A lot of things had to go right for coffee to come into existence. Like some of our other oldest and most cherished delicacies and favorite cultural beverages, the discovery, creation, and evolution of coffee as a drink is extremely convoluted and surprisingly complicated, based entirely on serendipity and centuries of slow, sudden, usually accidental progress. Unlike tea – which we can mostly trace to ancient China – the exact origins of coffee are somewhat debatable. The current reigning theory is that coffee as we know it first originated in either Ethiopia or Yemen, although there are countless anecdotes – none of them necessarily true – about how coffee was first discovered.
A rather humorous one suggests that the plant was first noticed for its psychoactive properties when goats started eating the berries and acting out. Farmers tasted the berries for themselves, found them unpalatable, and began trying various different things to figure out what to do with them. After cooking, charring, roasting, burning, crushing, and boiling them several times in different attempts to figure out how to eat this strange, stubborn and generally sour bean, the result was a pleasant brew that made the farmer feel awake. Another story tells of a Sheikh’s disciple, who tried to eat, then roast, and then boil the bean of the coffee cherry in an attempt to sustain himself, accidentally creating coffee. Other tales involve similar elements, including viewing animals feasting on the berries and feeling revitalized.
Regardless of when we first discovered coffee and the pleasurable effects of caffeine, word must have spread quickly. Coffee grew from the 15th century onwards, first through the Arabic world, and then to Europe through trade. Since then, we’ve been slowly cultivating and growing coffee, expanding its uses and the art of brewing it, and coming up with countless cultural variations. It always starts with the coffee plant, which is harvested once its berries/cherries reach maturity. After a fermentation and drying process, the resulting berries are stripped of any pulp, inspected for quality, and roasted. The result is the modern roasted coffee bean, ready for crushing and brewing.
It Starts in the Ground
Commercially-grown coffee starts as a shrub plant, of one of two species, either Coffea arabica or Coffea canephora, or the Arabica and Robusta coffee plants. Robusta coffee accounts for only about 20-40% of the world’s coffee, and is known as a more resilient, albeit more bitter and less flavorful bean. Arabica, on the other hand, accounts for the majority of the planet’s coffee and is used in most brews, save for a few select brands that utilize robusta either for economic reasons or as a way to deliberately produce a darker, much bitterer blend.
In total, there are well over a hundred different coffee species. But only the two are really cultivated to any level. Contrary to what you might expect, caffeine isn’t unique to the bean. It’s present in the leaves, flowers, and fruit of the coffee shrub, and it’s not uncommon to see people brew tea with coffee flowers and leaves. Ironic, isn’t it?
Each plant takes about nine months to ripen, and coffee crops – particularly Arabica plants – are susceptible to specific pests that evolved to particularly target coffee.
It’s a Cherry, or a Berry
The coffee fruit is not quite that you’d expect, either. About the size of a thumb at full maturity, coffee berries start green and become red, containing a seed we refer to as a bean due to its shape. Semantically, coffee beans aren’t really beans – not in the legume sense, at least.
Picking occurs whenever the plant is ripe and ready to be picked, and this is either done by machine, or by hand. It used to be predominantly something done by hand, but machine-picking is becoming more popular as wages continue to rise in developing nations, and many rural youths are working harder and harder to leave the countryside and earn a living in urban centers. When picked by hand, workers either opt for selective picking (taking only the cherries that are completely ripe) or wholesale picking, wherein every fruit is picked off a coffee plant once it reaches its ripe state.
From there, the cherry makes its way to the next step of the coffee production – separating the bean from the fruit. This is done one of two ways, traditionally:
- Wet processing – the pulp is removed from the beans by machine, and the beans are then soaked and fermented in water for several days. This is to remove mucilage. The pulp is the skin of the berry, and the mucilage is the layer that separates the meat of the berry from the bean. Sometimes, different fruit juices are used to give the beans a distinctive taste. They are they washed once more and left to dry.
- Dry processing – this involves leaving the pulpless seeds out to dry in the sun, turning them regularly. The mucilage is not removed, and this sun roasting gives the bean an extra layer of depth through a “honey process”. An easier, cheaper way of doing this without the honeying involves simply letting the fruit dry out in the sun for up to 4 weeks. This doesn’t typically produce high-quality coffee, and it can be challenging to control the taste of the beans due to potential molding or off flavors.
The Elusive Peaberry
Once in a while, a coffee cherry will be a “peaberry”. This occurs when two distinctly different seeds compete within the berry, with one seed enveloping the other. In essence, this causes one berry to yield one large, round seed, rather than the two halves that berries normally yield. Although there hasn’t been much research to prove this, some peaberry enthusiasts swear by peaberry coffee as being wildly different to other forms of coffee, either as a richer, or less bitter, more sweet form of coffee.
There is no scientific reason to believe that peaberries are any different from regular coffee beans. Some purport that the difference is a matter of natural selection – that peaberries are more robust than their peers, and thus have a more full-bodied flavor hidden deep within them.
In any case, some brands specially offer peaberry coffee using any peaberries they happened to sort through during harvest.
The Roasting Process
Coffee isn’t ground and served as a dried, fermented bean. Green coffee beans, which have been all the rage for arguably unproven and not very distinct health benefits, are generally unpalatable and taste more like wheatgrass than anything you’d ever enjoy in an Italian café. The roasting process is crucial for the taste of coffee to actually occur. Coffee beans on their own start off spongey and green, then become brown, hard, and distinctly smell (and taste) like coffee once properly roasted.
But roasting coffee is a bit more complicated than throwing a couple beans into a fire, an oven, or onto a pan. Some argue that there is an art to it, and there is certainly a difference between the various ways in which coffee is roasted, depending on the intended flavor and depth of the coffee, the quality and development of the bean, and so on.
Generally-speaking, dark roasts are more bitter, while light roasts are more acidic, and both have very distinct flavor differences. Dark roasts require more roasting, are shiny black, and taste anything from being a lovely roasted warm taste to tasting burnt. Medium-dark and medium roasts are more popular in the US, while dark roasts are more popular in Italy. Light roasts contain the most caffeine but aren’t quite as rich or as bitter. Because they’re only lightly roasted, the oils haven’t fully gotten through to the surface of the bean, and they’ll generally look more matte. The result is a more fruity, mild, and slightly acidic cup of coffee.
The final step is packaging the roasted coffee and getting it to select customers, restaurants, cafes, and stores. That’s where you come in. Coffee is sold packaged in air-tight packaging to prevent a loss of flavor. In their green form, coffee beans generally don’t lose flavor – but once roasted, they can go stale if not kept cool and tightly-packed. It’s a good idea to freeze your coffee, regardless of whether you bought it ground or in bean form.
If you want a better taste, though, you’ll generally want to avoid buying ground coffee and instead opt to grind it yourself. Coffee can be ground in many different ways, with hand-grinders, blade grinders, bullet blenders, or burr grinders. Grinding coffee beans brings out their flavor and releases some of the oils in the bean, but it’s the coarseness of the grind that determines how the coffee is going to come out. A coarser grind is used for press coffee, made with a French press. Espresso made in a Moka coffee maker or in an espresso machine needs to be incredibly fine, on the other hand.
How Do You Like Your Coffee?
From drip coffee, to press coffee, to espresso, to lattes and mochas and cappuccinos, one of the great things with coffee is that you can basically have your coffee in dozens of different ways. It’s all up to you. However, be sure that you use the right beans, with the right-sized grinding process.