In the early hours of the day, one often gets the most amusing thoughts. And if you happened to be sipping hot aromatic coffee, you might easily start musing about that magical drink in your hands. For starters, where does coffee come from?
The quick answer is that coffee came from Yemen around the fifteenth century. The Sufi monks there learned they could make a drink from an Ethiopian plant’s berries that allowed them to stay up all night meditating. But the story of how coffee became mainstream is much longer.
You might then turn your eyes to the rest of the city spreading outside your window. Millions of people will soon wake up, and they’ll probably head to their coffee makers, or straight to Starbucks. Wouldn’t it be nice to know the whole story behind our favorite beverage?
Back to That Very First Cuppa
The origin story behind coffee is more of a myth than a fact, nevertheless, it’s an amusing one. The story goes that in ancient times, a goat herder in Ethiopia noticed that his animals were hooked on a particular berry plant.
The goats seemed to get unusually energized after eating the berries. Moreover, they had trouble unwinding and sleeping like the rest of his goats. The young shepherd shared this curious finding with the monks in a nearby monastery. From there, coffee started its centuries-old journey.
Several stories suggest how events played out afterward, but a plausible one involves a Yemeni Sufi monk. He happened to visit Ethiopia around the twelfth century, and from there he caught wind of the special plant.
Years later, the plant appeared in Yemen, and it was known as a beverage that Sufi monks favored. It kept them up all night to perform their meditations and pursue scholarly studies. From the thirteenth century onwards, coffee plantations spread around the fertile grounds of Yemen. And around the fifteenth century, Yemen became the main producer of that new plant.
How Coffee Reached the Rest of the World
Author Note: In the sixteenth century, most of Arabia had already picked up the habit of roasting and brewing coffee. Egypt, Persia, Turkey, and Syria were major consumers. And the very first official coffee shop appeared in Constantinople in 1554.
Europe caught up with the trend a bit later in the seventeenth century. Some say that it was brought back with Venetian traders who extended their business to Arabia, but there are several other stories that claim otherwise.
Regardless of who brought coffee to Europe, it was viewed in a negative light by the clergy for a while. As soon as it gained favor, coffee became the new fad all over the old continent. Interestingly, Italy was the first spot to open up a coffee house. That was in 1645, which is a whole century after Constantinople’s cafe. Still, the Europeans couldn’t cultivate the plant, as the seeds they received from Yemen were intentionally sterilized.
This didn’t deter serious European folks from procuring the seeds. However, all their efforts amounted to nothing. The coffee plants didn’t take to the cold weather of Europe at all.
The Cultivation of Coffee
It was the Dutch who first realized the temperature requirements of these plants. They took their seeds elsewhere and found success in Java, which was at the time a settler’s colony in Indonesia. This was followed by more plantations in Ceylon and Sumatra.
The French had some military dealings with the Dutch back then. And in one of their agreements, it was decided that the French would get coffee seeds and advice on how to plant them.
It was a hugely successful transaction for the French side, who took the seeds to another tropical part of the world: the Americas. They soon made it big in the world of coffee production, as they had coffee plantations in the Caribbean, South America, and Central America.
North America was quite close to the mega producers of coffee, and yet the Americans were slow to pick the habit. Captain John Smith had suggested in the early seventeenth century that people should try coffee, but their palate was more used to tea.
This changed after the 1773 Boston tea party when the unfair taxes on tea drove the Americans to ditch the drink entirely. They literally threw tea chests into the water. Following that historic plot twist, coffee replaced tea as a popular beverage.
The Coffea Genus, Otherwise Known as the Coffee Plant
The coffea botanical genus contains around 120 species of coffee plants. That’s why its external features vary broadly from one type to the other, and from a geographical place to the next. The variations go as far as having little shrubs or tall trees, and calling both coffee plants.
They do have a few signature similarities, like their being evergreens, the fruits grow in small grape-like clusters, and their leaves often grow opposite to one another. They are flowering plants that take around 4 years to produce fruit. The fruits take their time to become ripe, so there’s usually one harvest per year.
Coffee trees are known to have long lives, but they give their best cherries from their fifth to their twentieth years.
Author Note: They usually contain two seeds inside their cherries, but that’s not always the case. Some produce a single seed only. The latter is considered sweeter, and the farmers like to set it aside as a special crop.
The main species that we use in our beverages are the Coffea arabica, which we refer to as Arabica coffee, and Coffea canephora, otherwise known as Robusta coffee.
The Coffee Belt
Coffee plants thrive in tropical weather, where there are alternating wet and dry seasons. These plants prefer high altitudes. And typically need moderate amounts of sun, a temperature between 73 and 82 degrees, then a reasonable shower of rain 60-80 inches. This should be followed by a dry season that lasts two to three months.
These rather particular tastes of the coffee plants are miraculously found around the tropics. Specifically, between the Cancer tropic and the Capricorn tropic. Roughly, 25 degrees north and south of the equator.
How Does Geography Affect Coffee’s Taste?
Here’s an essential fact about coffee: these plants generally fight bugs by increasing their caffeine content. It’s a natural defense that has succeeded for centuries in keeping these predators at bay.
The Arabica varieties grow 3250 – 6500 feet above sea level. These heights are often less ravaged by pests, so the coffee plants don’t need to put their natural defenses on red alert. Their taste is thus mellow and often fruity.
In contrast, the Robusta coffee plants grow in lower lands, typically at an elevation of 650 – 2000. This puts it in direct contact with various types of pests, and naturally, the plant responds by producing more caffeine. It’s a hardy plant but tastes rather earthy, smokey, and woody. Sometimes rather nutty.
From a Coffee Seed to a Hot Beverage?
The coffee seeds are harvested once a year, usually by handpicking the coffee cherries. However, some countries managed to use machines in the process and cut back on the labor-intensive methods, like Brazil.
The cherries are then dried and the seeds taken off of them. An elaborate sequence of classification takes place to group seeds with similar color, shape, and size together. The defective ones are discarded of course.
The coffee is green at this point. It’s often bagged and exported to the four corners of the earth, waiting for its next stages of development.
Before any further treatment, the green coffee is usually ‘cupped’. This means that experts roast and brew a sample, put it in cups, and taste it. It’s actually more than a check of flavor. The coffee is scrutinized for its consistency, appearance, aroma, and full taste profile.
The beans are then roasted in a multitude of ways, or sold as green beans. In recent years more and more coffee connoisseurs opted for roasting, grinding, and brewing their own coffee. That’s why both varieties are available.
The 5 Big Producers of Coffee
Author Note: Coffee grows in about seventy countries worldwide, but five of these produce the majority of it. Brazil tops the list with its 10,000 square miles of coffee plantations. They produce around 30% of the world’s coffee beans.
Vietnam lands contained coffee plantations since the 1800s, but it wasn’t always a big player in the coffee market. Around 1980, the country invested heavily in maximizing their presence in that strategic market. They’re now the second, but it’s not expected they’d reach the top spot anytime soon. They still might surprise us though.
The third-place comes at a significant distance from Brazil and Vietnam. Columbia has had a thriving coffee production industry since the 80s. And they should’ve ranked higher if it wasn’t for a tragic blow that hit their plantations in 2008. That year, a plant disease known as coffee rust wiped out 30% of the coffee plantations.
Indonesia is the main producer of Robusta beans, and to that end, it occupies the fourth place worldwide as a mega coffee exporter.
The fifth place is rightfully taken by the country where coffee first originated, Ethiopia. These fertile lands produce some of the finest coffee beans in the world. It’s the main industry in the country, as 15 million natives have jobs related to coffee production.
That was the intriguing journey of coffee across time and space. So if you were wondering where coffee comes from, I hope you’ve enjoyed all these flavorful tales and details.
Stay caffeinated friends!