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Modern ways of drinking coffee

<>Pocket Guide to Modern Life The grind of the 21st century throws up obstacles at every turn. Nikolaus Oliver is on hand with advice to guide you through.

Modern coffee is the most technological of drinks. Making it requires equipment that resembles an oil refinery or nuclear power station. Little did that ancient goatherd in Ethiopia realise what he was starting when he watched his livestock eat some berries and leap about afterwards all animated and frolicsome, and decided (the Ethiopian, not the goats) to boil these berries up in some water and taste them for himself.

Coffee drinking began in the Middle East and in the 17th century went to Europe but was overtaken by tea and moved to America, where they never learned to make a drinkable cup, until someone in Italy invented the best thing in the world - the espresso machine - around 1920. By the 1990s, some Americans in Seattle finally mastered how this machine works and coffee drinking went global. But it also got complicated. Boiling water and pouring it over ground-up coffee is just not how it works.

Why is the modern cup of coffee so complex? It's the volatile flavour oils, my dear. You see, to get the best out of the bean, you need to have the water at 190-200 degrees Fahrenheit and force between 1.25 and 1.75 fluid ounces of it through 17 grams of coffee at a pressure not less than 130 psi and the whole process should take between 25 and 30 seconds. And the equipment has to be scrupulously clean. And the beans have to be extremely fresh. Achieving all this is only slightly less bothersome than space travel or bringing about world peace.

Once you've got your little cup of coffee - congratulations, it's an espresso - you can add a tiny bit of hot frothed milk (espresso macchiato), quite a lot of hot foamy milk (cappuccino) or frankly, too much hot frothed milk (latte), and it will be the most delicious thing you've ever tasted. Of course, you can try to avoid this fuss and get a machine that looks "cool" and uses small metallic containers of coffee. And once mastered, this will give you a plausible coffee-flavoured drink. But not a real cup of coffee. Not even close.

Some of the best coffees in the world are still produced in Ethiopia. I know many places that serve a truly terrible cup of coffee. I have yet to find a really good one.

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