Coffee is often said to have originated in Ethiopia, but long before goats danced or coffee as we know it came to be, it was food.
Its earliest known use was by African tribesmen who crushed and mixed ripe coffee cherries with animal fat to make what surely had to be the planet’s original energy bars. It's thought that these easily transportable snacks were eaten as stimulants before heading out to hunt or do battle.
I’m not sure what this next bit says about our forebears, but coffee’s first appearance as a beverage was as a wine made by mixing the fermented pulp and juice of ripe coffee cherries with cold water. It wouldn't be served hot until about 1000 AD.
Traditional lore has it that sometime around 850 AD, a goatherd named Kaldi, who lived in what is now Ethiopia, noticed that his animals were particularly excitable and “danced” around after eating the berries of a particular tree.
The berries had a similar affect on the herder, and it appears that the seeds of the global coffee industry would have withered on a hillside but for a passing monk. Intrigued, he is said to have dried and boiled the cherries and then used the resulting concoction to get through long religious ceremonies.
It apparently didn’t take long before just about everyone was looking for a buzz (we humans are so predictable), and physicians throughout the Middle East were soon prescribing ground and boiled coffee cherries as a palliative. Meanwhile, lots of severely overcaffeinated folks prized it for its alleged ability to spur mystical revelations.
As its religious and medicinal usage spread, coffee's stimulating and perceived mystical properties kept its adherents going long into the fabled Arabian nights and it was soon being consumed throughout the region. About two hundred years after Kaldi and his critters were spied carousing on that hillside, a major advancement in coffee making was made when someone decided to remove the cherries' pulp and allow the beans to dry before they boiled them.
Later, and it's not clear whether it was by design or accident, dried beans were roasted over open fires before being boiled whole. It would take until sometime in the 1500s before anything resembling coffee as we know it would finally make its appearance.
Once it had escaped the bonds of religious leaders and physicians, coffee drinking flourished throughout the Near East. Coffee houses sprang up throughout the region and it didn’t take long before the clerics noticed there were more people in the coffee houses than were attending services. This was probably about the same time that the first warnings about the “negative effects” of coffee drinking were first heard from pulpits.
But that didn’t stop its popularity, and coffee soon became an at-home necessity — so much so that in Turkey, a woman could divorce her husband if he didn't keep her stocked with beans! Even architecture changed as houses throughout the region sprouted elaborate coffee rooms. Complex rituals and ceremonies evolved to guide coffee's preparation and serving. Some of these, perhaps most notably the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, are still practiced.
As coffee eventually found its way to Europe and consumption skyrocketed, Arab merchants protected their lucrative trade by forbidding the export of coffee seeds. They took it a step further by preventing foreigners from even seeing coffee being grown. But like all precious things, secrecy was difficult to maintain.
Coffee was freed from its regional bonds when immigrants smuggled trees and seeds into India. At about the same time, resourceful Dutch traders spirited a few stolen trees to the island of Java in the South Pacific where they successfully experimented with cultivation. In the process, the island unwittingly gifted us with the first slang term for the beverage.
Enterprising growers spread the gospel and a successful trade soon grew up throughout Indonesia and other areas of the Pacific Rim.
But cultivation didn’t start to stretch across the globe until the early 1700s when a French naval officer stole a tree from a display in Paris and took it to the island of Martinique. From there, coffee began to be grown throughout the Caribbean as well as Central and South America, albeit mostly by theft and trickery.
In the 21st century, coffee is among the largest traded commodities on the planet.
Where And How It Grows
Two species, Arabica and Robusta, are now grown around the world, but only between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn — the narrow equatorial and subtropical band that spans an area 25 degrees North and South of the equator. When compared with Robusta, the two Arabica varietals, Typica and Bourbon, grow at higher elevations, produce much better tasting coffee and have only half the caffeine. There are a number of other Arabicas, all of which are thought to have originated from Typica and Bourbon.
Importantly, only the best Arabicas qualify as specialty grade coffee, and less than 20 percent of the world’s harvest is good enough to carry the designation.
In subtropical growing areas, including Hawaii, Mexico, Jamaica, Zimbabwe and some parts of Brazil, there is usually only one growing season. Coffee cultivated in this region, which extends from 16 to 24 degrees North and South of the equator, is generally planted at altitudes ranging from 1,800 to 3,600 feet.
In equatorial regions such as Kenya, Colombia and Ethiopia, plantings range from 3,600 to 6,300 feet. Here, the frequent rainfall results in two annual harvests. In both subtropical and equatorial areas, the ideal, year-round coffee growing temperature ranges between 59°F and 75°F.
Robusta is typically grown between sea level and 3,000 feet and is much more disease- and heat-tolerant than Arabica. Robusta's inferior flavor profile and higher caffeine content typically results in its being used as a low cost blender in canned “grocery store” coffees. Small amounts are also used in some espresso blends to produce thicker crema and deliver a bigger caffeine kick.
Both species grow as high as 45 feet, but they are usually pruned to between six- and 10-feet to make it easier to hand-pick the cherries when they are ripe.
It takes as long as five years before newly planted trees begin to bear their first delicate, jasmine-scented white flowers.
Later, they will be followed by clusters of green fruit that, depending on the variety, take between three and seven months to reach the bright red color (some varieties ripen to a bright yellow), needed to produce the best tasting coffee.
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Harvesting & Processing
There are three basic approaches to harvesting coffee. The first is the highly selective hand-picking process where pickers target only ripe cherries. This technique assures that only the ripest, sweetest cherries are processed.
Another hands-on approach is stripping, where ripe and unripe beans are pulled from the tree and sorted later. Finally, there are mechanical harvesters. Since it is difficult to operate picking machines on the steep, high altitude mountain slopes where most specialty coffees grow, harvesters are almost exclusively used by large estate operations that grow coffee on relatively flat ground.
No matter how careful pickers are, some green cherries inevitably find their way into their baskets and will need to be separated. As a result, the first stage in what’s called “wet processing” is to place all the cherries in a water bath. This process is most often used in Central and South America where water is plentiful. Because over-ripe and undeveloped cherries float and ripe and green beans sink, the process helps to ensure they are separated before further processing.
The floaters are often used for local consumption, and they are usually set out to dry on patios or run through mechanical dryers. However, ripe cherries can be also sent directly to be dried, and those that are set out to dry whole are said to be “naturally processed." Their pulp will be removed in a later step.
For those that aren't processed naturally, the beans are separated from the cherries in a procedure known as pulping. Both red and green cherries are forced against screens that are only large enough to allow the beans to pass through. Soft, ripe cherries break under pressure and release their beans, but the harder green cherries don't and can then be separated.
At the end of this stage, the beans are covered with slippery mucilage. These can be sent directly to drying patios and will later be sold as "pulped natural" or "semi-washed" beans.
Another option is to further process them in cement fermentation tanks where they will soak in water until all of the mucilage is dissolved. This usually lasts between 10 and 36 hours, but only until the last of the mucilage has been soaked away. (photo courtesy www.coffeeresearch.org)
There are a number of drying processes, and which is used often depends on the local weather conditions where the coffee is grown, and what the farmers or processors can afford. Regardless of the style, the goal is to reduce the beans’ moisture level from around 60 percent to between 11 and 12 percent.
In Central and South America, drying usually takes place outdoors on concrete or asphalt patios. The beans are turned frequently to speed drying and prevent mold. In Indonesia, it’s not uncommon to find beans spread out on the ground or on jute sacks laid alongside roads and pathways to dry. Mechanical dryers that use heated air flow to dry the beans are also used in some parts of the world.
Many think that the "best" way to dry coffee is on raised African beds. These drying tables allow air to pass over, under and around the beans, which results in more uniform drying. Most African coffees are dried this way and the method is increasingly being used in other growing regions. However, the money and materials needed to build the beds are not always at hand, which prevents many small farmers and processors from adopting the process.
How Processing Affects Flavor
While local climate and soil conditions are significant influencers of coffee flavor, how the beans are handled after picking has a substantial impact. There are several ways in which coffee is processed.
Dry Process: Also known as the natural method, dry processed coffees have heavy body and tend to be sweet, smooth and complex. It is often used in countries where rainfall is scarce and sunshine abounds. Most coffees from Indonesia, Ethiopia, Brazil, and Yemen are dry processed.
Wet Process: This is a relatively new method of removing the four layers surrounding the coffee bean and results in coffees that tend to be cleaner, brighter and fruitier in the cup than those processed by other methods. Most coffees valued for their perceived acidity are processed this way. The procedure is commonly used in Central and South America or anywhere water is plentiful.
Pulped Natural: This technique skips the fermentation stage and delivers products that resemble both dry- and wet-processed coffees. They tend to be sweeter than wet-processed while sharing the bigger body characteristics of those that are dry-processed. They can also retain some of the acidity that wet-processing delivers. These coffees are often described as having “wild” flavor characteristics.