by Karen Foley, courtesy of Fresh Cup Magazine

Ah, to prepare an intoxicating cup of coffee (or tea, of course). Brewing methods are the means to enjoying our beguiling brews–the artistic side of Coffea arabica and Camellia sinensis. Certainly, we're all familiar with the craft of pulling shots from a gleaming espresso machine or dropping loose tea leaves into a decorative infuser, but remember: Brewing coffee and tea was an art in its own right far before the invention of espresso machines and fancy infusers. Take the Ethiopian coffee ceremony–a ritualistic ode to coffee born long before the idea of brewing coffee even entered into the consciousness of much of the world.

These rituals, whether as elaborate as a Japanese tea ceremony or as simple as using a French press, place coffee and tea in a much broader cultural context and remind us that the drinks we rely on to hoist us into cognizance every day extend quite a history. Here are some of the more romantic ways to show your affection for coffee and tea.

Vacuum Pot
An early-nineteenth-century invention, the dramatic vacuum pot is more complicated than most brewing methods, but unquestionably more entertaining. There are many variations on the traditional design, but it is usually a vertical unit incorporating two bowls and a heating element. The lower bowl contains the water and has a wide opening to hold an upper bowl and a filter (often glass, sometimes cloth or paper).Beneath the lower bowl sits the heating unit.

To use, heat the water in the lower bowl to a boil.Then place your coffee grounds (a medium-fine grind) in the upper bowl, attach it to the lower bowl and return everything to medium heat. The water will rise into the upper bowl, at which point you should stir the coffee and reduce or turn off the heat. This will create a vacuum in the lower bowl, which will then draw the coffee through the filter into the lower bowl to produce brewed coffee. Remove the upper bowl and serve the coffee from the lower bowl. If used properly, a vacuum pot can brew a clear, rich coffee.

French Plunger, or French Press
This apparatus as we know it today has graced the tables of the French for years. Some people argue that a French press produces a richer coffee than any other brewing technique. Whether that's true or not, it undoubtedly makes great coffee. Part of this is due to the fact that coffee in a French press is steeped rather than filtered.

Using a French press is fairly simple. First, the grind must be coarse to keep the coffee grounds from seeping through the wire mesh strainer. Rinse the carafe with hot water, add your ground coffee and cover it with boiling water. Allow the coffee to steep for about five minutes and push the strainer through the water so the grounds rest on the bottom of the carafe. Serve immedately to prevent overextraction of the brewed coffee.

The Chemex
A laboratory-like apparatus, the chemex brews coffee through filtration. Chemexes are usually made of glass and essentially look like lab beakers. The original design sported a wooden band bound with leather string around the "neck" of the beaker. Some newer models, however, instead feature glass handles. Using a chemex is fairly basic. Special circular or square filters are used to hold the coarsely ground coffee at the base of the neck, and heated water is poured over the grounds. The beaker can then be placed directly on a stove to keep the coffee warm. The coffee produced from this method can be quite good, and the filters prevent under extraction.

Flip-Drip Pot
Also known as the café filtre, the napoletana or the macchinetta, the flip-drip pot is perfect for brewing a small amount of coffee. It basically looks like a pot and a cup sitting on top of one another. Its shape is cylindrical, and it consists of three compartments–one to hold the coffee, one to hold the water and one to serve as a filter.

First, fill the lower chamber with water and bring it to a boil. Then, turn off the heat and flip the pot upside down, allowing the water to filter through the coffee grounds. The water will filter completely through after a few minutes, and once it has, stir the coffee to evenly distribute the flavor.

Many flip-drips are made of stainless steel, but unfortunately, some are made of aluminum, which can make the coffee taste a bit metallic. In addition, the oil from the coffee can sometimes interact with the metal and become rancid, so you should clean these pots regularly.

Moka Pot, or Stove-Top Espresso Maker
Visit any Italian household and you're bound to find a moka pot teeming with freshly brewed coffee. Like the flip-drip, the moka pot contains an upper and lower unit, with a filter in between. The moka pot, however, features a tube in the upper chamber from which the brewed coffee flows. The grind for a moka pot should be medium-fine to allow the water to filter through the coffee well.

Fill the bottom compartment with cold water and pack the filter with ground coffee, tamping it lightly. Attach the top chamber and place the pot over medium heat. Before long the pot will begin to hiss, and you'll start to see coffee trickling out of the tube, then steadily flowing. Once the coffee starts to spew rather than flow, remove it from the heat. Then detach the upper chamber and serve the coffee.

Turkish Method
For centuries, coffee has been an integral part of Turkish culture. Men and women have used it to ponder life issues and engage each other in intellectual conversations, giving it the reputation as "the milk of chess players and thinkers." Today, Turks still adore this enticing elixir, and the Turkish brewing method is enjoyed by people around the world.

Turkish coffee is a very fine grind, often containing cardamom, and it is brewed in a decorative pot called an ibrik, or cezve. To make the coffee, fill the pot two-thirds full of water. Add as much sugar as you like, and then top that with a spoonful of coffee. As the coffee heats up, it should start to foam, but you don't want it to foam over the edge of the pot. The foam (kaymak) is key in Turkish coffee, and an absence from the top of the coffee can be an embarrassing faux pas for the person brewing. After letting it foam up three times, pour the coffee, foam first, into small demitasse cups. Pour slowly so the grounds settle to the bottom of the pot rather than slipping into cups.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
Ethiopia is, of course, where it all began. This is where people first fell in love with coffee and decided that merely brewing it wasn't enough. Coffee, to the Ethiopians, deserved its own amorous ceremony in which natives revealed a deep respect for Coffea arabica. The ceremony, which can last up to two hours, is usually performed by women, and it's a time for friends and family to gather in daily celebration.

First, flowers and straw are laid out on a rug or mat on the grounds. A lovely earthenware coffee pot is heated over hot coals, in addition to the green coffee beans, which are carefully roasted in a pan. The beans are then crushed with a pestle-like instrument and placed in the clay pot of boiling water. After the coffee has steeped it is poured into small cups and the youngest child present often serves the coffee, first to the eldest person, then to the other family members and friends. Sometimes incense is burned and food, such as bread, is served as well.

And Tea

 

The Guywan
The covered teacup known as a Guywan, was developed by the Chinese for brewing green teas, and it exemplifies simple, utilitarian design. It consists of a small cup with a lid and saucer. To use it, place some tea leaves in the cup and cover them with hot water, pouring around the leaves rather than directly over them. Then replace the lid and allow the tea to steep. Use the lid to stir the leaves and hold them back while you sip the tea. Always keep the saucer with the cup, using one hand to manage the lid and cup and the other to hold the saucer. When you have finished drinking the tea, add more water to the cup for another infusion or keep the leaves moist to allow for later infusions.

Gong-Fu Service
Originally intended for brewing oolongs, the centuries-old gong-fu ritual (meaning "to do things well") now extends itself to other tea varieties. The set-up usually consists of a small Yixing pot, a few handleless thimble cups and saucers, a pitcher, a tray/drainer, and some utensils, such as bamboo tweezers and a scoop. Everything in gong-fu service is small and delicate, revealing the elegance of the tea it promotes.

You first want to pour hot water from your pitcher over the cups and teapot (the water will fall into the holes in the tray). Then fill the pot about two-thirds full of leaves and rinse or awaken them with boiled water. Immediately pour out the water and take in the aroma of the leaves. Refill the pot with water and replace the lid. Pour more boiling water over the top of the pot and allow the tea to steep. After the tea has infused to your liking, pour it into the cups, doing so without lifting the pot upright. Makes sure each cup contains an equally strong infusion by filling the cups halfway first, then finishing them off in the opposite direction (usually left to right, then right to left). Enjoy the delicate essence of the tea.

Japanese Tea Ceremony
Centuries ago, Buddhist priests developed a ceremony based on their belief that tea was spiritually linked to the peaceful ideals promoted by Buddhism. With passing generations, the Japanese tea ceremony, known as chanoyo, became a more elaborate tribute to tea and established itself as an important component of Japanese culture. But unlike many other forms of serving tea that focus mostly on the drink itself, this ritual is really about the ceremony–everything that leads up to the brewed tea. The objective is to purify the senses and cultivate harmony and unity between the surroundings, the people, the utensils, the tea, and anything else involved in the ceremony,

A full ceremony is usually preceded by a traditional Japanese meal, but the ritual is often performed without such a prelude. It takes place in a small room (about 9' x 9') lined with several tatami mats. Usually an empty corridor or garden pathway leads to the room, and as guests enter, they wash their mouths and hands, remove their shoes, and bow down beneath a low door–a sign of humility and equality. Upon entering, they should admire the arrangement of the room–and observe the host (or tea master), who will light a charcoal fire and begin handling the utensils with carefully choreographed grace and tranquillity.

The host fills a kettle with water and boils it over the fire. Then, one by one, he scoops some powdered green tea (matcha) into ceramic tea bowls and whisks it with the boiled water. The tea becomes thick and frothy, and the host passes the bowls around for each guest to sip from. Small sweetmeats (usually made of bean curd) are often passed around as well, and compliments are exchanged. Then the host smothers the fire, and a second bowl of thinner green tea is usually made, indicating the conclusion of the ceremony.

Russian Tea
In Russia tea is as ubiquitous as vodka. Russians drink it throughout the day, and nearly everyone owns a samovar. While this decorative urn is actually a Chinese invention, it has become identified with Russian tea drinking. Samovars are usually made of bronze or copper, and though many people think they brew tea, they are actually only used to boil water.

Basically, water is boiled in the samovar and poured from the urn's spigot into a teapot filled with tea (usually black, like a Lapsang Souchong). The tea is brewed strong and poured halfway into cups. In order to balance the strength of the tea, more water is added to the cup from the samovar. Then, as is customary in Russian tea, something is added to sweeten the drink whether as simple as a lemon slice or sugar cube or as fanciful as a spoonful of jam. Sometimes people even hold the jam or sugar cube in their mouths as they drink the tea. Whatever the method, tea time to Russians is no time for timidity.

British Afternoon Tea
"Taking tea" is a permanent part of the British lexicon, and even if you've never actually experienced it, the phrase surely conjures up mental images of porcelain china and cucumber sandwiches. Afternoon tea usually occurs at 4 p.m., and in addition to tea, it includes an assortment of finger foods, such as sandwiches, pastries and scones.

The tradition stems from the early nineteenth century, when a typical day's dining for English aristocracy consisted of two meals per day–a late breakfast and a late dinner. Unfortunately one aristocrat, Anna, Duchess of Bedford, had a heartier appetite than such a diet allowed, and she would often become weak and hungry by afternoon. To hold her over, she began inviting friends over for afternoon tea and snacks, and before long, the idea became an accepted British norm.

Today the ritual has remained true to its original intent. Porcelain china and silver is used, and it's a time to sit and relax with friends. It can last for up to two hours and often takes place in living rooms, where there are cozy chairs and several tables on which to place the various trays and dishes. Black tea is the drink of choice, and traditionally, the loose leaves are placed directly in a pot of boiled water. The tea steeps continuously, and after all the cups are filled, more water is added to the pot. An alternative is to use a tea ball or a pot with an infuser so you can remove the tea at the proper time.

This is merely a sampling of the many rituals practiced around the world for brewing coffee and tea. Each of these techniques, however, reminds us that coffee and tea are much more worldly than people sometimes think. They reside around the globe and reinvent themselves in a multitude of ways, and without these ceremonies, we might not think of coffee and tea as more than something to keep us warm or quench our thirst. The idea is to combine the practicalities of the drinks with the beauty of our inventive serving methods. In doing so, you not only pay tribute to these age-old beverages, but you enlighten and hopefully enliven the people you're serving.

Karen Foley is the editor of Fresh Cup Magazine.
She can be reached at karen@freshcup.com.


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