This week while you're enjoying your favourite coffee beverage and looking for something to read, I thought I would offer up my own list of the Top 10 Coffee Myths.
1) The best coffees in the world come from Italy.
Actually, unless someone is growing coffee as an indoor plant, no coffee is grown in Italy at all. Italy's coffee fame rests on its coffee companies abilities as roasters and blenders for espresso. There is no doubt that the average Italian regards coffee as one of life's essentials, but at the same time there are few Italian coffee connoisseurs. As long as the coffee is of a certain standard it will be acceptable (and cheap!) The end result is that most of the green coffee going in to Italy is "good average" at best rather than specialty grade, and most of the roasted coffee exported is designed to give a consistent "good average" espresso.
Despite what it says on the packets, roasted AND ground coffee from Italy is normally designed to be used in Moka Pots rather than espresso machines.
2) Robusta beans are necessary in espresso to give the correct body and crema, which is why the Italians use them.
Robusta was initially used in Italian espresso blends because it was cheap; the crema and body were a welcome side effect if you could tolerate the rubbery flavour. In the poorer south of Italy (and most of France) people have grown up with robusta blends and are used to the taste, but in the north there are several roasters (Illy being the most famous) that produce only 100% Arabica blends.
As far as crema and body are concerned, a properly designed Arabica blend can (in my experience) produce better results than any Robusta blend I have tasted. Most of the Robustas used in the world today are still used for the same old reason, cheapness.
3) Coffee was discovered when Khaldi, an Arabian goatherd, noticed his goats got much friskier after eating certain berries from a bush.
Coffee has been actively cultivated in Yemen (Arabia) since at least 1000 a.d., but it originally comes from Ethiopia, where the archeological record supports coffee cultivation and consumption (in the form of berries, ground seeds, fermented beverages etc.) going back thousands of years. ROASTED coffee beans turned into an invigorating beverage (coffee the drink) does seem to have been invented in Yemen around 1200 a.d. or so.
4) You can tell how fresh coffee is by looking at it.
Oily, glossy coffee is supposed to be fresher than dull, oil free coffee. In truth, coffee appearance depends on so many factors, including roast level, bean oil content, storage conditions etc. that sight is no guide. Only taste and smell give a real result.
5) There is a single correct roast level for all coffee, or, conversely, there is only one correct roast point for each coffee variety, where the best flavour is achieved.
The first seems to be a myth initially propagated in the USA by Alfred Peet, after which Starbucks took it and ran with it, resulting in what I call the "Full City Myth". (i.e. The Right Roast for our Special Beans is Full City and Only Full City.) The second point of view is often expounded by small roasters in an effort to differentiate their products. Both can be disproved by roasting a good quality bean (Kenya AA or Costa Rica Tarrazu) at a variety of levels from light to dark and tasting the results. All the levels will taste different, but, to my tastebuds, they'll all be good in their own way. And blending a number of different roasts of a single coffee variety may add a complexity and balance which is otherwise lacking.
6) French Roast, Italian Roast, Vienna Roast, Espresso Roast are terms which actually define roast levels.
Except that you get a pretty wide variety of roasts in France, Italy and Austria and an Espresso Roast could be anything. The only "industry standard" definition of roast level is the Agtron system, and that relies on the comparison of ground coffee to standardised colour plates. When people ask for "French", "Italian" or "Espresso" roast they normally mean "Dark", or sometimes "Dark and Oily", or even "Nuked".
7) You can keep coffee fresh with packaging.
I wish. 2 year "Best Before" or "Use By" dates are REALLY mythical. At best you can slow down coffee staling with good packaging and freezing, but the longest time I managed was 13 weeks, and that was freshly roasted coffee, vac packed in valved laminated bags and frozen within 24 hours of roasting in a chest-type freezer. Much lower freezer temperatures (-30C ?) can apparently prolong this, but are unlikely to be found outside special facilities. I'd give my own packaged coffees about 2 weeks at room temperature at the outside.
8) There is a single grind level which suits most brewing methods.
There must be, after all, those pre-ground bricks at the supermarket have pictures of everything from plungers to espresso machines on the side, along with the words "Suitable For" or "For Use In". The truth is that for each brewing process there is a single combination of method, grind, water temperature and coffee which will produce the optimum flavour result. Grind level is usually determined by the amount of time the coffee spends in contact with the water at the correct temperature; the less the contact time, the finer the grind.
9) It costs a fortune to "get into" good coffee and become a coffee connoisseur.
Actually, in my not-so-humble opinion it costs about A$30.00 (US$15.00) to set one's feet on the stairway to coffee heaven, the price of a decent plunger and 250g of good coffee. Yes, if you really want to get fanatical about it you CAN end up spending heaps of money on roasters, grinders and brewers, but it's not absolutely necessary. A trustworthy supplier of fresh specialty coffees should be your first stop.
10) You can't (insert coffee skill here) at home as well as the professionals can.
Oh yes you can! ANYTHING that can be done in a professional coffee environment can be duplicated at home, although some of the more obscure or arcane items might take considerable investment. You can roast, grind and brew coffee BETTER than most "professional" establishments. What it takes is a combination of knowledge, skill, equipment, practice and above all enthusiasm. Any time someone in the coffee industry tells you that "it's impossible to achieve this sort of result at home" you can be pretty sure that they're full of it! (And I don't mean Coffee!)
A quick postscript.. 11) You can judge the quality of a coffee by the price paid for it.
I'll leave THAT one up to the reader to figure out for themselves!