Coffee is largely grown in a band around the equator from approximately twenty five degrees north or south. Conditions here are perfect with temperatures of between 60F (15C) and 70F (21C), and rainfall of 6 inches per month or more. This means that geographically there are three main coffee growing regions: East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, South East Asia and the Pacific and Latin America.
Like many other fruits, coffee cherries grow on trees. The soil, climate, altitude and surrounding plants it is exposed to during growth will effect the flavour of the beans it produces. Although there are over 60 different varieties of coffee, Arabica and Robusta are the most commonly used varieties.
Arabica grows best in altitude between 4000 and 6000 feet above sea level and is the earliest cultivated species of the coffee tree. It requires special soil conditions with just the right balance of warmth and moisture. It is considered a higher quality bean and produces very flavorful and aromatic coffee. It takes six to nine months to mature.
Arabica beans fall to the ground once ripened and therefore need to be harvested immediately as they are very susceptible to disease, frost and drought. They require careful labor-intensive cultivation and produce only 1 to 1.5 pounds of beans per year. These beans are low in caffeine and high in flavor and aroma and hence are more expensive.
Arabica beans account for 75per cent of beans grown around the world.
Robusta is mainly cultivated in West Africa and Southeast Asia and is grown above sea level up to 2500 feet. As the names suggest Robusta beans are more tolerant of the cold and moisture and as they don’t fall to the ground when they ripen do not need to be harvested immediately. Robusta beans have twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica beans and are less flavorful and less aromatic and thus are largely used for instant coffee.
Robusta beans account for 25 per cent of beans grown around the world.
To create any blend of coffee you have to balance the amount of Arabica beans and Robusta beans to create a unique coffee experience.
Things to look for when tasting a cup of coffee:
- Aroma – This is the smell of the coffee – it should range from fruity to herby.
- Acidity – This refers to the crispness of the coffee, a pleasant sharpness. While a coffee low in acidity can result in a pleasant-tasting “mellow” or “soft” cup of coffee, the complete lack of acidity will leave the coffee tasting flat, or “dead”.
- Body – As you sip the coffee, you can feel its weight on your tongue. Like heaviness, thickness or richness that you perceive on your tongue. It can range from full (buttery and syrupy) to medium to light.
- Flavour – The all-encompassing coffee term and includes the impressions of acidity, aroma, and body. It is also used to convey any specific taste that is present in the coffee, such as “nutty”, “spicy”, or “musty”.
The History of Coffee
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.
Goats will eat anything. Just ask Kaldi the legendary Ethiopian goat-herder. Prior to 1000AD, Kaldi, the story goes, noticed his herd dancing from one coffee shrub to another, grazing on the cherry-red berries containing the beans. He copped a few himself and was soon frolicking with his flock.
The story relates that a monk happened 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 long hours of prayers.
History tells us other Africans of the same era fueled up on protein-rich coffee-and-animal-fat balls, and unwound with wine made from coffee-berry pulp. Coffee later crossed the Red Sea to Arabia, where things really got cooking…
Coffee as we know it kicked off in Arabia, where roasted beans were first brewed around A.D. 1000. By the 13th century Muslims were drinking coffee religiously. The “bean broth” drove dervishes into orbit, kept worshippers awake, and splashed over into secular life. And wherever Islam went, coffee went too: North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and India.
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 entered Europe through Venice in the 16th Century, imported from Turkey, where it had been taken as a drink spiced with clove, cinnamon, cardamom and anise. At this point, coffee’s expansion throughout the world fell into jeopardy as some Christians believed it to be the devil’s drink. 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.”
Largely through the efforts of the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, coffee became available in England no later than the 16th century according to Leonhard Rauwolf’s 1583 account. The first coffeehouse in England was opened in St. Michael’s Alley in Cornhill. The proprietor was Pasqua Rosée, the servant of Daniel Edwards, a trader in Turkish goods. Edwards imported the coffee and assisted Rosée in setting up the establishment.
The popularity of coffeehouses spread rapidly in Europe, and later, America. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in England, and they became such a popular past time for the intelligensia of the time, that they were dubbed ‘penny universities’, a penny being the price of a cup of coffee. As a testament to these places, Edward Lloyd’s coffee house which opened in 1668 and was frequented by merchants and maritime insurance agents eventually became Lloyd’s of London – the best known insurance company in the world.
The banning of women from coffeehouses was not universal, but does appear to have been common in Europe. In Germany women frequented them, but in England they were banned.
Many believed coffee to have several medicinal properties in this period. For example, a 1661 tract entitled “A character of coffee and coffee-houses”, written by one “M.P.”, lists some of these perceived virtues:
“ ‘Tis extolled for drying up the Crudities of the Stomack, and for expelling Fumes out of the Head. Excellent Berry! which can cleanse the English-man’s Stomak of Flegm, and expel Giddinesse out of his Head. ”
Not everyone was in favour of this new commodity, however. For example, the anonymous 1674 “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” declared:
“ …the Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE […] has […] Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age.
From its humble beginnings, coffee has now become the most popular beverage in the world, with more than 400 billion cups consumed worldwide. It is a global industry employing more than 20 million people, and as a commodity ranks second only to petrol in terms of dollars traded worldwide. It is also one of the few crops that small farmers in third-world countries can profitably export.