Coffee - The History

In an attempt to explain what makes the humble cuppa so pleasurable it makes sense to start from the beginning. Author, Mark Pendergrast in his book “Uncommon Grounds”, a comprehensive history of coffee, puts the discovery of coffee in c.600 CE down to an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi who noticed that the goats were energised after eating berries and leaves from a particular tree. The Arabs in c. 900 were to capitalise on the elixir with the physician Rhazes seeing some medicinal benefits in the substance. To follow the Ethiopians again, who in c. 1400, roasted, ground and brewed the beans. And so, COFFEE as we know it came into being.

 Taste and flavour and ultimately the satisfaction you derive from your brew is not only reliant on the quality of coffee maker and grind but an understanding of the two types of bean and their characteristic’s.

There are some points worth considering before you decide to purchase your coffee grinder and maker.

Water Quality

-       As your coffee is made up of approximately 97% water a filter can often take out impurities and tainted flavours from ordinary tap water. Remember that this could make your African, Yirgacheffe, (from the birthplace of coffee), Ethiopia that little more enjoyable.

Personal Taste

-        It is easy to find an array of quality imported beans, preroasted ground coffee and blends available online, from the supermarket or specialist supplier. It can be equally satisfying to roast and grind it yourself. If the latter is the case then it’s worth spending a little time to find out about the type of coffee bean that best suits your taste buds.

 

Arabica and Robusta are the two types of trees that produce the world’s supply of commercial coffee beans. They are found in the equatorial regions where the moderate temperatures (Arabica: 15 to 24degrees C, 59 to 75degrees F and Robusta: 24 to 30degreesC, 75 to 86degrees F), rainfall, sunshine and rich porous soils determine the quality of yield. Cultivars and mutant strains have been developed to provide resistance against disease, climate and soil types in some world regions and to maximise the commercial yield so as to improve the end experience. Some of the better known cultivars are:

ï‚· Blue Mountain - grown in Jamaica and Kenya

ï‚· Mundo Novo - a cross between typica and bourbon, originally grown in Brazil

ï‚· Kent - originally developed in India, showing some disease resistance

ï‚· Catuai - developed as a hybrid of Mundo Novo and Caturra, characterized by either yellow or red cherries: Catuai-amarelo and Catuai-vermelho respectively.

 

Arabica bean constitutes about 70% of global production. The tree grows well in alpine altitudes up to 2000mtr (1.25 to 1.55miles being the optimum) from sea level. Although susceptible to frost it can be grown in latitudes further from the equatorial belt with the right climatic and soil conditions. It tends to be grown in Central and South America, Brazil being the largest exporter with 41.5mil/ 60kg bags. 

The bean itself has roughly half the caffeine content (varying between 0.9 to 1.7% of the volume) of its cousin the Robusta, and the bean is more elliptical, less round and a darker green.  The end result is an espresso with a pleasant fragrance, a hint of acidity though mild, smoother and often chocolaty with a slight after taste of caramel. It is considered by many a consumer as the bean of choice.

Robusta: Is a full bodied and intense brew that is primarily used for espresso and in blends. Vietnam is currently #1 and exports globally to 80 regions/countries. It is interesting to note that in three years ending 2011 Arabica exports had doubled to 50,000 tons showing an increasing emphasis in hectares dedicated to Arabica.

Globally, coffee constitutes a US15 to $20 billion export industry and is the second largest traded commodity next to crude oil. This places it ahead of others like natural gas (3rd), gold(4th), brent oil(5th), silver(6th), sugar(7th), corn(8th), wheat(9th) and cotton.

Harvesting:

The coffee bean is actually a seed, when processed, roasted and ground can be brewed as your morning cuppa. On the tree it is a coffee fruit or cherry and when ripe has a red skin with pulp surrounding two beans with a parchment like layer. If replanted and carefully propagated they can become new plant stock.

Processing:

The coffee fruit once harvested and sorted to ensure for correct ripeness then undergoes one of two methods used to produce unroasted coffee beans known as green coffee.

Natural Method:

Also known as the dry method sees the cherries spread over large areas of concrete or waist height matting and turned regularly over several weeks until the correct moisture content is present (12.5%). It is then off to the mill for the hulling i.e. removal of the outer layers surrounding the beans (between 1 & 3 beans per fruit), grading and bagging of the green coffee.

This method has been used for the bulk of commercial Arabica and Robusta green coffee production.

 

Wet Method:

Beans that undergo this method are quiet often thought to be of a better quality. A machine process that requires large quantities of water sees the cherry pulp separated from the beans eventually to fermentation tanks where enzymes break down any remaining mucilage. They are then dried to reduce the moisture content of the parchment layer to 12.5% and stored waiting for export.

The Fun Part:

We know a little bit about the differences between Arabica and Robusta, and with your confidence growing it’s time to make a decision and launch into “The Art of Making a Great Coffee”.

Think of the reasons why you have read this blurb so far. Hopefully it has peeked your interest in this mystical brew. There is always some fresh avenue to explore whether it be with friends over a new roast, your local specialist retailer (who is on first names basis by now) or scouring the web.

Within the plant variety Coffea Arabica there is incredible diversity of taste experience. This is dependent on many factors i.e. the country and its history of growing a particular variety of tree that best suits the climate, soil, latitude and altitude. The same difference can be said of Coffea Robusta. Don’t forget that Arabica constitutes about 70% of the global production. If you are unsure of which coffee to try first it is worth spending a little more for 100% Arabica bean.

For the connoisseur who already has a vast knowledge, this section may not cross any new territory. When deciding on a type of machine for your brew there is a huge range, each has its own way to process coffee grounds. I’ll try to give a brief overview of each one. One thing to keep in mind is that there are dozens of different coffee recipes that are great to try once you get the right set-up.

  • When deciding remind yourself of the number of intended people/guests that you will be catering for and the preparation time.
  • The colour or finish of the maker so that it suits the décor of the room.
  • Whether there is bench or cupboard space available.
  • If you are going to embrace grinding the beans or using preground for use in an espresso, latte, cappuccino’s or other specialty multi-function machine, drip, percolator, french press, moka pot or a single serve (k-cup, pod coffee).
  •  Look for convenient function features like auto shut-off (safety + ability to keep your brew ready with a pre-set timer if needed).
  • Check the size of the water reservoir (ease of removal) and buy an inexpensive filter to remove taste taints from tap water.
  •   Many believe for a perfect brew a temperature of between 195F – 205F degrees Fahrenheit (<>90C – 96C degrees Celsius) must be maintained.
  • Although single serve (pod) makers are convenient there is no replacement for freshly ground roasted beans for the ultimate cuppa. Another thought is about drip fed filter machines; that the longer coffee is left to sit on the heat the greater the chance coffee taste degradation.
  • Look at your budget. It can be true to say that the more whistles and bells a coffee machine has, the more expensive. Try and buy quality brands that have a proven seal of approval. It can be a bit of a juggling act but as long as the build is sound and reliable components have been used you’ll get your monies worth, in many respects you get the value that you pay for, look to find some critical reviews online.