The History of Coffee

As one legend has it, an Ethiopian goat herder realized his goats had an unusual amount of energy after eating coffee berries. After sharing this information with an abbot, the abbot made a drink from the berries and commented that it helped him stay up for evening prayer. Before long, the concept of coffee spread around the globe.

Regardless of whether or not you believe this legend, this much is true—coffee's early use is from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. However, it wasn't until 1645 when Pope Clement VIII helped coffee become an accepted drink by Europeans. Up to that point, Christians considered drinking coffee an Islamic practice. But the Pope declared that wasn't correct; coffee was a Christian drink too, he said.

In the beginning, coffee didn't gain popularity in North America as quickly as it had in Europe—North Americans preferred alcohol. However, the Revolutionary War required stamina. Before long, coffee increased in popularity so much that rations became limited, and coffee vendors hiked up their prices.

Nowadays, Brazil is the largest coffee producer globally, but it wasn't until 1727 when coffee plants arrived there. By the early 1850s, Brazil's coffee exports had skyrocketed to around 70% of the global coffee supply.

As the demand for coffee increased, coffee plantations popped up around Central America. Unfortunately, the need for more land forced indigenous populations from their homes, which resulted in protests and coups.

Today, more than 100 million people in low-income countries rely on coffee farming to make a living. Africa and Central American countries continue to lead the way with the greatest amount of coffee exports.

Biology

Coffee comes from the bean of coffee plants and is part of the Rubiaceae family. The coffee we all know and love typically comes from either the Coffea arabica (arabica for short) or Coffea canephora (robusta for short) plants.

Coffee is a woody evergreen shrub that can grow up to fifteen feet tall. However, the shrub often stays shorter since pruning is common to improve production and make the coffee beans easier to harvest. Coffee leaves are large, growing up to six inches long. They have a glossy coating, and the leaves' petioles attach at the base.

There's no mistaking when coffee plants are in bloom—their white flowers have a powerful aroma and bloom all at the same time. Once the flowers drop, oval-shaped berries replace them, growing up to 0.6 inches. They start green and then change to yellow and crimson. During the drying process, the berries change from crimson to black.

Arabica and robusta berries vary significantly in how long it takes them to ripen; it takes arabica berries 6 to 8 months to mature, whereas Robusta berries require 9 to 11 months before ripening. Most berries have two seeds, but up to 10% are peaberries, meaning they only carry one seed.

The two coffee varieties also vary in how they reproduce. The arabica plant self-pollinates and produces a seed that mirrors that of its parents. For this reason, it's uncommon for arabica seedlings to vary in size. In contrast, robusta plants pollinate via outcrossing, which happens through cuttings and grafting, among other forms of vegetative propagation. By utilizing this reproduction method, it's easier for scientists to test out new coffee varieties.

Arabica coffee is the most beloved of the two coffee varieties since it has a richer flavor and is less bitter than robusta. As a result, approximately 75% of the coffee grown throughout the world is arabica. Regardless, robusta has its place in the world. It contains up to 50% more caffeine than arabica and has a foamier texture. For this reason, it's a popular choice for making espresso.

Cultivation

Traditionally, coffee grows in the East African highlands where the elevation is high, and rain is frequent. An elevation of 2,000 to 4,000 feet produces the tastiest—and most expensive—coffee. That said, many countries between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn try their hand at growing it.

The most popular countries for cultivating coffee include Latin America and eastern Africa for Arabica beans and central Africa, southeast Asia, and Brazil for robusta coffee. Since the environment in which coffee grows impacts its flavor, acidity, and aroma, coffee experts label according to the region in which it grew.

Robusta plants are hardier than Arabica; it's possible to cultivate them in warmer environments at altitudes below 2,000 feet. In fact, robusta's history traces back to the Lomani River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Have you ever wondered where the word Java originated? In 1900, coffee traders transferred the Robusta coffee plants to Java, Indonesia, where they began a breeding program. From there, they exported it across the world. While robusta thrived, it carried what's called coffee leaf rust, a fungal disease that's devastating to arabica coffee plants. Nowadays, the colored spots that are a signature of coffee leaf rust occur worldwide.

While coffee leaf rust is a global threat to coffee plants, it isn't the only issue they face. Funguses such as Mycena citricolor cause leaves to drop from coffee plants. Furthermore, an incredible 900+ insect species cause problems for coffee farmers. From beetles to mites and snails, coffee plants are susceptible to attacks from all angles. Coffee berries attract birds and small rodents, too. However, their impact is minimal compared to insects.

Of the many insects that threaten coffee, farmers agree that the coffee borer beetle is the most destructive. These 2 mm insects live around the globe and can demolish more than 50% of a coffee plantation. The female coffee borer beetle is to blame—she lays her eggs in coffee berries, where the larvae destroy the coffee beans as they mature.

Ecological Effects

In the past, traditional coffee farming worked in sync with its environment. Farmers used to grow coffee beneath the shade of surrounding trees and shrubs. However, in the 1970s, farmers began favoring an open cultivation method where the berries grew under the sun.

The benefit of an open cultivation plan is that the coffee berries ripen quicker. However, such practices led to devastating effects on the environment since it requires the clearing of thousands of acres of trees. That has led to erosion, water degradation, and habitat destruction. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 37 of the 50 countries with the most deforestation produce coffee.

The use of fertilizers has also exploded in an effort to combat the many insects and fungus that attack coffee plants. However, it's not all bad news—in Costa Rica, using insect loving birds has helped reduce the number of coffee berry borers by around fifty percent.

Several organizations, such as the Rainforest Alliance and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, are promoting organic coffee to mitigate deforestation's negative impact. They're also encouraging farmers to return to shade growing methods.

In addition to the adverse ecological effects of coffee via fertilizers and deforestation, water consumption is another issue. For every one cup of coffee, it took approximately 37 gallons of water to produce it. For this reason, big coffee growing countries such as Ethiopia are undergoing a water shortage crisis.

Of the water that remains, another issue facing communities where coffee grows is water contamination. It's common for coffee plants to release contaminated water into nearby rivers, killing the plants and animals in it.

Production

If you've ever had the opportunity to see a coffee plant, you know that the berries, aka coffee cherry, don't resemble anything like the beans we recognize at our local coffee shop. That's because coffee berries go through a multi-step process before getting to that stage.

Traditionally, coffee production begins with handpicking the coffee berries. The reason this is an ideal method is that coffee berries ripen at different times. However, time is money. For this reason, nowadays, most farmers use a strip picked approach. Strip picking involves a machine that takes all of the berries at once, regardless of their ripening stage. From there, the coffee berries undergo one of two methods: the dry process or wet process.

Most coffee farmers choose the wet process even though it produces a milder coffee. With this process, the berries undergo sorting based on how ripe they are. A machine removes the berry's flesh, and then they ferment the seeds. Fermentation is a necessary process since the berries contain a slimy residue. Finally, they douse the seeds in water before drying them.

Alternatively, the drying method involves spreading the coffee beans on drying tables. That way, air can more evenly dry the beans. Additionally, farmers mix the coffee by hand, which prevents fermentation. The drying method is a common practice in Africa. Although it still isn't as popular, coffee farmers are beginning to recognize the attraction since it produces a more robust flavored coffee.

While these are the two methods to produce commercial coffee, some countries make artisan coffee with some unusual—and expensive—twists. For example, in Asia, they feed coffee beans to an animal called the Asian palm civet, harvesting the beans from the civet's feces. Inside the animal's stomach, the coffee beans encounter digestive enzymes, giving what brave coffee drinkers describe as coffee with a chocolate flavor.

Regardless of the method used, the coffee beans up to this point are green and must take a trip to the coffee roasters.

Roasting

In almost all cases, when you purchase a bag of coffee beans, those beans are roasted. Like geography and soil impact the taste of coffee, so does the roasting method used. During roasting, coffee beans expand, shedding water and losing weight as they acquire more air. As a result, coffee beans decrease in density, although the exact density impacts the bean's strength, and therefore the type of packaging it requires.

Once the coffee beans reach 392 °F, the roasting process officially commences. As the heat begins to break down the beans' starches, caramelization starts to occur. That produces the brown color and turns coffee beans into a state we all recognize.

Roasting beans involves changing the aroma of the coffee itself. The heat weakens acids and oils in the green coffee beans, replacing them with new oils. In particular, an oil called caffeoyl emerges and is the primary oil that gives coffee its familiar smell and flavor.

Once the roasting temperature reaches more than 455 °F, caffeine will start to break down. At this point, the coffee beans change from light roasting to dark roasting.

You've likely heard of coffee having different roasting grades. To grade roasted beans, a light meter studies the coffee beans' color. It then determines if the beans will receive a label ranging from light roast, to a medium roast, to a very dark roast.

The boldness of coffee is directly related to the type of roast; the darker a roast, the bolder the coffee flavor. Coffee boldness is a result of more fiber having broken down and a sugary taste. On the other hand, light coffee roasts contain more oils and acids, offering a more complex flavor.

Although roasting doesn't change the caffeine content, the longer a coffee bean roasts, the more it expands. Therefore, by volume, darker roasts have less caffeine than lighter roasts. Decaffeinated coffee originates from green beans by using heat to extract the caffeine.