When a perceptive 9th century Ethiopian goatherd noticed that his goats were over-active and jittery, he traced the source of the stimulus to the fruit and leaves of a particular shrub. Being hot on quality control, the goatherd tasted the fruit for himself and experienced a bit of a buzz that was not entirely unpleasant. Word spread, and coffee was officially discovered.
Over the following centuries, the infusion of roasted coffee seeds became a popular brew. Nevertheless, it had its fair share of bad press. In fact, it was no stranger to banishment.
In the 17th century, a second conviction for drinking coffee in Constantinople brought the death penalty. The first time, the punishment was only a beating.
The ultimate influencer came in the form of Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605), a hands-on sort of Pope, who tasted the “bitter invention by Satan” and liked it.
With fear and suspicion put to rest by papal approval, coffee’s reputation was redeemed.
There are approximately 120 species in the genus Coffea – all indigenous to Africa and southern- most regions of Asia.
A few of these species are cultivated for their caffeine-rich seeds, which are roasted, ground, and infused in hot water to produce one of the world’s favourite drinks.
When cultivated, this sturdy little tree is kept at a height of three or four metres, although, in the wild, and left to its own devices, it will grow a lot taller. Clusters of highly scented white flowers give way to purple or red fruits, known as cherries. Inside the cherries, there are seeds, which we know as coffee beans.
Coffee cherries usually contain two seeds, with flattened sides pressed against one another.
Approximately 5% of cherries contain only one seed, called a peaberry. Having incubated alone, these single coffee beans are more rounded than twin beans and are easily identified. Because of their distinct flavour, peaberries are sometimes sorted from the bulk of the crop for separate roasting.
Coffea canephora, more commonly known as Robusta, is remarkably … well … robust.
The two varieties of C canephora are C. c. robusta and C. c. nganda, and both produce a bitter, high-caffeine coffee.
As a hybrid of C. canephore and C. eugenioides, Coffea arabica is an allotetraploid, which means that it has four sets of paired chromosomes inherited from two different genomes. It’s the only polyploid species in the genera Coffea, since all the others are diploids – i.e. they have two sets of paired chromosomes.
Arabica trees start fruiting at three to five years old and continue to bear fruit for 50 years or more. Containing less caffeine and more sugar than Robusta, the self-fertilising Arabica plant is more vulnerable to predators and weather damage, but it produces a milder-tasting coffee, which is generally considered to be of superior quality. Coffea arabica accounts for approximately 60% of the world’s coffee production.
One other coffee species gets a slim slice of the action. It’s Coffea liberica, whose large, low- caffeine beans are the main source of coffee in the Philippines and Malaysia. Liberica produces low yields and accounts for just 1% of the world’s coffee.
Caffeine (C8H10N4O2), a psychoactive drug occurring naturally in some plants – including the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) – is a chemical compound with traits that are conducive to protection and propagation.
Those marvellous pollinators, honeybees, are strongly attracted to caffeine, which creates olfactory memory and draws the insects back to the flowers. This conjures up a fanciful image of entranced humans following the fragrance of freshly ground coffee!
In addition to attracting useful species, caffeine is also an effective pesticide, killing or deterring predator insects. The higher the caffeine content, the more resilient the tree, as illustrated by the incredibly robust and highly caffeinated C. canephora.
All the world’s coffee is grown in the Coffee Belt around the equator. To thrive, coffee needs just the right conditions: high altitude; stable temperatures (between about 15°C and 30°C); rich, acidic soil; and distinct wet and dry seasons. This huge, tropical equatorial belt is ideally suited to the coffee tree.
In Ethiopia, coffee is a vitally important crop. The livelihoods of millions of people rely on coffee production, which brings in approximately 60% of the country’s foreign income. Ethiopia accounts for about 3% of the global coffee market.
Although coffee is not indigenous to South America, Brazil has been the world’s biggest coffee producer for more than a century. Around one third of the world’s coffee is grown in Brazil.
Basically, there are three ways to brew coffee.
The soluble substances in coffee are dissolved at different stages of brewing and according to various factors such as water temperature, grind size, and duration of brewing. Degree of extraction plays a massive part in the coffee’s flavour. Achieving that sweet spot between the bland taste of under-extraction and the bitterness of over-extraction is a skill that comes with knowledge, experience, and a coffee-loving palate.
Finally, a quick shout-out for instant coffee …
Freeze-dried (instant) coffee begins life as an ultra-strong, syrupy brew, which is frozen in thin layers, broken up, and then dried through sublimation.
We’re also fond of statistics. Here’s a few:
There’s another factor involved in producing a really great cup of coffee: the quality of the water.
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