Coffee and humanity have a long, shared history. When you go to your favorite coffee shop to get your usual life-sustaining libation, you are taking part in a tradition that is both ancient and widely practiced. The brew that sits steaming in your cup has a lineage that can be traced back nearly 600 years to Muslim monasteries in the Mocha area of Yemen, where the first historical evidence of roasting and brewing coffee beans was found. This practice was small and limited at first, but quickly spread due to Yemeni traders, and by the 16th century coffee found its way to the rest of the Middle East, Persia, Turkey and North Africa. Due to frequent trading between North Africa and Venice, the coffee bean then rooted itself in Italy, eventually migrating to the rest of Europe from there. Once the Europeans got a taste they began to trade in coffee beans — mainly through the Dutch East India Trading Company. This, with the help of colonialism, helped to ensure that coffee was geographically widespread by the 19th century.
While passing through numerous cultures and contexts on its rise to incredible popularity, coffee picked up some distinctive aspects along the way — namely the way in which it is prepared and brewed. As coffee rubbed off on culture and history, so too did culture and history rub off on it. Because of this there are many diverse ways one can brew this ubiquitous beverage. Although some methods are more widely used than others, it is not impossible today to find many ways in which coffee is brewed, and they all have distinct effects on the resulting product.
Espresso is a very common form of brewing today, especially in the United States and Europe. Its name derives from the Italian word for “express” — which makes sense since it was invented to quickly serve a precise portion of coffee. It appeared fairly recently, having first been patented in the late 19th century in Italy. The brewing process consists of forcing pressurized, near-boiling water through finely ground coffee beans. The result is not only fast, but produces a concentrated, thicker form of coffee. This is due to the fact that the espresso method emulsifies the natural oils of the beans into the water. Pure espresso is very strong, and most people choose to mix the coffee with milk, hot water or any number of things to mellow and balance the taste. This practice has become prolific in the last decade due to the meteoric rise of chain coffee shops like Starbucks.
Drip brewing, on the other hand, has been a consistently practiced method for decades, and is probably what is most commonly associated with traditional coffee. The basic premise of drip brewing is that hot water is slowly dripped into coffee grounds that are contained in a paper filter and suspended over a cup or pot. This is the simplest way of brewing coffee, and most every electric coffee maker in the world today uses the drip method. But simplicity comes at a price, and most of the oils of the roasted coffee beans are caught up in the filter, leaving a less complex brew. In an effort to combat this the phenomenon pour-over coffee has been increasing in popularity. This process, while essentially still drip, requires very slow, manual pouring of hot water over the grounds. The manual component of pour-over allows complete control over the brewing process, and experienced hands can produce results that could never be achieved through a machine-operated drip.
Another lesser-known but very effective way of brewing is the french press. Patented in 1929 by an Italian designer, the french press is a kind of happy medium between the complex, concentrated espresso and the simplistic, mellow drip. Essentially, the french press is a container that integrates a plunger with a wire or nylon mesh on the bottom. Coffee grounds and hot water are combined directly in the container, and once the brewing period is completed the plunger is pressed down, trapping the coffee grounds in the bottom of the press — contained by the mesh. The resulting coffee is not overly-strong or concentrated, but still incorporates the oils that are often trapped in the filter of the drip technique.
These are the most distinct and widely practiced brewing methods out there today, but there are still many more being practiced around the world every day. One of the truly incredible aspects of coffee is its diversity. Someone who loves coffee should really delve into every facet of it — and trying different brewing methods is an excellent way to do that.