Who was that first brave person that, after biting into a bitter coffee cherry, decided that perhaps it would make a better beverage? Whoever he or she was, millions of us owe our profound thanks every morning when we drink our first cup of joe.
Actually, legend has it that coffee was discovered by a goat herder. He noticed that his animals grew friskier when they ate the berries off a certain shrub. The man tried some of the berries himself and began cavorting, full of caffeinated energy. Local monks saw this behavior and wanted to experience it for themselves. It is said that monks used the boiled bean to help stay awake during long ceremonies.
Coffee originated in Yemen, and was cultivated for trade there. The Yemenites, realizing that they had what the rest of the world wanted, limited trade and did not allow any of the live plants to be exported. For centuries, the port of Mocha in Yemen was the only source of coffee. Eventually, of course, it became more widespread, thanks to the spice routes, and made its way into Europe and thereby the rest of the world.
Today, current export production nears seven million tons annually. In fact, coffee is second only to petroleum as the most traded commodity. Coffee is grown in 53 different countries, encompassing much of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Brazil is the top coffee-producing country; Columbia comes in second, but the world’s love for the brew assures coffee growers across the world that we’re willing to drink what they can produce.
The climate found between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn is ideal for growing coffee trees. There are two types of coffee plants, coffea canephora and coffea arabica, which produces the much more popular and tasty Arabica coffee. Arabica coffee is generally grown at altitudes of 4,000 to 6,000 feet and requires more tending, making the prices higher than those of the beans from coffea canephora , also known as robusto’. It is a hardier plant with a higher yield and can be grown at lower altitudes, which makes for a harsher, more acidic bean.
No matter which type of coffee is grown, the process that takes it from the tree to the cup is an astonishing journey. Taking into account how many people are involved in the process, it’s actually impressive that the heady brew can still be had for under two bucks a cup (in most places.)
One acre of trees will produce 10,000 pounds of coffee cherries. Once processed by the grower, this acre will yield 2,000 pounds of beans. The fruit of the coffee tree takes seven to nine months to reach maturity, and all cherries do not reach maturity at the same time.
Coffee cherries are all hand-harvested, and most trees will be picked four or five times during a growing season. A single tree will yield about one and a half pounds of coffee beans per season-in other words, the amount a single person might consume in just a few weeks.
The coffee cherry has thick and bitter skin. The inner pulp is said to be sweet, but it is considered a waste product in the production of coffee, as the actual prize’ is the pit. . .the coffee bean. Once the cherries have been harvested, the fruit must be cured.
There are two methods of curing, the wet’ or the dry’ process:
In the wet process, the skin and pulp of the cherries are removed (via machines) and the remaining pit is allowed to ferment in order to loosen the remaining bits of skin and pulp. Once this is accomplished, the pits are washed, drained and dried. Some of the smaller growers sun-dry their crop, the bigger farmers use a mechanical dryer. After the pit has dried, it is moved to a hulling machine which removes the parchment skin from around the pit.
In the dry-cure process, the cherries are spread out and left to dry in the sun, a process that takes about two weeks. It is more labor intensive, as the berries must be raked and rotated several times a day. Once sun-dried, the pits are moved to the hulling machine.
There are also some more, shall we say unusual’ cures: in Indonesia the Asian Palm Civet (aka kopi luwak) eats the berries, which are eventually excreted and harvested from the ground. Brazil harvests in the same manner, the droppings from the Jacu bird. While some people swear by the flavors of such unusual beans, the end price makes it prohibitive for most, making it more of a novelty type coffee.
No matter which method is used, once the beans are ready, they are graded by quality, which includes the size and color of the bean, the uniformity of the batch and the number of imperfections. There are no labeling regulations in the coffee industry, so the coffee may be known by where it was grown, where it was exported, who exported it or even the farm it was grown on (known as estate’ coffees) Use a reputable seller to ensure the coffee is what the label claims it is.
Once the beans have been graded and sold, it’s on to the roasting process. The beans are gently rolled in a drum and heated to 392 degrees. During the first five minutes or so, any moisture left in the bean evaporates and the green beans turn a yellowish color. A few minutes later the beans will pop’ and double in size. A few minutes after that, the beans will begin to darken, and any oils in the bean will rises to the surface. As the beans roast the starches in the beans break down into sugar, causing caramelization, which brings about the dark brown color. At the end of the roasting process (11 to 15 minutes) the beans will pop again before being released into a cooling tray.
While many roasters have their own signature tricks, and use different methodologies, the four general types of roasting are:
- Light roast, also known as American roast. In a light roast, the beans do not reach the dark caramelization point
- French roast, also known as Vienna roast, has the beans roasted to caramelization.
- Dark roast receives an even longer roasting time than French roast
- Espresso roast is a process that takes the beans almost to the burning point.
What’s the best way to enjoy a cup? First of all, be aware that the flavor of a coffee bean peaks within a few days and decreases rapidly when exposed to air, light and humidity. Purchase whole beans and fresh- grind as needed. Do not store coffee in the refrigerator or freezer as this may add moisture to the mix, diminishing the flavor. Instead, store in a cool, dry place in a container with a tight-closing lid. When brewing, make sure your equipment is completely clean, as old coffee oils can impart a bitter flavor to a new brew. Use cold water, the ratio of one tablespoon coffee to one cup of water is recommended.
Now sit back, relax and throw up a silent thank you to that wonderful person that first discovered just how marvelous coffee can be!