Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Coffee

Samuel Lewontin is a competitive barista (yes, that exists) at Everyman Espresso in New York City. Below, he answers all of our burning questions about coffee, including, incidentally, questions about burnt coffee.

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6-Cup Pour-Over Glass Coffee Maker by Chemex, $42, williams-sonoma.com.
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Which method is best for home-brewing?

It depends on how much work you're willing to put in. How much of the satisfaction you get from drinking coffee actually comes from the making of that coffee? If you want to make coffee that doesn't require a lot of work, there are some great single-cup automated brew methods out there. If you want to get a little more involved, there are also some great ways to brew your coffee manually.

Kalita Wave 185 Stainless Steel Brewer, $40, buddybrew.com.
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Some of my favorites are Chemex, Kalita Wave, and AeroPress. The flavor produced by each is often defined by what filter you use. At one end of the spectrum, there is the Chemex, which uses a very thick paper filter. The paper filter catches just about everything, and results in a cup that contains only the liquid that has been fully dissolved. There is very little sediment or insoluble oil in a cup of Chemex-brewed coffee. So Chemex coffee is very light-bodied and comparatively delicate, with intense clarity of flavor. You will really be able to pick out the tasting notes.

8 Cup French Press Coffee Maker by Bodum, $20, target.com.

The other extreme is the French press, which uses a mesh filter and requires a course ground coffee. The silt and the oil stay in the coffee, and they actually come together and trap flavor. So the coffee produced is intense, and has a high viscosity, but it lacks the clarity of a coffee brewed with a Chemex. Pretty much every other manual brew method falls somewhere between those two extremes.

Espresso-and-milk drinks are apparently controversial, in addition to being delicious. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images
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What's the difference between a latte, a cappuccino, and a flat white?

This is something that is contentious. I think the way these drinks are defined requires cultural context. In the end, they are all combinations of espresso and milk. The flat white originated in either Australia or New Zealand—that's disputed—and it was created in response to the cappuccinos they make there, which are different from the cappuccinos we know here.

A double espresso actually has a little less caffeine than an eight-ounce serving of filter coffee. Filter coffee, generally speaking, will always give you more caffeine.

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Our cappuccinos are fairly small, concentrated, and are a heavier ratio of espresso to milk compared to a latte. The cappuccinos served down under are larger, have a stiff foam on the top, and even have some chocolate powder dusting the surface. It's a frillier drink. The flat white was invented as a no-nonsense alternative.

Here at Everyman, we have a standard for our milk texture that we understand to be the "correct" milk texture, so it does not change from drink to drink. So for us, a flat white is essentially the same thing as a cappuccino.

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If we're looking for a new and different coffee drink, what should we be ordering?

What I'm drinking right now is called a "one and one," which is a single espresso served alongside—traditionally, a macchiato—but on our menu, a cortado. For a long time it has been an industry, off-menu order. It's great to order if you want to taste coffee in a lot of different ways. This is a pretty common drink for people who work in the coffee industry.

Other non-standard orders often change shop-to-shop. I would suggest looking at the list of filter coffees and choosing one that has some tasting notes that sound new and exciting to you.

Is there anything that smells better than freshly brewed coffee? Probably not. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

What are the most important characteristics of different types of coffee beans to know? For example, what are the differences between a Kenya coffee and an Ethiopian coffee?

It's easy to relate coffee beans and coffee to different grapes and wine—things will be regionally different. However, coffee is not like the wine industry in that there is not a coffee authority the way there are authorities in, say, Burgundy who set the standard for what a Burgundy wine should be. There is a lot of diversity between coffee regions and within coffee regions.

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If you think you don't like coffee, you just haven't had the right cup.

It's fair to say that the majority of good Kenyan coffee has tasting notes that are similar to blackberries and blackcurrants, or even tomato or grapefruit. Ethiopian coffees that are naturally processed often have very distinctive, concentrated, and bright berry flavors, like strawberry, blueberry, and raspberries. But there are exceptions. I always advise reading the tasting notes on the coffee menu, and talking to your barista to pick out the best coffee for you. A lot of our job behind the coffee bar is knowing what the coffees taste like thoroughly enough to advise you.

Can he have the coffee? We may never know. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

Is coffee OK for dogs?

I don't know. I wish I had the answer to that.

Is coffee OK for children?

It's definitely a personal choice for a parent to make themselves. It is a myth that coffee stunts your growth; my understanding is that stemmed from coffee being an appetite suppressant. You have to eat to grow. But I'm not a parent, so it's not really for me to say.

Don't do it! It's disgusting, and you know it. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images
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Can you reheat coffee without ruining it?


Cold brew, or iced coffee? Let's heat up this debate. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images
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What's the difference between cold brew and iced coffee?

Cold brew is a way of making iced coffee. In brewing with cold water, you are slowing down the brewing process significantly. Hot liquids will always dissolve things faster. So cold brew can take 12 to 24 hours. This means that your margin of error becomes a lot wider; in a hot brewing process that takes four minutes, every movement is crucial. You have to be a lot more precise. Cold brew is so popular because it's easy to get right.

There is truly great coffee out there, and it's worth finding.

The flip side of this is that a lot of the tasting notes in coffee come from flavor compounds that aren't soluble at a lower temperature. Basically, all cold brew tastes the same. If you want to celebrate the diversity of coffee, cold brew isn't going to be your jam.

If you want consistency, cold brew could be perfect for you. The flavor of cold brew is roasty, nutty, heavy. I prefer iced coffee that's "flash brewed," which means it was brewed hot, doubly strong, directly over a specified amount of ice. It communicates the flavors that I associate with refreshment: snap, acidity, citrus.

Which coffee drinks should we be ordering for maximum caffeine and minimum caffeine, not including decaf?

There is not a ton of variation in caffeine levels between drinks. However, generally speaking, you will get less caffeine from an espresso-based drink. You can control exactly how much espresso goes in. A double espresso actually has a little less caffeine than an eight-ounce serving of filter coffee. Filter coffee, generally speaking, will always give you more caffeine.

Your coffee is going to be great, no matter how you brew it. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

How much can you modify a drink at a coffee shop without being a jerk?

As much as you want! I am firmly of the opinion that as long as I have what you want in the shop, it's yours. No judgment.

What do you want the world to know about coffee?

Coffee is awesome, drink it! My biggest message is that if you think you don't like coffee, you just haven't had the right cup. So many people who think they don't like coffee only feel that way because they've been served gross coffee. And to them I say, I'm really sorry about that. There is truly great coffee out there, and it's worth finding.

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