Are you one of the people who absolutely must start your day off with a cup of coffee? Or maybe you like to settle in for one after lunch? Even before people started roasting coffee beans and using them to make the beverage that so many of us love, people were using the whole, ripe fruits (often mixed with animal fat) as a snack! Fermenting of coffee fruits also makes a wine-like beverage (the best of both worlds?). The process is surprisingly similar to what we do in cocoa. Around the 10th century CE, a drink made from the whole fruits of the coffee plant emerged, though it wouldn’t be for another three centuries before people would begin roasting the beans and making the beverage that we all know today.
There are many legends about coffee and how people first came into contact with it; according to one legend, the ancestors of the present day Oromi people in Ethiopia were the first to find the coffee plant, with some stories saying that it was discovered by the shepherd, Kaldi, between the 6th and 9th centuries when he noticed that his goats would stay awake all night after eating the red fruits of an unknown shrub.
The first description we have of coffee, however, is from the 15th century, by the physician Leonhard Rauwolf after returning from a trip to the Middle East.
In the 16th century, coffee from Ethiopia had reached the Middle East, Turkey, and North Africa. We all know that Italians love their coffee, and they’ve earned this right; coffee was first brought into Europe by Venetian merchants as early as the 17th century. From Venice, the coffee trade began to spread through Europe. Coffee shops began to open, despite the heavy criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1645, the first café opened in Rome, followed by similar establishments starting up around the world. The spreading of coffee and its seeds were banned, but the Dutch smuggled the seeds and soon were growing coffee in Java and Ceylon. In Europe, demand for coffee was soon so high that various substitutes were made to have similar flavours but from different sources; chicory and dandelion roots and acorns were all used for this purpose. During the Second World War, acorn was used frequently as a coffee substitute throughout the UK.
Today, most of our coffee is produced in Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia. In 2019, the International Coffee Organisation reported that there were 169 million bags of product grown, which equals about 10 million tonnes of coffee (how many sleepless nights does that add up to?).
Coffee is a shrub or small tree that belongs to the genus Coffea of the Rubiaceae family and thrives in tropical-sub tropical environments. More than 120 species are known to exist in this genus, of which the most commonly used is Coffea arabica, also known as Arabian coffee or simply arabica. This species accounts for 60-80% of the world’s coffee production, and has a sweeter and fruitier taste than other species. The second most used species is C. canephora, which is also known as robusta and accounts for 20-40% of the world’s coffee beans; it has a more durable taste and a higher caffeine content than arabica.
Small, white flowers bloom in clusters on the plants 2-3 years after planting. These flowers bear a sweet scent reminiscent of jasmine, and develop into dark green fruits, referred to as cherries. These then mature to be yellow, then light red, and finally a deep, dark red colour. Each fruit usually contains 2 seeds, each having a notch in the middle that makes the seed look like a bun.
Arabica thrives best at 1000-2000 m above sea level at 20 ° C and does not tolerate frost. Robusta, however, thrives at altitudes of up to 600 m. Though the plants can grow to be up to 12 m tall, they are regularly pruned to make harvesting easier. The first fruits will generally emerge when the plant is 3-5 years old, and it can bear fruit for more than 60 years. Harvesting the fruits too early or late leads to poor quality coffee. Since each fruit will not ripen on the same day, the fruits are often harvested manually. Sometimes they are shaken free from the tree into tarps, which results in ripe and immature fruit being harvested together.
Arabica is very sensitive and susceptible to damage in poor conditions, such as cold temperatures, low soil pH, and pests, but is the most sought after coffee and is often mixed with other more acidic varieties. Robusta (as the name implies) handles these environmental variables better and is thus easier to cultivate. It also has a higher yield and is more resistant to disease. Vietnam produces as much as 40% of the world’s robusta crop. The roasted beans of this species have a strong coffee taste, and are a bit sourer than arabica.
Coffee preparation process
It takes many steps to get from that fruit harvested in the tropics into a warm cup of coffee on your table; higher quality coffees are usually produced using the wet method. In this, peeled seeds are soaked in cold water in special tanks. During this time, a slight fermentation begins, which is allowed to go for 24 hours. This makes the taste and aroma less bitter and softer. This is followed by drying the grains in the sun, followed by hand sorting the grains based on size and quality.
Another method is the dry process, which is mainly used in Brazil and western Africa. Ripe fruits are immediately placed in the sun for 2-3 weeks, and all parts are only separated when the fruits have dried out. That being said, this process can also be carried out in a drying room, in which case it only takes 2-4 days.
Most coffee beans are then also roasted before we find them in our lives, though a smaller amount is sold as green coffee, which contains higher amounts of antioxidants (chlorogenic acid), proteins, sugars, and caffeine, but does not have the same aromatic and taste qualities of roasted beans. Roasting is an important process, which directly contributes to the taste and smell of the final product. Roasting begins by raising the temperature inside the grains to about 200 ° C. The high temperature causes the starches to decompose into simple sugars, which begin to caramelise, thus changing the colour of the seeds. Roasting also lowers the levels of essential oils, acids, and caffeine, all of which affect the taste. There are several types of roasting, which lead to beans of different colours and flavours: light, medium, high, city, full, French, Italian…. a lot of words! What’s important is that less roasted coffees have higher caffeine content and, as a result, a more bitter taste. That being said, they are also more aromatic and have a higher acid content, things that would disappear in a longer roast time. The coffee is than blended by mixing different lots of both robusta and arabica.
In order to keep the coffee at its best quality after roasting, it is also important to store and pack the coffee beans; this must be done in airtight containers and should be kept in a dry and dark place.
Ways of preparing coffee
There are many ways of brewing coffee, which vary based on the ratio of coffee to water, the way the water comes in contact with the coffee, and various additives. You could say that every café has its own secret recipe!
One of the most popular brewing methods is espresso coffee, which is when a relatively small amount of pressurised water flows quickly through a layer of finely ground coffee. This normally involves 7 g of coffee and 25 ml of water, with these two substances only coming into contact for about 25 seconds. True espresso is made in a machine that allows the flow of water under pressure. Very similar coffee can also be brewed in the so-called “moka pot”, which consists of the lower container, where the water is boiled, the middle chamber containing the coffee and the upper container into which the coffee flows.
Another common method of preparation is Turkish coffee, though it is also known by other names (for example, in Greece it is known as Greek coffee). For this type, water is boiled in a dish that narrows towards the top and then finely ground coffee is added to the boiling water and stirred. The mixture can be put back on the heat, but it should not boil. This is then poured into cups and consumed once the grounds have settled to the bottom. This normally involves about 8 g of coffee and 60 ml of water.
Filter coffee is another common method, in which ground coffee is poured into a paper filter and then boiling water is poured over it. The water turns to coffee and slowly seeps through the paper filter into the container below. This typically involves 8 g of coffee and 150 ml of water.
There is also the less commonly used French press method, using a cylindrical container into which hot water and coarse coffee grounds are poured. After a few minutes, a strainer-like plunger is inserted into the container and pushes the particles down to the bottom, leaving only the liquid coffee up above.
Is coffee a drug?
Here we are, finally getting to the tough questions. Surely all you coffee lovers who have children have had them come home from school at one point or another and inform you that your morning cup of coffee is actually a drug! However, this isn’t an easy question to answer. There are many opinions on this, and many of the people who hold these opinions are biased in one way or another (in other words, they drink coffee and don’t think of it as a drug or they don’t drink coffee and do think of it as a drug). So how do we define what a drug is? A drug is a substance that influences brain function by altering perception, well-being, consciousness, or behaviour. For all of this, coffee fits the definition. Drugs are further defined as being used for entertainment purposes, religious or spiritual ceremonies, or to enhance mental capacity. Coffee thus would also be seen as a drug under this view. Drugs often (but not always) cause physical and/or psychological addiction, and coffee is once more no exception. When a frequent drinker doesn’t get their morning cup of happy, they become lazy, irritated, and sometimes can even get awful headaches, which are all withdrawal symptoms. Drugs are also often defined as being substances that are abused; this is a very unclear category though… if we call abuse any use that leads to serious damages to individuals or society or that lead to criminal behaviour, then coffee is probably not a drug in this way of seeing things, though we probably all know someone who we think would be willing to kill for their morning coffee!
What are the effects of coffee?
Most effects of coffee are due to the caffeine we find in it. In addition to coffee, caffeine is also found in tea (black and green), mate, guarana, cola, and a bit in cocoa and some herbs. Caffeine has many different effects in our body. The most known effect is that it makes us not feel tired; this happens as the caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain and means our body is unable to communicate to us how tired it is! Therefore, caffeine does not actually reduce fatigue, but merely prevents its detection. This is a bit like covering an overheating warning light in the car with a black sticker.
A cup of coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine, tea about 50, and cocoa about 10 mg. A can of cola contains about 40 mg, and energy drinks contain about 100 mg. Chocolate contains a little caffeine, but if you eat a whole plate of dark chocolate then the amount ads up quickly!
The world record for coffee consumption is in Scandinavian countries, where they drink as much as 400 mg of caffeine per day (clearly those nonstop days or nights depending on the season take some getting used to!). Germans come in second place with 313 mg of caffeine daily, and then the Italians, French, and British, each at about 210 mg of caffeine per day. It is worth noting though that in the UK a lot of this comes from tea while in Italy it’s largely from coffee!