyday brands; however, nothing can match the rich flavor of gourmet coffee. Gourmet coffee is distinctly different from the coffees found at the local grocery store or convenience store.
In order to learn how to choose gourmet coffee, one should first learn about coffee plants and understand what distinguishes the beans used in regular coffee from the beans used to make gourmet coffee. Specific information on cultivation methods and growing conditions leads to different flavors of coffee in each geographical region. A discussion on whole bean coffee versus ground coffee as well as organic coffee is helpful in making buying decisions as well. Some tips on where to buy gourmet coffee will help shoppers on their way to experiencing a whole new world of coffee drinking.
Types of Coffee Plants
Coffee beans begin as a white-flowering shrub or tree. The flowers produce berries or "drupes," first green and then ripe, red or purplish cherry-like fruit that contain two beans (seeds) inside with their flat sides facing each other. All coffee beans fall into one or two general families of coffee grown commercially for drinking: Arabica beans or Robusta beans.
The arabica plant (Coffea arabica) has a long, oval shape and is grown at high altitudes under special environmental and geological conditions. This plant is vulnerable and therefore costs more to produce, but the resulting coffee has better qualities. Arabica beans are almost always used in gourmet coffees, either pure or in blends with small amounts of robusta, although it should be noted that not all arabica beans are of high quality.
As the name suggests, robusta (Coffea canephora, Coffea robusta) beans have a strong flavor and can be bitter. The beans are shorter and rounder than arabica beans. This plant is easier to cultivate and yields more coffee at a lower cost and so is generally the lower-tier variety of the two. Robusta is found in common supermarket coffee brands and instant coffees but is rarely used in gourmet blends except for espressos. The robusta bean contains up to 100 percent more caffeine than the arabica bean. Robusta coffee accounts for about 20 percent of world coffee production.
While these two are the primary species cultivated for drinking, at least 124 species of coffee plants exist around the world. Beginning in 2008, at least nine new species of wild coffee plants have been identified in Madagascar and Cameroon. These species are listed in the following table.
New Coffee Plant Species
It remains to be seen how or even if these rare new plants may be blended with plants to create new coffee plants with special properties; there may also be gourmet coffee blends created from the beans of two or more different plants.
Conditions That Affect Coffee Plants and Flavors
Newcomers to the world of gourmet coffee (and even regular coffee drinkers) may be wondering how so many different flavors can come from primarily one species of coffee plant. It would seem that Coffea arabica would have a similar flavor whether it is grown in Indonesia or Honduras. The reality is that there are many variables that can influence the end taste of the coffee beans harvested from the plants. Some of these variables include
- Soil conditions
- Long-term general climate (humid or dry, hot or cool)
- Short-term weather experiences (rainfall, storms)
- Amount of direct sunlight
- Harvesting methods
- Processing methods
- Roasting methods
Each region experiences differing "input" into the plant growth process; therefore, each region is known for a particular taste in its coffee.
Gourmet Coffee by Region of Origin
Even casual drinkers of ordinary coffees are aware of taste differences among brands and blends. Gourmet coffee has as many or more variations, and coffee enthusiasts’ palates and tongues are often more highly fine-tuned in distinguishing one coffee from another.
Gourmet Coffee from the Islands
Coffees from Hawaii and Jamaica are particularly sought after.
Hawaiian Kona coffee is grown in volcanic soil and a sunny, wet climate. These conditions create beans with a rich, nutty flavor.
Jamaica Blue Mountain
The Blue Mountain coffee of Jamaica is highly prized and is considered by many connoisseurs to be the best coffee in the world. Blue Mountain has a sweet, fruity taste and is highly aromatic.
Asian and Indonesian Coffee
Arabica coffee from both mainland Asia and Indonesia has a mildly acidic, earthy taste.
The rare kopi luwak coffee is not for the squeamish. A wild feline known as the luwak is native to parts of Southeast Asia. The luwak feeds on coffee "cherries," metabolizes them, and excretes them as waste. The digested cherries (which are reduced to beans inside permeable skins) are picked out and processed to become drinkable coffee. Supposedly, the resulting flavor of the beans is enhanced by the animal’s digestive enzymes and acids, which is why kopi luwak cannot be recreated from cherries that are picked straight from the plant. For those with exotic tastes and strong stomachs who can overlook this process, kopi luwak is a true delicacy.
African Gourmet Coffee
Coffee from East Africa has a unique, complex taste that is difficult for connoisseurs to characterize.
Latin American Gourmet Coffee
Coffees from Central and South America generally are highly acidic, light, and sweet.
Coffee from Costa Rica tends to have a light taste and pleasant aroma. The combination of volcanic soil, a high altitude, and mild weather result in the smooth taste of Costa Rican coffee.
Honduran coffee tends to be smooth and rich. It can take on a chocolaty, nutty, or fruity flavor.
Coffee from Colombia is very well-known. It has a clean, mildly acidic taste and a strong, pleasant aroma.
Organic crops are grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. This lack of adulteration of the soil and water that nourish the coffee plants results in what most people consider to be a better-tasting plant. Organic plants must be carefully tended in order to keep them nourished and safe from pests and disease; they are often grown in the shade, and this care produces healthier plants. Farmers are also encouraged to continue good care and to harvest the cherries carefully due to the fact that they are paid more for organic coffee.
Health educators recommend organic versions of anything consumable to reduce the ingestion of toxic chemicals, so even less-experienced coffee drinkers who cannot detect a difference in taste may want to stick with organic coffee. Organic brews are also purported to be more healthful in that ideal nontoxic growing conditions encourage the coffee beans to hold more antioxidants. If for no other reason, buying organic can be justified by the fact that it is better for the environment and gives a better wage to hard-working coffee farmers.
Coffee Beans Vs. Ground Coffee
Choosing between whole beans and grounds really depends on one’s lifestyle, as each has benefits and drawbacks, as discussed below.
Gourmet Coffee Beans
A true gourmet will always recommend whole coffee beans over ground coffee. Grinding beans just before brewing gives coffee a fresher, better flavor. At-home grinding also allows a coffee drinker to achieve the perfect strength coffee; beans should be coarsely ground for a weaker brew and finely ground for a potent cup of coffee.
Gourmet Ground Coffee
Ground coffee may have a slight loss of flavor but is best for busy people who prefer to use automatic coffee makers and wake up to a fresh, hot cup of coffee. Ground coffee is also more easily portable than a container of beans and a grinder. Beginners to gourmet coffee may want to begin with ground coffee before investing in a grinder.
Where to Find Gourmet Coffee
Gourmet coffee is available from a wide variety of sources, including
- Supermarkets and grocery stores
- Coffee shops
- Pastry and donut shops
- Gift shops
- Boutiques that sell items from around the world, including certified fair-trade coffees
- Gourmet food shops
- Natural foods stores
- Kitchen supply stores
- Online coffee "clubs" or auto-delivery services
- Online auction sites
Gourmet coffees make terrific gifts, and different blends and roasts are widely available.
How to Buy Gourmet Coffee on eBay
eBay offers you gourmet coffees from all around the world, all in one convenient location. To start shopping, visit the home page and choose the Home, Outdoors & Decor category, and then go to the Home & Garden category. Next, select Food & Wine and navigate to Coffee. Finally, enter the word "gourmet" into the Search box to narrow the item listings to only those tagged with the keyword "gourmet."
You can choose from among flavored coffee, coffee beans, coffee grounds, and coffee pods and K - cups. You can enter a price range to narrow down the listings to fit your gourmet coffee budget. You can also sort the results from lowest to highest combined cost (price plus shipping), or highest to lowest combined cost
Anyone who drinks coffee regularly should do themselves a favor by switching to gourmet coffee. The lower caffeine content is less likely to cause jitters, and organic versions have many additional health benefits, such as increased antioxidant content and lack of toxins. Not to mention the fact that gourmet coffee has a much better taste. Be sure to look for arabica bean content to know for sure whether the coffee is a true gourmet quality. The choice between ground and whole-bean coffee is up to the buyer, although those who are just trying gourmet coffee should experiment with different varieties of ground gourmet blends before investing in a personal coffee grinder. Gourmet coffee is a popular gift and, therefore, is available at a variety of retailers. If a coffee drinker is choosing between regular and gourmet coffee, he or she will always be pleased to choose the gourmet variety.