coffee

The art of coffee making might not seem like the sort of topic you’d expect to see in a publication like this one. But there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be covered: we use caffeine as a productivity and lifestyle tool, using it to wake up in the mornings, keep ourselves going longer than usual when deadlines approach and emergencies arise, and even to enhance the effects of twenty minute naps known as “caffeine naps.”

Not all coffee is created equal — some methods of delivery will provide more taste and caffeine than others. There are also different tips and tricks you can apply to get more of the caffeine out of the bean and into the cup during the brewing process.

Note: Don’t even try and convince me that coffee is bad and I should remove it from my lifestyle. Even if you win me over intellectually, I’ve spent way too much money on the habit to change my mind now. ;) And while we’re still using italics, the image is by VisualPanic.

And if you’d like to know how to defend yourself from the assailants of our faith, check out this article I wrote around about this time last year.

Throw Out the Instant

You shouldn’t be drinking that instant swill. It tastes like garbage. But taste is not the most central focus of this article: caffeine delivery is. On that note, you should still throw out the instant.

Depend on your morning cup of instant coffee to “get you going”? Here’s the breakdown on caffeine content in a variety of types of coffee thanks to Energy Fiend, in milligrams of caffeine per ounce of beverage:

  • Coffee (brewed): 13.44
  • Coffee (drip): 18.12
  • Coffee (espresso): 51.33
  • Coffee (instant): 7.12

And for comparison’s sake:

  • Coca-Cola Classic: 2.88
  • Diet Coke: 3.75
  • Dr Pepper: 3.42
  • Mountain Dew: 4.58
  • Red Bull: 9.64

In short, while instant might yield better results than most soft drinks, it is the worst performer among varying types of coffee at delivering caffeine. You might also notice that energy drinks like Red Bull don’t hold a candle to a decently brewed coffee.

Buy Cheaper Coffee — Arabica vs Robusta

So I said “half-decent” cup of coffee in the headline. This particular point has absolutely nothing to do with decency of taste; what I’m about to suggest will actually worsen the taste, and truth be told I wouldn’t actually ever choose to do this myself, as an espresso brewing hobbyist who does it for the taste. But if you drink coffee purely for the caffeine, your choice might be different.

There are two types of coffee bean: arabica and robusta. The pros and cons of each can be easily summarized.

  • Arabica tastes much better, but has around 1% caffeine content.
  • Robusta tastes like monkey hairs, but has around 2% caffeine content.

If you hate coffee no matter what kind it is, go for the robusta so you can get more caffeine while drinking less.

If you do care about the quality of the beans, you might want to look around for an arabica bean that is grown for its higher-than-average caffeine content such as Black Magic.

Spend Your Money on the Grinder

Thinking about dropping a few hundred on an espresso machine and grabbing a $20 grinder to go with it? Think again.

When it comes to coffee equipment, the grinder is the most important piece of gear, and is also one of those pesky devices where you need to pay fairly respectable amounts of money for something that does the job properly, depending on what that job is. I’m not as familiar with the American market but the absolute minimum spend for a quality grinder that does espresso, French press, filter and percolator is about AU$220 (US$150) at this time.

Espresso can’t be made without a fine grind. Cheap grinders cannot grind fine enough. The level of grind and the level of tamp pressure are the two factors that generally affect pour time, which should be between 23 and 30 seconds for a shot of espresso. A cheap grinder and cheap espresso machine will usually get you a 10 second pour, which is far too quick. On the flip side, grind too fine and you will choke your machine and nothing will come out.

When it comes to budgeting for your gear, Mark Prince of CoffeeGeek.com recommends that a budget of US$300 for espresso machine and grinder should start with a split of $150 designated for the machine and $150 designated for the grinder, and you can slowly back off the portion of funds dedicated to the grinder as your budget goes up.

But what you care about is the caffeine, right? A coffee brewed from a finer grind yields a higher caffeine content than one made with a coarse grind. While brewed coffee in our list above had a lower caffeine content than drip coffee, French press tastes a whole lot better and if you follow these instructions for French press brewing from the founder of Sweet Maria’s you should be able to get a cup of plunger coffee that packs more of a punch. Of course, I doubt that’s his motive for brewing that way, but it works.

A note: just because French press, percolator and filter coffee will let you get away with a coarser grind, they still have to be even grinds. That means your average $20 grinder will not do.

Turkish coffee requires a grind even finer than espresso and should yield a high caffeine content (though I have no evidence), which may explain why the two dedicated Turkish coffee drinkers I know are always yelling at each other.

Myth: Darker Roast = More Caffeine

It’s not true. It’s a myth. The level of roast actually has very little impact on caffeine levels in coffee, so feel free to experiment with different roast levels and find out what tastes best for you without feeling deprived. Intuitively speaking I would’ve thought the opposite — that a heavier roasting process would destroy more of the caffeine than a lighter roast would, but that’s not true either.

The caffeine content of a bean is influenced by its type and origin, not roast level.

What to Buy

So you want to give up drinking instant but don’t know what sort of coffee equipment or brewing method to go for. My recommendations…

You want cheap and convenient. Get a French press and a decent grinder. Any French press will do (don’t worry whether your model is insulated or not, because after ten minutes your coffee is stale anyway), and you don’t need a grinder that can grind particularly fine but you do need one that grind evenly, so get a burr grinder. Don’t buy one of those “whipper-snipper” pieces of junk.

You want quality and caffeine. Not to imply that you can’t get a quality brew from a French press — bean brokers and roasters use French press to test beans because espresso ruins many of the subtleties in the flavor — but if you want to pack a lot of caffeine into a quality cup of coffee and maybe pick up a complicated but fascinating art form, I recommend espresso brewing.

Espresso brewing is fun and involved, and sometimes difficult (regularly difficult at first). The resulting cup of coffee is much more your own creation than regular brewed coffee because of all the variables involved. And in my opinion, it’s the best tasting. In this case, you need a decent espresso machine that you’ve done plenty of research on and a high quality grinder — it’s an option that requires more money and more research into the gear you buy.

If you want to continue exploring coffee, I suggest a site like CoffeeGeek.com — run by people who know way more about coffee than me.

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