Tracing the journey of the coffee bean
Coffee has a swashbuckling adventure spanning a thousand years, filled with death-defying escapes, international intrigue and torrid romance. From distant, tropical islands to the power centers of international trade, it has been banned, berated, hailed and championed, generating as much fear as enjoyment. This is not just a drink, this is magic, infusing itself into our psyche, stirring conflict and controversy.
Second only to oil, coffee is the most valuable legally traded commodity in the world. It is estimated that 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed each day worldwide. Coffee is a daily ritual in the lives of millions of humans around the globe. Where exactly did this caffeinated phenomenon begin?
Coffee grown worldwide can trace its heritage back centuries to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau. There, legend says the goat herder Kaldi first discovered the potential of these beloved beans.
The story goes that that Kaldi discovered coffee after he noticed that after eating the berries from a certain tree, his goats became so energetic that they did not want to sleep at night. Kaldi reported his findings to the abbot of the local monastery, who made a drink with the berries and found that it kept him alert through the long hours of evening prayer. The abbot shared his discovery with the other monks at the monastery, and knowledge of the energizing berries began to spread. As word moved east and coffee reached the Arabian peninsula, it began a journey which would bring these beans across the globe.
Coffee spread quickly through the Arabian Peninsula in the mid of 14th century. Coffee was not only enjoyed in homes, but also in the many public coffee houses called qahveh khaneh which began to appear in cities across the near east. The popularity of the coffee houses was exceptional and people frequented them for all kinds of social activity. With thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the world, knowledge of this “wine of Araby” began to spread.
European travelers to the near east brought back stories of an unusual dark black beverage. Europeans got their first taste of coffee in 1615 when Venetian merchants who had become acquainted with the drink in Istanbul carried it back with them to Venice. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was becoming popular across the continent.
In the mid-1600’s, coffee was brought to New Amsterdam, later called New York by the British. Though coffee houses rapidly began to appear, tea continued to be the favored drink in the New World until 1773. Boston Tea Party revolt forever changed the American drinking preference to coffee.
England first became acquainted with coffee in 1637 when a Turk introduced the drink to Oxford. It quickly became popular among students and teachers who established the “Oxford Coffee Club”. By 1660, London’s coffeehouses had become an integral part of its social culture.
Around the World
As demand for the beverage continued to spread, there was fierce competition to cultivate coffee outside of Arabia. The Dutch finally got seedlings in the latter half of the 17th century. Missionaries and travelers, traders and colonists continued to carry coffee seeds to new lands, and coffee trees were planted worldwide.
Plantations were established in magnificent tropical forests and on rugged mountain highlands. Some crops flourished, while others were short-lived. New nations were established on coffee economies. By the end of the 18th century, coffee had become one of the world’s most profitable export crops.
Coffee began to replace the common breakfast drink beverages the beer and wine. Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and energized, and not surprisingly, the quality of their work was greatly improved.
Legacy of the brew
Before coffee became our morning beverage of choice, it appeared in a variety of different preparations. In its most basic, unprocessed form, coffee is a cherry-like fruit, which becomes red when ripe; the coffee bean is found at the center of the red coffee fruit.
Early on, the fruit were mixed with animal fat to create a protein rich snack bar. At one point, the fermented pulp was used to make a wine-like concoction. Another drink that appeared around 1000 A.D. was made from the whole coffee fruit, including the beans and the hull. From the 13th century people began to roast coffee beans, the first step in the process of making coffee as we know it today.
Legacy of the name
The word “coffee” has roots in several languages. Coffee was originally called “qahwahin” in Arabia. In Yemen it earned the name qahwah, which was originally a romantic term for wine. It later became the Turkish kahveh. It was from ‘kahveh’ that the modern words for coffee are derived; German kaffee. English coffee, French café, Dutch koffie
Before the Coffee bean is ground down, peculated and poured into our coffee cup it goes through a series of processes spanning over a period of months.
The Coffee tree starts its life as a seed and after 4 to 8 weeks it develops into a seedling. After about 9 to 18 months the coffee tree will grow to about 12 inches tall. It is a further 3 years before the tree bears fruit, (known as cherries), and a further 6 years before it is fully mature and produces fruits. At this stage the trees are ready for harvesting.
A good coffee picker can pick the equivalent of 50 to 60 pounds of coffee beans in a day. The average lifespan for a coffee tree is about 20 to 25 years, yielding around 2000 beans per year.
Once the cherries have been picked they are ready for sorting. The green beans are kept in a well ventilated warehouse for 1-7 years. This gives the beans a less acidic taste and a syrupy richness.
Dry Processing involves drying the cherries in the sun, then removing the pulp, parchment and dried skin. This can take up to two weeks. Wet Processing involves putting the cherries in water; any ones that float are removed as defective. The cherries are then pressed by a machine which only allows the seed and some pulp to pass through the holes. The remaining pulp is removed leaving the beans which are then left to dry.
Machines are used to remove the parchment layer from the wet processed coffee beans. The dry process involves removing the entire dried husk of the dried cherries.
A polishing machine is used to remove any silver skin that is left on after the hulling process
Cleaning, Sorting and Grading
Before the beans are packed they are sorted again by sizes and weight, and then they are checked for color flaws or other imperfections.
The process of roasting the coffee beans involves roasting them at 550 degrees Fahrenheit. The beans are kept moving throughout the entire process to stop them from burning. When they reach a temperature of about 400 degrees they begin to turn brown and the caffeol or oil that is locked inside the bean starts to emerge. This process produces the flavor and aroma of the coffee.
At every stage of coffee production the coffee is repeatedly tested for quality and taste. This process is referred to as cupping and takes place in a room specifically designed for this process. An experienced cupper can taste hundreds of samples of coffee a day and still taste the subtle differences between them.