Coffee: The Magic Bean

Coffee Plant

Coffee beans may not offer the fairytale magic of producing giant beanstalks, but they do produce the very real and often necessary magic of waking us up, getting us going, clarifying our thoughts, helping us work, talk, cope, and get things done.

The coffee plant is a member of the madder family of plants. Rubiaceae in Latin, the madder family includes among its more than 6,500 species of tropical herbs, shrubs, and trees such fragrant delights as the gardenia and such medical wonders as quinine. But the member of the family nearest to many of our hearts is the one that produces those magic “beans.” The coffee shrub is an evergreen. In the wild, it grows to heights of 26 to 33 feet. It produces bunches of white flowers that smell much like jasmine, and each flower in time produces a fruit. The fruit, when ripe, is called a cherry, and its fleshy pulp contains two seeds. These seeds are what we know as coffee beans.

The word coffee may have evolved from the Arabic qahwah, by way of the Turkish kahveh, but some etymologists link it with the Kaffa province in southwest Ethiopia, reputed birthplace of the genus. The first domesticated species was Coffea arabica. The varieties of this species produce the finest, smoothest, most highly regarded coffees. Though they grow in the tropics, arabicas tend to like higher altitudes and cooler weather. Hence, any time you hear a coffee being described as “mountain grown,” it will be an arabica.

Coffea robusta originated (or was developed) in East Africa. C. robusta varieties (now reclassified as C. canephora) are stronger and more resistant to disease than C. arabica. They also yield more fruit and are adapted to warm, humid climates to which arabica coffee is not suited. (The photo above of the coffee plant was taken in the rainforest of the Amazon basin, in Ecuador, so it would be a robusta, as the rainforest is decidedly warm and humid.) While the robusta coffees are more neutral in taste, less aromatic, and somewhat more acidic than arabicas, they are more easily grown and harvested, don’t spoil as quickly, and are therefore less costly. They also have more caffeine—30 to 40 percent more. Of these two species, C. arabica is the more important. The only other species are minor ones that, unlike their commercially successful cousins, remain at home in West Africa, where the climate suits their needs.

There are numerous myths and fables about who, in Ethiopia, first discovered that the fruit of the coffee plant was consumable (including one tale about a goatherd who noticed that his flock was friskier than usual after nibbling the fruit), but the truth is lost in the mists of time. However, it appears that Coffea arabica had been domesticated by as early as the sixth century. The first written references are Arabic, and, as the name indicates, it is the Arabs who took the first real interest in cultivating and utilizing coffee. It appears that, at first, the berries were chewed, pulp, seeds, and all. Later, the fruit was boiled whole to create a beverage. It was not until the 13th century that the beans were separated from the pulp and roasted before infusing into what we would recognize as coffee.

Coffee became the wine of the Muslim world, because real wine is forbidden. In fact, the Arabic word for coffee, qahwah, originally meant wine. The stimulating beverage first gained popularity among the Muslim sect known as dervishes, who could whirl that much longer thanks to the caffeine. Not everyone was happy with coffee, however. The orthodox priesthood decided it was intoxicating and therefore prohibited by the Koran. But in spite of threats of severe penalties, coffee drinking continued to spread rapidly through Islamic populations. Coffee drinking reached Aden in the middle of the 15th century, then traveled to Mecca, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, and on into Constantinople. The world’s first coffee house was established in Constantinople in 1554.

It was a few more decades before European travelers to the Middle East began bringing back more than just stories of the black drink that helped prevent drowsiness. There is some disagreement as to where coffee got its first test drive in Europe. It seems as though Italy, which had a long tradition of trading with Arab countries, would have had the earliest consistent exposure. France may also have shown an early interest in coffee, though it seems that it didn’t really become popular until a Turkish ambassador stationed in Paris in 1688-89 served it at his lavish parties. When coffee first arrived in England, it was sold more as a medicine than as a refreshment, with claims that it prevented everything from eye-sores to gout, scurvy, and consumption. But it was not until a Jewish merchant from Turkey opened a coffee house in Oxford in 1650 that coffee culture really began to take hold. Two years later, a coffee shop opened in London. Soon, the coffeehouses of London were the center of intellectual and political life. France was next to adopt café culture (and you can still stop in at Le Procope, opened in Paris’s Latin Quarter in 1686 and said to be the oldest café still in operation), followed by Vienna. Before long, coffee and cafés were all over Europe.

The people of the Middle East long maintained control over the coffee trade. Yemen was long the only source of coffee, and for fifty years, English and Dutch buyers had to go to Mocha to trade for the beans. The Dutch were the biggest players in the import trade, and they eventually managed to smuggle out some seedlings. By 1720, the Dutch had succeeded in growing coffee in their territories on Java in the East Indies. (So now you know where coffee got two of its more common sobriquets: mocha and java.)

Coffee plants reached the New World during the early 1700s. By the mid-1700s, coffee growing had pretty much spread to tropical areas around the world.

At first, coffee drinking was not as popular among the American colonies as it had been in Europe. The rum trade was booming, and colonists did not consider coffee a viable substitute for alcohol. However, during the Revolutionary War, the demand for coffee increased as tea became increasingly scarce, the British not wanting to share it with those revolting colonials. Americans’ taste for coffee grew following the War of 1812, which again limited access to tea imports. Then in 1832, President Andrew Jackson decided that American servicemen should get coffee instead of rum as part of their daily rations, and the image of a soldier with a cup of coffee became almost iconic. The demand for coffee continued to grow, though in the United States, it became the drink of life, not the special beverage of the urban intellectual, as it was in Europe.

By the 20th century, the Western Hemisphere was the powerhouse of coffee growing, particularly South America. Newly developed technologies made coffee even more readily available. Decaffeination methods for green coffee beans were developed and, after 1950, instant coffee was perfected. The popularity of instant coffee led to an increased demand for the C. robusta beans from Africa. It wasn’t until the later half of the 1900s that the desire for great flavor rather than mere convenience again turned the market toward C. arabica.

Today, we still pour down an awful lot of coffee that is simply intended to jumpstart our hearts and brains. However, we also pursue exquisite and sometimes costly coffees from exotic locales—Kona from Hawaii, Blue Mountain from Jamaica, Peaberry from Tanzania. But few are the coffee drinkers who pursue the rarest and costliest coffee of all: Kopi Luwak. At $75 per quarter pound, it’s the most you can pay for coffee.

Why the high price? Well, it’s how the coffee is produced that makes it both rare and special. Kopi Luwak comes from the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi. (In fact, the word “kopi” is simply Indonesian for “coffee.”) A small marsupial, the common palm civet, known locally as the luwak, lives on these islands, and it is a connoisseur of coffee. These marsupials climb among the coffee trees eating only the ripest, reddest coffee cherries. Most of the flesh of the coffee cherries is digested, but the beans emerge from the digestive process nearly intact, though enhanced by the enzymes in the animals’ stomachs. The expelled beans are collected, cleaned, and processed for market. Don’t look for it at your corner café, but you can find it on the Internet, along with the cute critter who “processes” the beans for you.

Today, coffee is described using nomenclature as complex as that of wine. Estates on several continents and numerous islands produce coffee beans with distinct flavors, acidity, body, and balance. People are becoming more selective and more knowledgeable. At the same time, coffee remains the fuel that keeps much of the Western world moving, a beverage as comfortable around the campfire as it is in an espresso bar.

© 2009 Cynthia Clampitt
Originally appeared in a slightly different form in
Hungry Magazine

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Filed under culinary history, Food, Geography, History, Language

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