Single-estate, medium-bodied, earthy flavours, smooth blends... coffee is as complex as wine. Thankfully, it's much easier to master ÿ and just as rewarding. Richard Ehrlich spills the beans

T racking down top-quality coffee is no simple task – especially in the UK. The very finest accounts for 1 or 2 per cent of world production, and in some countries, where coffee borders on religion and people drink three or four times as much of the stuff as we do, nearly all coffee is tip-top. But you can find it, if you know what you're looking for, and as with wine, knowing where it comes from and how it was made is a good first step on the road to enlightenment.

Tracking down top-quality coffee is no simple task – especially in the UK. The very finest accounts for 1 or 2 per cent of world production, and in some countries, where coffee borders on religion and people drink three or four times as much of the stuff as we do, nearly all coffee is tip-top. But you can find it, if you know what you're looking for, and as with wine, knowing where it comes from and how it was made is a good first step on the road to enlightenment.

Coffee is brewed from the seeds, universally called beans, of the fruit ("cherries") of a tropical evergreen shrub in the coffea family. There are two types, robusta and arabica. Robusta accounts for most of the world's production. Arabica is the good stuff.

Once picked, the beans need to be roasted. If you get a cup of coffee that tastes like charcoal, you're probably drinking coffee made with cheapo beans whose vile flavour the roaster needed to hide. The process is one part science and nine parts art, and it can spell the difference between perfection and disaster. It takes around 12 to 15 minutes, so errors measured in seconds can ruin a batch. Roasting is a complex business but, in essence, the shorter (lighter) the roast, the milder the flavour. Some beans take better to long roasting than others, and coffee destined for espresso machines is always given a high roast.

Roasted beans have a finite shelf life, and since grinding exposes more bean surface to air, it speeds up staling. Beans are usually sold in one-way valve bags (which allow carbon dioxide to escape while restricting exposure to oxygen), vacuum packs or airtight bags filled with inert gas. Once opened, the coffee must be used fast – ideally within a week for grounds. I keep beans for a month and notice no drop in quality so long as air is rigorously kept out.

If you're making ordinary brewed coffee in a cafetière, here are four crucial points. One: grind to the right size. Two: measure 30ml (two tablespoons) for 170ml (6fl oz) of water – too little coffee and the brew tastes bitter because of over-extraction; too much and it's overpowering. Three: draw fresh tap water, boil it, then leave to let bubbling stop before adding to the grounds. Four: brew for four minutes minimum with a maximum of six; less than four and extraction will be incomplete.

Ideally, coffee should be drunk while hot and without reheating. For all-day drinking, decant your fresh brew into a vacuum flask. If that's not possible, pour it off the grounds right after brewing, keep it in a jug, and reheat gently until just hot – in the microwave if you're careful. But never leave coffee on a hotplate for more than 15 minutes.

Which country's coffee is best? This is an unanswerable question – so much depends on personal preference, the kind and quality of the roasting and the quality of the estate the beans were grown on. As a quick guide, you can identify three main areas of production: the Americas (South and Central); Africa and Arabia; and Asia and the Pacific. Coffees from South and Central America tend to be smooth and easy to drink. Africa and Arabia are usually grouped together, though the coffees can vary widely. Most of Kenya's coffees are light- to medium-bodied, good either on their own or in blends. Both Ethiopia and Yemen produce largely fuller, bigger, often earthy flavours.

In Asia and the Pacific, Indonesia makes some outstanding, full-flavoured coffees which are sometimes aged to lower acidity and give off gorgeous earthy notes. Papua New Guinea can be fantastic. India makes a small quantity of fine coffee (look for "monsooned Malabar") aged under damp, windy conditions until it is smooth, strong and luscious.

The best general rule for buying is to look for single-estate coffees. They're always more expensive, but a good supplier can guarantee that they're the cream of the crop. At the same time, there's no shame in buying the supplier's own blends if you're looking for particular drinking qualities at a lower price. The best coffee tends to come from small, independent companies that do their own roasting, but supermarkets, God bless 'em, are raising their game in competition with the indies.

What follows is a selection of coffees ranging in quality from good to world-beating. All of these will give you a good cup. Or something even better. And where coffee is concerned, you owe it to yourself to get the best. *

The pick of the crop

Booths High Mountain Lancashire-based Booths is the only supermarket that does its own roasting, and the results are uniformly good. It sells the coffee in whole beans, by far the best way to buy, and roasts every day of the week. This blend is a real smoothie, mild in flavour; the others in the range of 15 include their own blends and regional coffees. £1.99/250g, from Booths stores, 01772 251 701

Caffe Nero Coopronaranjo Fine Cup Peaberries Peaberry coffee comes from beans that form a single seed in the pod rather than splitting, and this Costa Rican is a good single-estate example from a company better known for espresso. It has the lovely smoothness typical of Central America and makes a good all-day cup. £2.95 for 227g, mail order: www.caffenero.com

ILLY Illycaffé makes the best espresso beans. They source them from all over the coffee-growing globe and roast them expertly. You pay a premium for the care they take, but if you've invested in an expensive espresso machine, give it the best. £3.99 for 250g, widely available loose and in pre-measured "pods"

Monmouth Kirimara The Monmouth Coffee Company is another champion among small roasters, and this coffee is a rarity among Kenyans: a single-estate rather than a blend of beans sold under the generic heading of "AA" – which means, in Kenya, the finest beans graded by size and flavour. But the addition of an estate label is a plus for beans of really high quality. Best is a 50-50 combination of medium and dark roast. From £9.45 for 500g, mail order: 020 7645 3560

Sainsbury'S Taste The Difference Australian Skybury Blend Australia is not known as a coffee country but it produces a small amount of high-grown coffee in the Atherton Tablelands near the Great Barrier Reef. Skybury coffee is sold on its own (by Brian Wogan, tel: 0117 955 3564, among others) but here it is blended with a smooth Costa Rican to give an easy-drinking mainstream brew. £2.49 for 227g

Union Spirit Union Coffee Roasters is one of the country's best roasters. It specialises in single-estate coffees. This is sort of a house blend, and notable for its superb balance with a gentle attack on the palate. They call it "a perfect introduction to coffee", and they're dead right. £2.99 for 227g, mail order: 020 7474 8990 or www.unioncoffeeroasters.com

Waitrose Monsooned Malabar Waitrose took an early lead among UK supermarkets in upgrading its coffee range, and this is one of the interesting coffees sold in sturdy, reusable cardboard tins. Monsooned coffee is quite strong, and this one is not for the lover of smooth, sweet Central American coffees. The Java sold in the same line is also of very high quality. £2.65 for 227g

Whittard Dalat Hill Station Vietnam is a recent entrant into the mainstream coffee market, mostly growing inferior robusta beans. This single-estate coffee is an entirely different matter, exclusive to Whittard and similar in style to the richness of a good Sumatran coffee. £9.60 for 500g, mail order: 0800 0154 394 or e-mail info@whittard.co.uk

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