long live coffee

found myself wondering about the essential things that make this crazy world go ’round.  In today’s particular day & age, everyone would agree that money & technology make the world go ’round.  Hopeless romantics like myself insist on believing it’s timeless love that has forever fuelled our existence.  But one thing has been with us throughout the times, since approximately the 10th century…coffee.

a small gift-sized bag of Café Don Angel from Honduras

History

The history of coffee begins in Ethiopia around the 10th century.  Legend has it that Ethiopian shepherds first noticed the effects of caffeine when they saw their goats appearing to become frisky after eating coffee berries.  From there, it reached Yemen and the rest of the Middle East at around the 16th century, where the rise of Islam contributed greatly to the popularity of the drink – the religion prohibited drinking alcohol, but coffee was considered an acceptable drink.  From there it spread on to the Balkans, Europe, Indonesia, and finally America, where the first coffee sprouts flourished circa 1720 in the island of Martinique in the Caribbean.  Coffee cultivation then gathered momentum, especially in Brazil, where rainforests were cleared for coffee plantations.  This led to Brazil becoming the largest coffee producer in the world by 1852 and it has held its status since then.  Several other major producers have made their way up in the markets: Colombia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, & Vietnam, but over 90% of the world’s coffee production takes place in developing countries – mostly South America.

Originally, coffee farming was done in the shade of trees.  Shade-grown coffee is produced from coffee plants grown under tree canopies, using principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.  The ecological impact was relatively minimal, as this method positively promotes species diversity, plants, insects, & birds benefit greatly, and biotic & abiotic processes are controlled & flourish.  Unfortunately, along with technified agricultural methods, plantations shifted from shade-grown techniques to sun cultivation techniques to increase yields for the ever-increasing demands for the delicious drink.  This began the destruction of forests & biodiversity by cutting down trees and using of chemical fertilizers & pesticides.  Another issue concerning coffee is the amount of water needed to grow coffee beans, since in most of the countries where it’s grown there is tremendous water shortage.

But don’t let this get you down!  Many interesting facts can be said about the popular beverage.  According to some sources, 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world every day & 25 million small producers rely on coffee for a living worldwide, making it a major export commodity.  A number of classifications have been denominated to label coffee produced under certain environmental or labor standards.  So many new terms have made their way into this complex international trading commodity that sometimes we as consumers are overwhelmed at a coffee shop trying to decide what to order!

Coffee Beans

The two main species grown are arabica and robusta.  Arabica, mild and aromatic, is generally more highly regarded – 3/4 of cultivated coffee is arabica – and robusta tends to be bitter with more caffeine and less flavor, but better body.  Coffee processing is quite complex, and variations exist throughout the process.  From the moment coffee is planted until it’s served, it has gone through the hands of countless individuals: farmers, pickers, importers, roasters, and sellers.  The bright red berries may be picked by hand, a traditional but labor-intensive method.  More commonly, crops are strip picked regardless of ripeness.  The green coffee is then dried and stripped down until all that’s left is the green bean – either through the dry process method (from strip picked berries) or the wet process method, which incorporates fermentation into the process.  They are then sorted by ripeness and color, fermented, and finally dried.  It’s a tedious & delicate process!

The next part is the roasting of the green coffee.  It can be sold roasted by the supplier, or it can be home roasted. This process influences the taste of the beverage: dark roasting (generally bolder with less fiber and more sugar) is the highest step in bean processing removing the most caffeine – not to be confused with decaffeination.  The coffee beans will be graded depending on the color of the roasted beans as perceived by the human eye: light, medium-light, medium, medium-dark, dark, or very dark.  Lighter roasts have a more complex and stronger flavor from oils and acids destroyed by longer roasting times.

Brewing

The coffee beans are then ground and brewed to create the delicious beverage.  They may be ground at a roastery, in a grocery store, or at home.  The choice of brewing depends to some extent on the roast: boiled, steeped, or pressurized, by drip or filter, French press, percolator, or espresso machine.  Infused coffee include the drip or filter variety, French press, & cold brews.  Boiled processes include percolated, Turkish coffee, & Moka pot (no, not Mocca).  A vacuum coffee maker, or a vac pot, brews coffee using vapor pressure and vacuum – prized for producing a clear brew, but excessively complex for everyday use.  A great example is this Bauhaus interpretation of the device by Gerhard Marcks.

An espresso machine forces a small amount of nearly boiling water and steam under pressure through finely ground & compact coffee.  It was developed in Italy around the year 1900, but quickly spread in popularity drunk with milk as cappuccino, the ultimate coffeehouse hit worldwide.  Espresso is the base for a number of coffee drinks: latte, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, & Americano – a term that comes from American GI Joes during WWII who would order espresso with water to dilute the strong flavor, also pinning their beloved drink as their ‘cup of joe’.

With the different methods, come different ways of serving coffee beverage, which is where the industry has expanded to exponential degrees.  All coffee drinks are based on either coffee or espresso, in different strengths.  Additives include milk (steamed or foamed), cream, flavorings, sweeteners, alcoholic liquors, or random combinations that in today’s day & age cease to surprise me anymore.  Some popular samples include Doppio, ristretto, café au lait, cortadito, macchiato, latte macchiato, Irish coffee, Kahlúa, moccaccino, café mocha, frappé…well, the list goes on and on!

Coffee enthusiasts can be found worldwide today.  Coffee shops and coffee sales have increased exponentially in the past 10 years.  Considered a continually changing and trans-oceanic collaboration, the evaluating team at the Coffee Review states that coffee invites the consumer to assume a much more active role than most other beverages.  For those interested in learning more about the world of coffee, read through the “world’s leading coffee guide” as they bring fresh reviews and informed commentary on the latest trends and developments in the world of fine coffee!

As we close our chapter on coffee, I can’t end it without mentioning its ‘methylxanthine alkaloid’ heart & soul: caffeine.  The world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, it’s luckily legal and unregulated TODAY, considered recognizably safe by the FDA.  Other products of coffee’s caffeinated family include many different teas, soft drink colas, yerba mate, guaraná, energy drinks, chocolate, caffeine tablets, and some inhalation products.  I look forward to reading up on caffeine & its products, and will be posting on that soon!  For now, be sure to thank your closest coffee shop – which is surely to be right around the corner – and wherever you go, take a moment to read up on the more historical coffeehouses in town.  There’s so much history with coffee, you’ll never know what you might find!

I am lucky to live a short walk away from one of the oldest continually operated coffee shops in Europe to survive in its original form.  In 1720, Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum opened its doors as a coffee house.  Here, famous composers, poets, and professors gathered to share ideas & free time.  Today, the house is now a coffee museum with one of the most important collections in the world.  The artefacts include table-top roasters and coffee mills from various eras.  The sandstone entrance has a curious story, as whoever commissioned the sculpture remains a mystery.  It depicts an Ottoman Turk with a large pot of coffee passing a cup to Eros (Cupid), and symbolizes the meeting of the Christian West and the Muslim East.  So, wherever it is you enjoy your cup of coffee, give yourself some time to learn about the history and the origin of the coffee beans in each particular place!

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