The appearance of the first coffee plants would go back over a thousand years ago. Some research indicates the general tendency to locate the discovery of the shrub in the year 858, in Ethiopia, on the Abyssinian plateau. The nomads prepared a drink with a decoction of fruits collected on the shrubs. The liquid thus obtained, used as an energetic and stimulating remedy, seemed to have been made to their case. They also dried the beans in the sun, then roughly ground them, mixing them with the oily to obtain easy-to-carry cakes during their migrations.
Anyway, the history of the coffee bean would not be complete if the innumerable legends were silent, the result, for some, of facts that really happened. The most credible story is undoubtedly that of Kaldi, the pastor of Yemen. At dawn, he decided to go in search of the goats he watched, worried as he did not see them coming; he found them very agitated and full of energy. Intrigued by their strange behavior, you followed them noting that the goats seemed to enjoy the small fruits of a shrub that grew with great abundance in the region. Kaldi collected some and brought them to the Chehodet monastery where, the monks prepared a decoction with these fruits. Amazed by the exciting effect of the liquid that kept them awake during prayer vigils, they called this drink “qahwa” in memory of the Persian ruler Kavus Kai who would ascend to the skies on a winged chariot.
The wine of Arabia
We are offered innumerable hypotheses about the road taken by the coffee plant to the Islamic world. The first would like some slave traders to have kept the beans from their expeditions to Ethiopia. According to another, however, the Muslims who went to Mecca every year from Ethiopia would have made coffee known through the “happy Arabia” that brought together Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The process of transforming the green bean into a drink is also highly controversial. The stories of the first European botanists reveal that the inhabitants of Ethiopia chewed raw coffee beans to benefit from their stimulating effect. Other writings tell of a wine produced from the fermented juice of ripe drupes. This wine, called qahwa in Arabic, is coffee and since the Qur’an prohibits the use of exciting drinks then coffee was nicknamed “Arabian wine”. In the early days, coffee was used only in the context of religious ceremonies or on the advice of healers; when the virtues of the drink were found then the doctors began to prescribe it for the treatment of certain evils. From therapeutic substance until the fifteenth century, coffee continued on its way and from Mecca it reached all of Arabia and then Egypt, Syria and Turkey.
Europe discovers coffee
During the Renaissance, the great discoveries and the spirit of conquest sharply widened the horizon and the West did not delay in hearing about coffee through the merchants who sail the Mediterranean and who tasted the “Wine of Arabia”. Since the beginning of the seventeenth century, Venetian merchants import the first coffees, purchased in Cairo: it is the beginning of a prosperous trade for the Middle East, which will have a monopoly on it for more than a century. All the bags leaving are checked: no green beans take the sea route without having first been toasted or boiled. Ethiopia and Yemen in particular are the only producing countries at the time. At the time when the Venetians received their green coffee, the Dutch certainly more active on the European market founded the East India Company. In France the first to introduce coffee was Jean de la Roque in 1644 in Marseille where, however, the drink was considered by some onlookers too dark for Christians. The decision was left to the Pope who, seduced by the drink, silenced the bad thinkers. The people of Marseilles begin to propose coffee; the new nectar only has to convert Paris and Louis XIV. The ambassador of Turkey, sent to France, makes the drink of his country discovered by the Court; it is found bitter like this, it is thought to sweeten it with sugar. It is the beginning of the great success of coffee.
The metamorphosis of coffee
At each coffee its origin, at each plantation its processing methods, its quality requirements, its yields and prices. Before roasting, coffee was born and transformed into the tropical belt that surrounds the equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.
The coffee tree and the main species
The coffee tree is a shrub from the Rubiaceae family. It develops thanks to a hot and humid climate, at low and medium latitudes. Planted away from violent winds, it will be protected from bright sunlight thanks to the natural shade of banana trees or other leafy trees planted nearby. For many years the tree does not produce any fruit and needs great care. After about five years, it bears the first fruits, reaches production maturity in two years, and continues to produce for dozens of years, even up to a hundred years, on condition of being subjected to careful care. It is not uncommon to find gathered in the same shrub flowers, green and ripe fruits which give a wonderful chromatic mix of white, green, and red. The coffee tree yields one or two main crops, sometimes secondary crops, as seasons vary by species and location. The main cultivated species are the Coffea Arabica Linnè and the Coffea Canephora Pierre.
Coffea Arabica Linnè
The oldest known coffee species. Arabica is grown on mountain plateaus or on the sides of volcanoes, between 800 and 1,500 meters high, sometimes even up to 2,000 meters. It blooms after each rainy season. The fruits ripen after about nine months. In one year the coffee plant produces less than 5 kg of fruit which will yield just 1 kg of beans. This species exists in Central and South America and in some African countries, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Oceania, in areas characterized by high ground. Its fragrant aroma, its delicate taste, fruity at times, acidulous at other times, delight the admirers. Arabica accounts for 70% of the world’s coffee. It is more sensitive to diseases, pests and frosts, is difficult to cultivate and therefore it is more expensive. Among the numerous varieties of Arabica coffee, Typica and Bourbon are famous and have given rise to other strains such as Tico, Kent, Moka, Blue Mountain, Mondo Nuevo, Marella just to mention a few.
Coffea Canephora Pierre o Robusta
This species is very different from Arabica. It has a more robust appearance and resists heat and disease well. It is currently grown throughout the tropical area, but the majority come from western and central Africa, south-eastern Asia and Brazil, where the plants grow up to 700 m.
La Robusta gives a full-bodied, powerful, tonic, but less fragrant coffee. Less appreciated than Arabica, it accounts for 30% of world coffee production, although its price is lower. Commercially, Robusta is used in blends where its strong character is appreciated. The most common varieties of Robusta coffee are the Cotillon of Brazil, the Giavaineac, to the name of Robusta.
The life span of a coffee plant is fifty years; but this life is threatened by countless diseases and / or parasites, without forgetting natural disasters.
One of the most dangerous diseases is coffee rust, which first appeared in Africa in 1860. It had completely destroyed the coffee industry in Ceylon. Rust is fatal for Arabica plants, while Robusta plants, richer in caffeine and copper, resist disease, for this reason their cultivation is more extensive. Another threat is presented by beetles that settle in the trunks creating tunnels and causing enormous damage; finally red ants and bedbugs strike flowers and fruits. One technique for safeguarding the integrity of the shrub is hybridization which consists in crossing a variety sensitive to an insect and / or disease with another naturally resistant variety; this can decrease losses but not block the scourges common to all varieties of coffee.
The harvest and processing of the drupe
The time of the harvest varies according to the relief, the plantation and the climate. When the drupes (the drupe or cherry is the fruit of the coffee plant) are ripe, they must be harvested almost immediately, which is not easy at all, when there are fruits with different ripening stages on the plant. Collectors proceed in various ways;
Picking: this is the most expensive procedure. It consists in collecting the ripe drupes inside the plantation manually and individually, according to their stage of maturation. The picker binds a basket to life in which he lays the fruit. Using this method requires skill and dexterity. The frequency of passage between shrubs varies from country to country: in Kenya seven passes are required per year. In Jamaica, for the Blue Mountain, the collector must pass whenever necessary. Picking allows for a more homogeneous harvest.
Stripping: the picker squeezes the branch with two fingers and drops all the drupes, ripe and not. The yield will be good, but the coffee of lower quality due to the difference in the maturation of the drupes.
The third method consists in passing through the branches a large special comb with soft teeth that will simply detach the ripe drupes while safeguarding the green drupes and the leaves. Other harvests take place mechanically in large lowland plantations, such as in Brazil. There are machines that slightly shake the plant to detach the ripe drupes that will be collected in large cups.
The drupe of coffee
Before we get to the coffee bean that we all know, we have to go through some stages. Once fertilization is finished, the flower of the coffee plant dries quickly and falls to make room for the fruit. It resembles a cherry in shape and color. The drupe slowly begins to take shape and will end up growing in a period of between eight and twelve months, according to its own species. The green color will gradually become a bright red and, when ripe, garnet. The pulp hides under the peel, the moisture content of which is 70%. Once the pulp has been eliminated, two grains appear, glued to each other. They are protected by a rigid envelope: the parchment. To get to the green bean protected by a very thin film, one last operation will have to be carried out: decoration. Sometimes coffee plants produce smaller drupes that contain a single bean called caracoli. It does not have a flat side and for this reason it is much sought after by roasters as they would have much more aroma for their concentration in a single grain.
The drupes collected are selected for the first time to eliminate leaves, vegetable waste and ruined drupes. The treatment of drupes to extract coffee beans can then be started.
The dry method – The drupes are divided and placed in drying areas; the heat of the sun is left to dry the pulp. Gradually with the evaporation of the water, the pectin disappears and the coffee is obtained “is pergamino”. It will then be transferred to a machine that will free the drupe from the hardened pulp and the parchment, then reach the green coffee bean which will be selected, calibrated and bagged.
The wet method – This system is extremely more expensive due to the need for material, manpower, time and water, but the results are much better than the dry method. The freshly picked drupes are treated in a stripping machine characterized by a jet of water that eliminates the pulp itself; they are then immersed in large fermentation tanks, where the rest of the pulp is destroyed. Washed abundantly, the beans covered with the parchment are smooth and clean; now it remains to be dried by proceeding as for the dry method. We must be careful, since excessive drying can make them fragile and insufficient drying exposes them to fermentation and therefore to the development of fungi and bacteria. The coffee is then placed in jute or sisal bags, then taking the path of its final destination: roasting. Without the latter, coffee does not exist; it is the basic operation that causes the green bean to reach its last physical and chemical transformation and obtain the characteristic amber color. In old Europe and the United States, roasters were initially simple craftsmen; today, city roasters roast coffee once or twice a week, in roasting cylinders whose capacity is about 12 kg. Industrial roasters, on the other hand, use machines that push hot air on large quantities of green coffee and roast it regularly all the way. Roasting is an extremely delicate operation: its main effect will be to develop the aroma of coffee through complex chemical modifications caused by heat.
The traditional roasting method
Green coffee is introduced into a rotating cylinder heated to a temperature ranging from 100 to 250 ° C. Thanks to the fixed feet, it is continuously scrambled; the roasting will last about twenty minutes, according to the desired color. The critical moment occurs when the beans begin to crackle and darken; at this point the man replaces the machine and when he deems it appropriate he opens the valves: the boiling coffee is precipitated in the cooler, a large horizontal container. The bottom is made up of a perforated sheet where a very powerful breath comes from which cools the coffee very quickly in order to fix the aromatic substances through a sudden condensation. Finally, it is cooled in the open air and directed towards the packaging silos. The slowness of the process is considered the only way to preserve all the refinement of the Arabica beans and to cook the beans to the heart.
There are two other methods of roasting: the first is a quick method that takes ten minutes and the other even faster that takes only ninety seconds, but the quality of the coffee loses.
Know the coffee
The main producing countries
First among the Arabica producers and second Robusta producer, Brazil has occupied an undisputed leader position for more than a century, with two million hectares of land cultivated with coffee, especially in the state of Minas Gerais and in the Sao Paulo region.
Since 1900, the regular emergence of overproduction crises has sometimes led to the destruction of surpluses. Even today, Brazil remains the leading coffee producer with 1,600,000 tons. This is the great indicator of price trends: a climatic catastrophe, like frost – and it happens every fifteen or twenty years – is enough for world coffee prices to rise sharply. Today 85% of Brazilian plantations supply Arabica, which represents almost a third of world production. The other countries where Arabica is produced are Colombia, the second largest producer with 800,000 tons, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras which supply the most famous coffees to the whole world.
Coffee cultivation is also present in the Antilles: in Jamaica, the mythical Blue Mountain grows on the slopes of the Saint John’s Peak volcano.
In Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe occupy prominent positions among Arabica producers. Asia is rather dedicated to the cultivation of Robusta, with the exception of India, whose lands in Karnataka, in the southwestern part of the country, produce both Arabica and Robusta. Notable coffees are also found in the Pacific islands, such as Hawaii, or in Papua New Guinea. The first producing country of Robusta is Indonesia which satisfies about 20% of world demand.
Vietnam, which came late among coffee farmers, in 2000 produced almost 900,000 tons of coffee worthy of respect and more regular compared to the coffee produced by its neighbors.
Black Africa, a traditional supplier of medium-quality full-bodied Robusta, has been gradually overcome: the Ivory Coast, Uganda and Cameroon produce cheap coffee, often essential for the region’s economic balance; just think that coffee represents more than 90% of Uganda’s trade balance.
On the road of fine coffees
If the vast majority of consumers are satisfied with mixtures, sometimes subtle, often ordinary, among the numerous types of coffee surveyed in the world, there are some exceptional ones, which deserve to be consumed pure. Among them, the Jamaican Blue Mountain, the real “caviar” of coffee. It was imported from Martinique in 1728 by an Englishman, Sir Nicholas Lawes. Located in the eastern part of the island of Jamaica, the Blue Mountain plantations grow at 2,000 meters above sea level, in the shade of avocado and banana trees, on volcanic soil conducive to the cultivation of large coffee plants: favorable conditions that explain the qualities of this coffee whose beans are slightly bluish, the taste is finely acidic and chocolatey, the fruity aromas and the body is light. These rare grains are stored in 70 kg wooden drums, a unique packaging that replaces the traditional jute bag. Since demand exceeds supply – only 170 tons are produced per year
– prices reach dizzying figures, not at all dissuasive for the Japanese who, every year, purchase almost 90% of production. As for the Kona from Hawaii, it costs half of the Jamaican rival, but according to some it would surpass it for the slightly acidic flavor and the sweet aroma.
In Guatemala there is San Cristobal, Antigua, with a chocolate flavor, and Coban,
acidulous and at the same time full-bodied. In Mexico, however, Custepec, the Highlands, Chiapas Tatachula and Maragogipe are grown, whose gigantic grains give the best results when they are grown on the slopes overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In Costa Rica, a paradise for connoisseurs of good coffee, Tournon grows, a dense and fragrant coffee that combines body and aroma, derived from volcanic soils; in Salvador, Pacas or Pacamara and in Nicaragua, Patagalpa or Jinotega. In South America only the virtues of the Colombian supreme are recited, a washed Arabica, Bourbon type, with a sweet and slightly acidic taste; in Africa, the cradle of coffee, we remember the Sidamo of Ethiopia, with a wild taste, and Kenya, classified AA, with an exorbitant, acid and fruity price, among the most refined Arabica in the world.
Elaboration of the Arabica or Robusta blends, within a roasting company, is a team and patience work, since the aim is to permanently obtain a product whose character is particular and constant. As in the art of perfumery, where there is a habit of using the nose, coffeeology resorts to taste buds.
Each type of coffee has its own characteristics: by harmoniously mixing the various flavors and diversified aromas of several of them, starting from a pure of relatively neutral origin, the desired aroma will be obtained. The mixer will proceed by adding small quantities of coffee of different origin which will then be subjected to the judgment of the tasters, always keeping in mind the financial aspect related to the future product, in order to achieve the best value for money. The discretion of the manufacture requires it: the final composition of the blends made by the tasters is clearly kept secret. However, less savory blends of Robusta-Arabica than pure Arabica will always be on sale, in order to meet all budgets, always remembering that a quality blend will be offered at a higher price.