Walk into any coffee shop at 8 a.m. and you'll find the same thing: a queue of bleary-eyed, eager folk, quivering with anticipation for the heady aroma of coffee brewing and the reassuring "bzzzzz" of a burr grinder or "whoosh" of a short espresso pull.
Why do we love our morning brew? Maybe it's the pleasurable taste and mouth feel of a warm, creamy late or a potent, bittersweet espresso. Maybe it's the company of like-minded folk, huddled in eager anticipation of their morning fix. Or maybe it's just the gratifying jolt of an instant infusion of stimulants. Caffeine is key; a quick hit of the stuff increases mental acuity, stimulates heart rate and respiration, and has mild psychotropic (mood-altering) effects. It's why we love coffee.
But when love turns into an obsession, caffeine has a dark side. Drink too much of it, and you'll dehydrate your cells, burden your liver, increase your blood pressure and stimulate your central nervous system into what approaches a fight-or-flight response, leaving you jittery, anxious or high-strung.
Ultimately, like any good affair, a relationship with caffeine should leave you feeling fulfilled, not tense. And, like any good affair, quality, not quantity, is what counts. The prevailing wisdom holds that, unless you have some kind of predisposing condition--insomnia, anxiety disorders, stomach sensitivities, high blood pressure--a cup is just dandy for most people. And that means an eight-ounce cup, not the Big Gulp size common to most coffee shops.
The bottom line: most people can safely enjoy the zingy buzz of coffee in moderation, and with an eye toward quality. Find your perfect match from these selections; this is one love story with a happy ending.
• Light roast coffee. A very brief roasting process yields a pale reddish-brown hue, with an aromatic, bright but mellow flavor. Their smooth quality belies their caffeine content: most lighter roasts have as much caffeine as dark roasts. They'll whisper in your ear, instead of screaming in your face. Perfect if you like to ease into the day slowly.
• Medium roast. These beans are baked a bit longer, yielding a rich-brown coffee with a deeper and more aromatic flavor than light roasts, but with less edge than darker varieties. They're complex, fragrant and flavorful, lacking in the bitter qualities that can spoil any romance.
• Dark roasts. The beans are cooked to a deep, glossy brown or black; this is the roast most often used for espresso. The most popular of these are Italian and French roasts. Dark roasting must be done with great attention and care. It's easy to go from a deep, rich flavor to burned beans. Finely crafted, though, dark coffee is a passionate choice for those who like their relationships intense, edgy, even a little explosive.
• Varietals. For many years, coffees were made by blending beans from many different regions. Like wine or chocolate, coffee varietals are unblended selections hailing from a single country, region or crop. Some of the most popular of these are Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona. Discriminating and refined coffee lover? This is the brew for you.
• Decaffeinated. Met with mild derision among some coffee lovers, decaf has its place in the coffee world. A good brew will retain all the rich coffee flavor, but none of the slap-in-the-face qualities that make an after-dinner espresso verboten for some of us. Some producers use chemical solvents to remove caffeine--a process that yields richer results, but may also leave nasty solvent residues. The chemical-free, Swiss water process is probably safer, though it may result in a less flavorful brew.
• Flavored coffees. For some folks, a hint of mint or a layer of almond improves the flavor of coffee, enhancing its natural sweetness and complex undertones. For others, flavored coffees taste like hot ice cream, with a cloying, unpleasant aftertaste. If you like a little novelty in your relationship with coffee, choose flavored varieties made with natural vanilla, ground nuts, cocoa beans or other natural flavorings. Cheaper varieties are most likely to use heavy layers of artificial flavorings that leave a cloying, unpleasant aftertaste.
Whatever variety you choose to use, make sure it's organic and preferably Fair Trade. Cheaper coffees are often grown and produced in ways that harm the environment and exploit farm workers, and there's just nothing happy or sexy about that.