"The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee & Tea," by Travis Arndorfer and Kristine Hansen

Pros: Incredibly thorough; will help you understand every aspect of coffee and tea production and appreciation
Cons: Makes the appreciation of coffee seem unreachably expensive and complex; could be livelier in places
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Alpha Books.

If you’ve ever wanted to know everything there is to know about coffee and tea, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee & Tea is certainly a good resource. From growing locations to harvesting methods, processing to transport, home-roasting to blending, and even the best way to pull a shot of espresso, Travis Arndorfer and Kristine Hansen explore the world of these gourmet beverages from start to finish.

A World of Coffee

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee & Tea introduces us to the very basics: the discovery of coffee, its spread around the world, its arrival in Europe, some of the ways in which it has interacted with (and even influenced) history, and its travel to the Americas. From there the book branches into the processes by which coffee is grown, harvested, processed, and sold. We learn the ways in which each coffee’s location of origin affects its ultimate flavor, as well as how each method of harvesting and processing the beans contributes to the ultimate result.

The authors cover the roasting process as it’s dealt with commercially, as well as how you might approach it within your own home. They cover several home-roasting and blending methods, and describe the entire process from start to finish so you can best achieve your own favorite flavors in your home kitchen. Whether you need to understand how best to store coffee or which home roasting machines produce the best results for your needs, the information is in here.

If you’d like to “cup” your own coffee to better help you understand the differences between coffees—not to mention what you like best and how to achieve it in your own kitchen—the authors walk you through the formal process from start to finish. They also discuss how to artfully blend different varieties of coffee to achieve a flavor that will best please your palate.

Next the authors go back to a few topics that are somewhat more common in their coverage, but they do an admirable job of lending insight and useful information to the discussions. They tackle the differences between various brewing methods and why you might prefer to use one over another, as well as the details that make for the best brew no matter what process you use. They go beyond the standard advice regarding the type of water to use and provide plenty of tips you might not have thought of, such as the maximum amount of time brewed coffee can be allowed to sit before its quality degrades, how to ensure the water penetrates most evenly throughout the bed of coffee grounds, and so on.

Finally the authors devote a great deal of attention to the wide world of coffee drinks. You’ll learn about the origin and spread of various types of coffee drinks, how to navigate a coffee house’s menu, and all the ins and outs of pulling your own espresso, frothing your own milk, and creating your own signature coffee drinks—right down to the tradition of latte art and the possibility of acquiring schooling as a barista. A few coffee drink recipes are included.

The World of Tea

The greater part of this book by volume is devoted to coffee, but there’s still plenty of room to explore the wonders of tea—black, green, white, oolong, and even tisanes or herbal teas. The authors include plenty of history once again, detailing the spread of tea throughout various regions, its uses as both medicine and currency at various times, and of course its relationship to everything from its origin legends to the Boston Tea Party. We learn how tea is grown, harvested, processed, graded, and decaffeinated. Once again we explore the difference that origin makes, and how flavoring and blending both affect the teas we drink.

The authors proffer plenty of tips to ensure a reliable and delicious tea-drinking experience, whether you prefer white or black tea, a blended tisane or the acquired taste of pu-erh. They introduce tea-drinking rituals from around the world, including China, Egypt, and Japan; the high and low teas of Great Britain; Russian, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and more.

A Greater Context

Finally the authors put coffee and tea into a wider, holistic context. They explain the social, ecological, and economic implications of such things as the Fair Trade label, Rainforest Alliance Certification, shade-grown coffee, biodynamic beans, and more. They delve into the health issues surrounding caffeine in general, and coffee and tea in specific. They include a few notes on pairing food with coffee and tea, and they present the obligatory and appreciated resources for acquiring good coffee and tea.

 

For sheer volume and completeness of information this book is a winner; I learned an incredible amount of wonderful history and useful information from it. For liveliness of writing—an important consideration in the long-running “Complete Idiot’s Guides” line, which strives to make often-complex subjects accessible to the general public—it does a solid job, although it’s hard to go step-by-step through the complexities of pulling espresso, properly tamping grounds, and cleaning an espresso machine without things getting a tad boring.

I have only one major reservation regarding this book, and it was enough to bring my rating down a bit. The authors manage to convey the impression through all of their detailed information that unless you’re buying incredibly fresh beans, grinding them with an expensive grinder, brewing them with an expensive brewer, and preferably roasting green beans yourself in small batches with your own roaster, then you’re simply not drinking good coffee. I honestly couldn’t look through their recommendations and find a middle ground that I’d consider affordable that they’d consider drinking good coffee.

Given the typical market of the CIG books, this seems incongruous. It’s one thing to tell you how to spend incrementally more depending on your budget and time available to get the most out of your coffee experience, but this book makes it seem like no one except wealthy, semi-retired folks or professionals who do this for a living can make “good” coffee. That’s a shame, because I think it’s likely to make a good handful of readers throw up their hands and say “well, if I can’t do it right, why bother to go beyond my normal cheap cup and explore any of this at all?”

If you have an interest in the details of coffee and tea I do recommend that you pick up this book. Just make sure you’re willing to be a little stubborn in putting aside the authors’ overly-restrictive definitions of good coffee, and go with what you feel up to.

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2 comments on “"The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee & Tea," by Travis Arndorfer and Kristine Hansen
  1. Travis Arndorfer says:

    Actually, you don’t need expensive equipment to produce café-quality (or better) coffee at home. (Espresso is a different story, unfortunately – due largely to the complications and technology related to brewing under such pressure.) As the book points out, manual brewing methods are your best bet for top-notch coffee, and most manual brewers are inexpensive. In fact, the French presses, pour-over brewers and vacuum pots I use on a regular basis all cost less than $50 a piece.

    It seems likely that the majority of the comments here regarding the expense of making coffee and of restrictive definitions of quality coffee are in fact about espresso – an important distinction. If after reading the sections on espresso you feel a little daunted about producing espresso as good as that you’ll find in good coffeehouses, then you’ve paid attention. Pulling great espresso is an art built on science, and the rules are different than for coffee. And when you’re new to espresso, it’s easy to overlook some of these differences as minutia, resulting in a lot of frustration and bad espresso. That said, all is certainly not lost if you don’t have a huge budget, and the book spends a fair amount of time explaining the espresso landscape – including inexpensive alternatives to “true” espresso – so readers can make informed decisions. Taste reigns supreme, and in reality, plenty of people find approximating café espresso is fine for their purposes (this is especially so for the vast majority who prefer espresso drinks made with milk). But if you really want to brew true espresso with all its glory, get ready to lighten your wallet.

  2. heather says:

    I certainly expect making espresso to be expensive, so that wasn’t so much the issue. It was more that the book seemed to imply that you’d have difficulty getting a truly fresh (and therefore good) cup of coffee if you didn’t buy green beans, roast them yourself, grind them in a good-quality grinder, and so on, which I think a lot of folks would find a bit prohibitive. It may be that you and I simply have different ideas of what expensive means, or that you didn’t intend to get across that implication quite so strongly as I read it—after all, every reader takes something a little different away from a book, and authors often end up communicating something slightly different than they realize. I do appreciate your coming here to give your view on the issue!

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  1. […] concoctions. Of course, I bring it up today because I’ve finally reviewed my next book—The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Coffee & Tea. I loved the book for the level of detail, but as a CIG book it left one or two things to be […]

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