Coffee 101

Coffee is so intertwined with religion, politics and world history in general that a solid foundation of world economics could be garnered by a reflection of the memoirs of coffee.

Coffee mythology credits the discovery of the coffee plant to Kaldi, a goatherder laboring in the Kaffa region of present-day Ethiopia around 850 A.D. He observed an elevated level of energy in his goats after they nibbled on the berries of a particular plant. Enamored, he indulged and found himself too with an extra bounce in his step. Kaldi excitedly shared the story of his fortunate find to a passing monk who, in an effort to sustain attention throughout lengthy sermons, collected and distributed the beans to his disciples, ordering them to chew the beans before he preached. Word spread and soon the berries were being dried and transported to distant monasteries.

Over time the coffee beans were transported to present day Yemen, where around the end of the 9th century Arabians boiled the beans to make “qahwa” which literally translated means “that which prevents sleep.” It wasn’t until sometime between 1000 and 1200 A.D. that the beans were roasted and our most recognizable ancestor of coffee was born.

Cultivation and commercial exportation is believed to have begun in Yemen and been strictly guarded by the Arabs. Turkey was one of the first beneficiaries of such export and in 1475 the first coffee shop was opened in Constantinople (later Istanbul). Coffee shops would soon spring up all over the city becoming the hubs of social activity. During this period the coffee shops were considered “schools for the wise” as so much knowledge could be obtained from the constant coffee shop banter.

Coffee first arrived in Europe in the early 1600’s via Venetian trade merchants, but it was the tea-drinking English that opened the first coffee shop in Oxford around 1650. With the Pope’s blessings, coffee shops perked up over the European continent and were considered forums for creativity and intellectual exchange.

Coffee hit Parisian high society in the late 1660’s, and commercially in Italy and Austria in the 1680’s. It was during these early coffee shop days that so many of our current customs were born. A Polish army officer and former resident of Turkey living in Vienna established the habit of filtering grounds, adding sweetener and milk and serving the beverage with pastries.

In London, the coffee houses were so crowded that if you desired better seating and more favorable service you would throw coins in a tin labeled “to insure prompt service,” shortened today to simply “tips.” Coffee shops were so well revered and visited by local intellects they were dubbed “penny universities”, reflecting the cost of a cup of coffee. Further, the London Stock Exchange was formed over coffee at Jonathan’s coffee house in Change Alley. Even Johann Sebastian Bach contributed to the coffee movement by composing “Kafee-Kantata” or “Coffee Cantata” in the early 1700’s.

Coffee was first introduced to North America early in the 1600’s as well by Captain John Smith, one of the founding fathers of Virginia at Jamestown. As with Europe, by the 1670’s coffeehouses were quite popular and again served as gathering places for social, political and business discourse. The Green Dragon coffee house in Boston became the meeting and plotting grounds for John Adams, Paul Revere and other revolutionists. In 1773 coffee surpassed tea as Americans’ favorite beverage when, following the Boston tea party and its protest on King George’s high tax on tea, Americans turned to coffee as a patriotic statement.

Back in the late 1600’s as the Arabs dominated the export industry, the Dutch capitalized on a smuggled coffee plant and founded the East India Coffee Trade by transporting the tree to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and their East Indian colony, Java. Amsterdam, thus, became a prominent coffee trading center. Eventually the Arabs lost control of their exclusive cultivation and exportation industry.

Coffee production further spread when the mayor of Amsterdam gifted to King Louis XIV of France a fledgling coffee tree. A young naval officer by the name of De Clieu from French-controlled Martinique in the Caribbean requested from the King a clipping from the tree in hopes of creating a French Java in Martinique. When denied, he raided the King’s garden and “borrowed” a seedling which would endure a torturous trip back to the Caribbean. The seedling weathered fierce storms and water shortages, but De Clieu’s perseverance and personal water supply salvaged the seedling that would eventually yield 18 million trees.

The descendents of that travel weary, yet hardy, seedling would sustain the entire Western hemisphere’s coffee industry by the late 1770’s. Yet, the French and Dutch could not protect their monopoly either. The Brazilian Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta, on assignment to mediate a border dispute between the Dutch and French, strategically wooed the Dutch governor’s wife. In a token of her affection she sent the lieutenant back to Brazil with coffee seeds hidden in a gift bouquet. This event would eventually result in the emergence of Brazil as a key player in the cultivation and exportation market.

The 20th century, although less dramatic, has seen coffee transform and develop. A decaffeinating process was invented in the early 1900’s, instant coffee was developed in the mid 1930’s and the espresso machine was perfected by the Italians in the 1940’s. Coffee quota agreements were made prior to World War II to provide each coffee producing country a share of the market, but it was not until the early 1960’s that it became world wide. Currently, coffee ranks second only to petroleum in world trade dollars and since 1995 has been the United State’s most popular drink.

The Harvest and Process

The coffee plant is a small tree that bears fruit called the “coffee cherry.” The cherry houses twin beans, or seeds, inconveniently encased in three sets of skins and a layer of pulp. Done correctly, the bright red or yellow ripe cherries are first hand-picked, ensuring only the ripe and thus flavorful cherries are garnered, and one of two processing methods begun. The first called the “dry” method involves laying the beans outside to dry naturally in the sun or in drying rooms until only 10% of moisture remains at which time they are stored in silos awaiting hulling, sorting and export. This less expensive method is more traditional and often used when capital and or water is scarce.

The “wet” method uses technology, machinery and water to remove the pulp and skins via a pulping machine and a complex fermentation process. Following the fermentation process which separates the final two layers, the beans are dried and stored similar to the process of the “dry” method, by either sun or drying room. The “wet” method is believed to preserve the bean’s intrinsic quality and thus yield a higher quality product.

The raw beans are then sorted by size and density and thus quality and hulled just before transport. In wet processed coffee, hulling removes the hull or dried parchment layer immediately surrounding the bean. Hulling dry processed coffee refers to removing the husks or whole of the dried outer coverings of the original cherries. This entire laborious process yields green raw beans that will be packaged, graded, marked with country of origin and ready for exportation.

The Coffee Bean

Two species of coffee beans dominate the commercial coffee industry; Arabica and Robusta. In general, the Arabica is considered a much higher quality bean. Grown at higher elevations, usually between 4,000 – 6,000 feet, it is a delicate plant requiring cool subtropical climates, an abundance of moisture and rich soil. It is known for its wide variety of flavor ranging from sweet to tart and is generally found in specialty coffee shops in whole bean form.

Robustas are a hardier plant capable of growing at lower altitudes and yield greater quantities per acre at lower production costs. Hence, they are a very attractive entity for large-scale commercial operations. This is the bean you will find in pre-ground tins at the local super-market, instant coffees and other places of mass production. Alone, Robusta beans are described as harsh to bitter. Yet high quality Robusta beans, with their higher caffeine content and quality crema, certainly have their place in premium espresso blends. Because there is a myriad of factors important to a phenomenal cup of coffee it is important to remember that the bean alone will not determine the overall quality of the final product. The finest grown Arabica bean can be ruined by a poor harvesting process, inferior roasting or simply inadequate or incorrect preparation. Conversely, a mediocre Robusta bean when impeccably harvested, roasted, ground and prepared may yield a very enjoyable coffee experience.

The Grinding

Green coffee beans can keep their flavor for some time, even for years. Roasted beans tend to lose flavor after about a week and ground coffee a mere hour after grinding. The take home message here is that to fully enjoy the flavor of your coffee you want to grind it just prior to preparing it. This small step is perhaps the single most important element you, as a coffee consumer, can do to preserve the flavor and aroma of your coffee, assuming you’re not home-roasting. Grinding is fairly inexpensive and certainly not time consuming. Grinders come in all shapes and styles, electric to manual, expensive to inexpensive. All told, however, there are really only a couple of types of grinders, excluding the mortar and pestle, although this is still a method of choice around the world and especially when grinding for Turkish coffee.

The most inexpensive route to fresh ground coffee is a blade grinder, available in a manual and in the popular electric version. This type of grinding utilizes a blade that actually pulverizes the bean, with the length of time grinding determining the fineness of the grind. The drawbacks are usually a fairly inconsistent grind and the susceptibility to burning the bean with the high speed required for the motor to generate enough power to grind. A good deal of static is often created as well, requiring a constant and laborious clean-up. In general, blade grinders are sufficient for drip machines, percolators and French presses but are not recommended for espresso.

The preferred method of grinding is called burr grinding. This method utilizes two disks called burrs, one moving and one stationary. The fineness of the grind is determined by the proximity of the disks to each other therefore decreasing the need for lengthy grinding times and the resulting burned coffee beans. Further, burr grinders have higher quality motors capable of generating power via torque versus a dependency on higher speeds decreasing heat and static electricity. Burr grinders are further broken down into two categories; flat and conical. Conical burr grinders are believed to create slightly more uniform and consistent grinds, can grind a bit finer and often include a gear reduction system slowing the speed even further . Both flat and conical burr grinders are available in high and low speed models however, so it will behoove you to inquire. Again, the lower the revolutionary speed the better.

Many a budding coffee connoisseur has made the mistake of buying a Roles Royce espresso machine and a VW rabbit coffee grinder. Nothing will frustrate you more than believing you wasted a large sum of money for a crummy coffee maker. In short, budget for the grinder, it is the single most under-valued coffee accessory on the market.

The Roasting

Roasting is the heat treatment which transforms the “green” bean into the golden nugget we adore. It is as critical, or more so in cases, as the quality of the bean itself in creating a savory cup of coffee. When roasting, the green coffee bean expands to nearly double its original size, changes density and as the bean absorbs heat shifts color from green to yellow to a light brown and continues to darken until removed from the heat source. At about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, as the bean begins to turn a golden, medium brown the bean begins to emit an oily substance called “coffeol.” This fragile coffee “oil” is the essence of the beans natural flavor; the key element in defining the beans overall taste.

At lighter roasts, the bean will demonstrate more of its “origin flavor” – the flavors created in the bean by the soil and weather conditions where it was grown. Many times coffee beans from famous regions are roasted lightly so their signature characteristics dominate the flavor. However, many light roasts can produce a sour, grainy flavor. As the beans darken the original flavors of the bean are masked by the flavors created by the roasting process itself. As the bean continues to roast the sugars are burned off entirely and the bean turns dry. This last stage is considered “dark” roast and if not done perfectly can create a bitter taste. In short, it is a delicate balance of finding the right bean/roast combination as an Ethiopian bean roasted medium brown can and will taste different than a Guatamalan bean roasted the same. Following is a general roasting chart with common names and characteristics normally associated with them.


Roast Color

Common Names

Common characteristics
Light Brown Light; Cinnamon Dry bean; many times sour and/or grainy; often used in inexpensive blends
Light/Medium Brown New England; Medium Dry bean; slightly less grainy, although still a bit sour.
Medium Brown Medium; American, City; Regular Dry bean; full flavor, “green” bean characteristics still prominent; used for coffee tastings. The traditional American norm, more East Coast today.
Medium Dark Brown Viennese; Full City; Light French; Espresso; Light espresso Oily patches; chocolate or caramel undertones; bittersweet tones dominate. The norm for the West U.S. and most American-style espresso.
Dark Brown Dark; French; Espresso; Italian; Turkish Dark, shiny bean; bittersweet taste w/ hints of “burn” or “char” Acidity is gone; hints of the original “green” bean may be evident.
Very Dark Brown Italian; Dark French; Heavy Dark and oily bean; strong undertone of “burn” No original bean flavor remaining.

Black Brown
Spanish; Dark French Nearly Black bean with muted shiny surface; “charred” undertone dominates; thin body.

One Response to Coffee 101

  1. John H. Watson says:

    Who would have thought that I would be getting an education about something I have indulged in for so many years, and at the age of 65, who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Thank you for opening
    my eyes to a better cup of coffee.

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