Is coffee really the second largest traded commodity in the world? Are French Roast coffees "fresher" than Light Roasts? Can you use less coffee and grind it finer? Is Fair Trade and Organic coffee higher quality? Does Espresso have to have Robusta beans? Can coffee really cure a hangover?
Out of curiosity, we decided to look a little deeper and this is what we found:
1. Coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world, second only to oil
The truth behind this one shocked me while I was doing research. Everyone in the coffee industry seems to repeat this myth without really knowing where it comes from or being able to point to the data. Maybe coffee is the second largest traded commodity, but not necessarily, it all depends on how you look at it. Mark Pendergrast, the author of "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World," explored this myth after realizing he did not provide a citation for it in the introduction to his book. His thoughts are definitely worth a read if you are interested in coffee culture and he can address this myth much better than I can. Basically it depends on if you are looking at the monetary value of the coffee or the quantity of coffee being traded and whether or not you take into account futures contracts. There is also the question of how we figure out commodity value, since coffee is roasted, looses weight during the process, is re-sold to cafes who then brew it and sell it again, etc.
2. Oily French Roast coffees are fresher than Light Roast coffees
My guess is that this myth came about because French Roast coffees look shiny, oily and fresh. Coffee geeks already know the answer to this question but it is a common misconception. Light roast coffees don't have the same oily look on their exterior and often appear dried out. Two coffees, one French and one Light, can be roasted on the exact same day and be just as fresh but look entirely different. When looking for coffee freshness, you want to see if the roasting company provides a roast date on their bags or bins. Its also usually a safe assumption that a specialty coffee roaster is roasting in small batches on a daily basis and their coffee will be fresher than the big name coffees you find on your supermarket store shelves. There is a lot of varying opinion about how long coffee stays good for. Some people think you should use all your coffee within three days. My opinion is that it tastes bests a couple of days after its been roasted and you should use up your pound of coffee within a week. If you don't drink a pound of coffee a week, try getting 1/2lb. bags. Alternatively you can go to your local cafe or co-op and get your coffee in whatever quantity you think you will use for the next week. That way, you can get as much as you think you will be able to drink before its best flavors starts to fade.
3. I can use less coffee if I grind it finer or my coffee will taste better if I use more of it
You taste the results of this myth all the time, at gas stations, cafes, restaurants and at home. Both usually result in an over-extracted, bitter tasting cup of coffee. Bitter doesn't necessarily mean strong. Ratios of coffee to water are very important. You can see my more detailed explanation here but most of us can't weigh out our coffee at home. A lot of coffee and coffee brewers come with a handy little 7gram spoon. A good rule of thumb is to use two of those spoonfuls to every 8oz of water. Unfortunately, measuring by volume instead of weight isn't that accurate. French roast coffees weigh significantly less per volume than light roast coffees, but you can either work with what you got or invest in a cheap digital scale and make your coffee much better. There is a correct ratio for optimum extraction. After you get that ratio down, then you can get a tasty, strong cup of coffee by grinding a little bit finer, instead of just getting a bitter punch in the mouth, unless you really like that sort of thing.
4. Fair Trade and Organic is higher quality and tastes better
Fair Trade and Organic coffees are often more expensive and I think that people generally believe that they will taste better than other conventional coffees because they cost more. This isn't always the case, some of the best coffees that I have tasted were not Fair Trade or Organically certified. I've tasted some great conventional coffees and some great Direct Trade coffees. Price and certification does not equal quality, they only mean that those coffees were produced following specific rules and that everyone in the chain decided to purchase the rights to use that certificate. A conventional or Direct Trade coffee could be organic or meet Fair Trade requirements but it just doesn't make sense for those involved to purchase the certificate. The best way to find a good quality coffee is to find a great micro-roaster, with a good reputation and start trying different coffees. Keep a record of what you try and you might find that you like coffees from a certain region (or a particular farm) better than other coffees. You'll discover the differences between roast levels and be able to determine what kind of roast you prefer; Light, Medium or Dark. It takes a little experimentation but if you don't have the time, ask your roaster what they like to drink. If they are coffee nerds like the rest of us, they will be all too happy to let you know what the new killer coffee is.
5. Espresso must have Robusta beans to get the right body and crema
I hear this myth a lot when working with cafe owners and baristas. Its just not true and its easy enough to prove, just pull some shots with the regular, single-origin coffees that you have. I've tried a lot of single origin coffees pulled through an espresso machine. I think its a good way to taste those coffees in a different way and it really seems to amplify a lot of their flavors, giving me a new perspective on their flavor characteristics. Its actually pretty rare to get a coffee that doesn't have a good body and crema when pulled through an espresso machine. Even when its not an espresso blend, there are still plenty of the oils present that are essential for a good crema.
6. Coffee can cure a hangover
This one is just for fun. Coffee can certainly help wake you up in almost any circumstance but it won't cure your hangover and could potentially make it worse if you don't make sure to also re-hydrate yourself. Coffee can increase the potency of some painkillers like Asprin though. So if you have a cup of coffee with that morning Asprin, it might help get you up and running a little bit sooner.