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What is Coffee?

History

Coffee as an edible stimulant was discovered in Northern Africa probably in what is now Ethiopia. Coffee berries were traded to the Arabian peninsula, where the first recorded cultivation occurred in Yemen. From there, coffee spread north to Turkey where rudimentary roasting began. The fire roasted beans were crushed and mixed with boiling water, creating a rough version of the present day coffee.

Eventually traders brought this beverage to Europe were the processes were refined and it's popularity increased. In the 1700s, coffee found its way to the Americas by means of one plant that survived the long trip across the Atlantic. This plant, was transplanted on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, and became the predecessor of more than 19 million trees on the island 50 years later. From there coffee cultivation spread to the tropical regions of South and Central America.

Today, coffee is a global industry employing more than 20 million people, and second only to petroleum in terms of dollars traded worldwide. Over 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed every year, making this one of the world's most popular beverages. (Hopefully, behind water!) In Brazil alone, over 5 million people work in the cultivation and harvesting of over 3 billion coffee plants.

The Bean

Coffee beans are the seed of a berry similar to a cherry. The two commercially significant species of coffee tree are: Coffea Arabica, and Coffea Canephora (Robusta). Arabica trees grow best at altitudes over 3,000 feet and produce a superior quality coffee with about half the caffeine of the robusta beans. Arabica production accounts for about 80% of worldwide coffee production, but only about 10% of this coffee actually meets the expectations of the specialty coffee market. Robusta trees are usually grown at lower elevations. They are easier to grow and give higher yields than the arabica species. However, Robusta coffees have a more woody, astringent flavor and are mainly used when a lower price or additional caffeine is desired. Many Italian espresso blends will include a small percentage of Robusta beans for the additional caffeine, crema, and complexity they contribute to an espresso blend.

Production

Like any agricultural product, many factors contribute to the overall quality of the coffee. In addition to the species; seed stock, growing location, soil, altitude, weather conditions, and processing methods will have a dramatic influence on the final beverage. The coffee tree can be grown from sea level to approximately 6,000 feet, in the fairly narrow subtropical belt on either side of the equator. Coffee trees are evergreen can grow to heights of 20 feet, but to simplify harvesting are pruned to 8 to 10 feet. The coffee berries ripen over a wide period of time each season, so they are generally picked by hand. An average coffee tree only produces one to two pounds of green coffee per year, and will be four to five years old before it produces its first crop.

Once picked, the coffee berries are taken for processing, where the fruit is removed from the seed. Then the green beans are dried, sized, sorted, and graded, all by hand. Finally, they are ready to be bagged and sold through major coffee markets to local roasters.