Coffee (Coffea arabica and C. canephora)

RUBIACEAE, Madder Family

Coffee (Coffea arabica) is probably now the most widely used species for a nonalcoholic plant beverage. This species apparently hails from the highlands of Ethiopia, where it was first used as a food. Coffee beans, which are actually the seeds of a berry, were chewed as a stimulant; this use was recorded in the Koran and the Bible. Coffee beans were also used as a type of currency in Arabia and were domesticated there by 500 A.D.

The origin of coffee the beverage dates back about 500 years. According to one legend, some monastery goats were restless one night, and the owners traced their restlessness to some nearby coffee bushes, which they had eaten. These people then pulverized some beans and threw them into a pot of boiling water. This brew had a great aroma and taste, and they said, "Praise Allah, Kahveh," which means stimulating.

The center of coffee production 500 years ago was Yemen, around the city of Mocha (!). Before 1500 it was also known to Europeans as "kaffa," and coffee was carried to Egypt (1510) Constantinople (1550), Venice (1616), and eventually to England (1650). In England coffeehouses began in Oxford at the university. Coffeehouses then spread rapidly and became important places for banking as well as places for political meetings. Political meetings in the American colonies were held in coffeehouses, such as in Boston, and in 1669 the first ballot box was located in a coffeehouse (Miles' Coffee House). Because coffeehouses were places where news was posted and political and religious ideas were openly discussed, religious and government establishments tried many time to close them because they feared what was going on in them. Charles II of England tried to close British coffeehouses down in 1675, but public outcry quickly caused him to revoke his proclamation. Coffeehouses in the British Empire became tea shops when coffee failed in British Ceylon and the fields were planted instead with tea (Camellia sinensis).

Coffee is an evergreen shrub or small tree that must live where there is no wind or frost and where humidity is comparatively high. This plant grows with 750 to 3000 millimeters of annual rainfall, and is slightly more drought tolerant than cacao (Theobroma). In the axil of each leaf (leaves are opposite) is produced a cluster of sweetly fragranted flowers (another view; a closer view). In nine months the ovary turns into a red berry with two seeds (beans), which are pressed together and flattened on one side and deeply grooved on the other side. The fruits are picked by hand mostly, because the berries on each stem ripen at different times (another view). [See here fruits mostly ripe.] Harvesters get a minimum wage plus bonuses for hard work and efficiency. Fruits are washed and quickly depulped to avoid decay (by fermentation). The beans are then dried in the hot sun, usually on a concrete surface (at a beneficio) and are raked frequently to keep them turned. Afterwards, beans are graded and roasted, to be ground later at the point of use. Especially in the United States, coffee consumption has become a multi-billion dollar business at coffeehouse franchises, where some of the strongest, most flavorful coffees are produced by roasting the beans longer, i.e., darker.

Coffee flavor comes from the essential oil caffeol (10-13%) and sugar (7%), and the stimulation comes from caffeine (0-3%), an alkaloid. Coffee beans from different regions, hence different climates, yield interestingly different flavors. Caffeine stimulates the production of adrenal hormones, which causes a rise in blood sugar and the "lift" that coffee gives. Insulin is then secreted by the body to cause the sugar level to return to normal.

Coffee plantings started around Yemen and spread to Kenya and eastward to Java (java is a slang name, of course). From Java, one plant was taken to a botanical garden in Amsterdam, which provided seeds for plantings in the New World (Surinam) in 1718 and eventually in Brazil (1727). Coffee was first planted around Rio De Janeiro in 1780, which began the massive coffee industry of Brazil. The plant from the Amsterdam botanical garden also provided the seeds that were used to establish plantations in the Caribbean region, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Philippines. In many of these regions, coffee is grown intercropped with another tropical crop plant.

Over half of the world's coffee now comes from Brazil, which is situated halfway around the world from where it originated. In Sri Lanka and Africa, coffee leaf spot fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, has seriously hurt coffee production, and the disease has appeared now in Latin America, including Brazil. At one point, Brazil regulated the price of coffee by destroying beans when crops were too large. Some excellent coffees come from areas other than Brazil, such as the islands of the Caribbean and the highland regions of Central America and northern South America. Instant coffee is a blend of two species, C. arabica and C. canephora (Robusta coffee). The latter, which originated in central Africa, has a stronger flavor, which survives evaporation better.

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