The history and development of the beverage that we know as coffee is varied and interesting, involving chance occurrences, political intrigue, and the pursuit of wealth and power.
Coffee was first discovered in Eastern Africa in an area we know today as Ethiopia. A popular legend refers to a goat herder by the name of Kaldi as he tended his goats. He noticed that the goats became hyperactive after eating the red “cherries” from a certain plant when they changed pastures. He tried a few himself, and was soon as overactive as his herd. The story relates that a monk happened to pass by and scolded him for “partaking of the devil’s fruit.” However the monks soon discovered that this fruit from the shiny green plant could help them stay awake for their prayers.
Another legend gives us the name for coffee or “mocha.” An Arabian was banished to the desert with his followers to die of starvation. In desperation, Omar had his friends boil and eat the fruit from an unknown plant. Not only did the broth save the exiles, but their survival was taken as a religious sign by the residents of the nearest town, Mocha. The plant and its beverage were named Mocha to honor this event.
One early use for coffee would have little appeal today. The Galla tribe from Ethiopia used coffee, but not as a drink. They would wrap the beans in animal fat as their only source of nutrition while on raiding parties. The Turks were the first country to adopt it as a drink, often adding spices such as clove, cinnamon, cardamom and anise to the brew.
Coffee berries were transported from Ethiopia to the Arabian peninsula, and were first cultivated in what today is the country of Yemen. From there, coffee traveled to Turkey where coffee beans were roasted for the first time over open fires. The roasted beans were crushed, and then boiled in water, creating a crude version of the beverage we enjoy today.
Coffee was introduced much later to countries beyond Arabia whose inhabitants believed it to be a delicacy and guarded its secret as if they were top secret military plans. Transportation of the plant out of the Moslem nations was forbidden by the government. The actual spread of coffee was started illegally. One Arab named Baba Budan smuggled beans to some mountains near Mysore, India, and started a farm there. Early in this century, the descendants of those original plants were found still growing fruitfully in the region.
Coffee first arrived on the European continent by means of Venetian trade merchants. Once in Europe this new beverage fell under harsh criticism from the Catholic Church. Many felt the pope should ban coffee, calling it the drink of the devil. Pope Vincent III heard this and decided to taste it before he banished it. He enjoyed it so much he baptized it, saying “coffee is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” To their surprise, the pope, already a coffee drinker, blessed coffee declaring it a truly Christian beverage.
Coffee houses spread quickly across Europe becoming centers for intellectual exchange. Many great minds of Europe used this beverage, and forum, as a springboard to heightened thought and creativity. In the 1700’s, coffee found its way to the Americas by means of a French infantry captain who nurtured one small plant on its long journey across the Atlantic. This one plant, transplanted to the Caribbean Island of Martinique, became the predecessor of over 19 million trees on the island within 50 years. It was from this humble beginning that the coffee plant found its way to the rest of the tropical regions of South and Central America.
Coffee was declared the national drink of the then colonized United States by the Continental Congress, in protest of the excessive tax on tea levied by the British crown.
Espresso, a recent innovation in the way to prepare coffee, obtained its origin in 1822, with the innovation of the first crude espresso machine in France. The Italians perfected this wonderful machine and were the first to manufacture it. Espresso has become such an integral part of Italian life and culture, that there are presently over 200,000 espresso bars in Italy.
Today, coffee is a giant global industry employing more than 20 million people. This commodity ranks second only to petroleum in terms of dollars traded worldwide. With over 400 billion cups consumed every year, coffee is the world’s most popular beverage. Coffee today is grown and enjoyed worldwide, and is one of the few crops that small farmers in third-world countries can profitably export. If you can imagine, in Brazil alone, over 5 million people are employed in the cultivation and harvesting of over 3 billion coffee plants.
Coffee is the seed of a cherry from a tree, which grows from sea level to approximately 6,000 feet, in a narrow subtropical belt around the world.
Coffee trees are an evergreen and grow to heights of 20 feet. To simplify harvesting, the trees are pruned to 8 to 10 feet.
Coffee cherries ripen at different times, so they are predominantly picked by hand. It takes approximately 2,000 Arabica cherries to produce just one pound of roasted coffee. Since each cherry contains two beans, your one pound of coffee is derived from 4,000 coffee beans.
The average coffee tree only produces one to two pounds of roasted coffee per year, and takes four to five years to produce its first crop.
The coffee plant first produces delicate clusters of white blossoms, resembling jasmine in shape and scent. These blossoms last only a few days. Small green coffee cherries then begin to appear and ripen to yellow… red… and finally almost black, within six to nine months.
Once the coffee cherries are picked, they are transported for processing. The fruit is then removed from the seed by one of two methods. The natural or dry process, where the cherries are dried in the sun or in dryers, and the fruit is then separated from the bean by processing them through a mechanical husker. Or, by a superior soaking method know as the wet process, which produces beans which are referred to as washed coffees.
The green beans are then dried, sized, sorted, graded and selected, usually all by hand. The beans are then bagged and are ready for shipment to local roasters around the world. Few products we use require so much in terms of human effort.
The two commercially significant species of coffee beans are: coffea arabica, and coffea robusta.
Arabica beans grow best at altitudes over 3,000 feet. This species produces superior quality coffees, which possess the greatest flavor and aromatic characteristics. They typically contain half the caffeine of the robusta beans. Arabica production represents 80% of the world’s coffee trade, however, only 10% of this meets specialty coffee standards.
Robusta beans are usually grown at lower elevations. Robusta trees are easier to grow, produce higher yields, and are more disease resistant than the arabica species. Robusta beans usually possess a woody, astringent flavor. They are used when a lower price or additional caffeine is desired. A small percentage is typically added to many Italian espresso blends for the additional crema and complexity they contribute.
In addition to the species of the coffee, many other factors contribute to the overall quality of the green beans. Seed stock, plantation location, soil composition, altitude, weather conditions, fertilization, cultivation, harvesting, and processing methods, will all have a dramatic influence on the finished product.
After quality coffee beans are obtained, the most important phase of the production of gourmet coffee begins, the roasting and the blending.
A good roaster must be part artist, and part scientist, to maintain quality and consistency. It is during the roasting process that the sugars and other carbohydrates within the bean become caramelized, creating a substance, which is known as the coffee oil. Technically, this fragile chemical is not actually an oil (since it is water soluble), but it is what gives the coffee its flavor and aroma.
Specialty coffees are generally roasted in small batches. The two most common roasting methods are: drum-roasting and hot-air roasting.
Drum-type roasting machines roast the coffee beans as they tumble in a rotating drum that is typically heated by gas or wood.
When the desired roast is achieved, the beans are poured into a cooling hopper to keep them from overcooking.
The hot-air roaster, also known as a fluid-bed roaster, roasts the coffee beans as they tumble on a current of hot air.
Most green coffee is roasted at approximately 400 degrees. The roasting process causes the coffee beans to swell and increase in size by over 50%, while at the same time greatly reducing their weight.
A lightly roasted bean may range in color from cinnamon to a light chocolate tan. Lighter roasts are generally not used for espresso since they produce a sharper, more acidic taste than do darker roasts.
Darker roasts, in contrast, have a fuller flavor approaching a bittersweet tang. The amount of oil drawn to the surface of the bean increases proportionately to the length of roasting time.
As the roast darkens, caffeine and acidity decrease proportionately. Dark roasts can range in color from a medium chocolate brown with a satin-like luster, to an almost black bean with an oily appearance. The darker the roast the more you will taste the char, rather than the flavor of the bean.
Extreme dark roasts will tend to have a smoky flavor, and are better suited for brewed coffee rather than espresso.
Many roasters refer to the following terms concerning the degree of roast, from light to dark: Cinnamon, Medium High, City, Full City, French, and finally, Espresso or Italian roast.
On the West coast of the U.S., French roast is the term generally used to describe the darkest roast. It is important for you to understand that these terms have no relationship to where the coffee is grown or roasted.
With more than 100 coffee-growing regions in the world, each producing beans with distinctive characteristics, we believe proper blending is essential to the balance of flavors necessary to create superior espresso.
A single coffee bean will generally not possess the complexity necessary for great espresso. Many espresso blends will contain three to seven different types of beans.
The experienced roaster, with his knowledge of each bean, artfully combines them to create the desired blend of flavors. The roaster’s blending knowledge is usually a closely guarded secret.
In the United States, 100% Arabica beans are generally used for gourmet espresso blends. As we mentioned earlier, in Italy, some robusta beans will often times be added for the additional crema, caffeine, and complexity they contribute to the blend. The Italians possess generations of expertise in the art of blending coffees for espresso.
Argument still exists among roasters as to which should occur first, the roasting or the blending. Generally, roasting each varietal separately to maximize its flavor characteristics, and then blending, will produce the best result.
Freshly roasted beans will release hundreds of chemical substances in the form of vapors. A day or two will generally be required for these gases to dissipate before the beans will reveal their optimal flavor characteristics.
Today, many quality roasters are packaging their beans in air tight bags with a one way valve, which allows the gases to escape, without the beans being exposed to the damaging air. This type of packaged should help retard flavor deterioration.
If beans are not packaged this way, or once beans packaged air- tight are exposed to the air, they will begin to deteriorate. Roasts where oils are exposed on the surface of the bean are much more vulnerable.
Once exposed to the air, and if properly stored, beans will stay reasonable fresh for 7 to 10 days. We recommend storing beans in a clean, dry, air-tight container, in a cool dark place.
We do not recommend storing beans in a refrigerator, because coffee tends to absorb flavors. Freezing coffee beans can also have a damaging effect, and is not recommended, unless the beans must be stored for a prolonged period of time.
Ideally, you should strive to purchase and use-up your supply of roasted beans on a weekly basis.
While tasting the coffee, you should try to discern whether the flavor, body, acidity and aroma of the coffee is pleasant, or unpleasant. Here are the criteria that most tasters use to judge coffee:
Acidity is a desirable characteristic in coffee. It is the sensation of dryness that the coffee produces under the edges of your tongue and on the back of your palate. The role acidity plays in coffee is not unlike its role as related to the flavor of wine. It provides a sharp, bright, vibrant quality. With out sufficient acidity, the coffee will tend to taste flat. Acidity should not be confused with sour, which is an unpleasant, negative flavor characteristic.
Aroma is a sensation which is difficult to separate from flavor. Without our sense of smell, our only taste sensations would be: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The aroma contributes to the flavors we discern on our palates. Subtle nuances, such as “floral” or “winy” characteristics, are derived from the aroma of the brewed coffee.
Body is the feeling that the coffee has in your mouth. It is the viscosity, heaviness, thickness, or richness that is perceived on the tongue. A good example of body would be that of the feeling of whole milk in your mouth, as compared to water. Your perception of the body of a coffee is related to the oils and solids extracted during brewing. Typically, Indonesian coffees will possess greater body than South and Central American coffees. If you are unsure of the level of body when comparing several coffees, try adding an equal amount of milk to each. Coffees with a heavier body will maintain more of their flavor when diluted.
Flavor is the overall perception of the coffee in your mouth. Acidity, aroma, and body are all components of flavor. It is the balance and homogenization of these senses that create your overall perception of flavor. The following are typical flavor characteristics: