If you are a coffee drinker like me, you pretty much know that it’s a morning eye opener. a stimulant to keep you awake while racing to meet a deadline. The stuff you drink after you have had too much of that other stuff. Oh yeah, it comes from ground-up beans that are roasted.
Today coffee is one of the most popular beverages worldwide, but all of the information we have in reference to our favorite drink comes from personal experience or commercials. How many of us actually know what really goes into the drink that keeps the world on its toes?
A very brief history
Ethiopian tribesmen used coffee as a food until the tenth century. They mixed the coffee cherries with animal fat and rolled them into balls. On the Arabian Peninsula, coffee was made into a hot drink. The Arabs closely guarded their coffee plants, but an enterprising smuggler found a way to bring the seeds home to India.
Eventually word of this amazing new drink spread and coffee seeds found their way to their current homes in the Equatorial zone know as the “Bean Belt”. This is the area covering the middle of the globe bounded by the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. The rich soil and mild temperatures in the Bean Belt provide the perfect environment for the growth of coffee seeds. We now have plantations in more than 50 countries around the world.
Brazil is currently the leading producer of green coffee (processed coffee beans which have not been roasted) followed by Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia, Mexico, and India. American coffee grows on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano on Kona, the largest island of Hawaii. Kona coffee is a connoisseur’s delight.
Coffee grows on evergreen trees covered with dark green waxy leaves. The two most commonly grown species of coffee trees are the Coffea Arabica and the Coffea Canephora (Robusta). A few years after a tree is planted, white blossoms will appear followed by the coffee cherries. Of the 2,000 beans produced by a coffee tree each year, approximately 400 will be of top quality.
There are many different varieties of coffee such as Liberica, Excelsa, Moka, Bourbon, Martinique, and others, but the two main varieties are Arabica and Robusta.
From the original Ethiopian coffee trees, Arabica is mild and aromatic and is considered more suitable for drinking. Because of this, it is the most popular coffee worldwide accounting for three quarters of the worlds coffee production. Arabica beans come from Latin America, eastern Africa, Arabia, and Asia.
This variety comes from central Africa, and Southeast Asia, with some coming from Brazil. Robusta coffee accounts for about 30 percent of the coffee produced worldwide. It is bitter tasting with at least 50 percent more caffeine than Arabica. However, Coffea Robusta is a hardier plant less susceptible to disease. It is less expensive than Arabica, and used in many commercial blends.
Anatomy of the bean
The outer skin, called the exocarp, is thick and bitter. The fruit beneath this layer is the mesocarp. It is extremely sweet with the texture of a grape. Beneath the fruit is the parenchyma. This mucilaginous layer helps to protect the beans. Then we have the endocarp, a parchment layer that covers the two coffee beans.
The final covering is a membrane known as the spermoderm, or silver skin, that covers each of the two beans. Nature must have had advanced warning about the revolutionary impact these little beans would have upon humankind and insured their survival with multi-layered protection.
How coffee grows
Originally farmed in the shade of trees, today’s coffee farmers prefer to use sun cultivation for their coffee trees. Now growing them in rows beneath the full sun. This enables the berries to ripen quickly with higher yields from each tree.
Only one coffee harvest takes place each year, and depending upon the proximity of the plantation to the equator, the bright red cherries are picked from September to May. The ripest cherries are picked first while the under-ripe fruit is left on the trees for later pickings. Cherries that are too ripe are sorted out in processing. Picking takes place over a few days while ripeness is at its peak.
There are two different methods used for processing the harvested coffee cherries. Geographical location usually determines which method is used.
This simple method, also called “unwashed” or “natural”, involves letting the harvested cherries dry in the sunlight on elevated wooden trays. The cherries must be raked and turned periodically while drying to avoid mildew.
Next the dried skin, pulp, and parchment are removed from the bean. The process takes about two weeks. This method produces coffee with less acidity and more body. However, it can only be used in the hot and dry climates of countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia, and Yemen. These countries are the largest worldwide producers of dry-processed coffees.
Sometimes called washed coffee, this process involves placing the ripe cherries in water where floating cherries, which are considered defective, are removed. With the use of mechanical equipment, usually within 24 hours of harvesting, the skin and the pulp are washed away leaving the coffee in parchment form.
The parchment is then placed in large tanks of water to ferment for a period of 12 to 48 hours. The next step involves the mechanical drying of the parchment to remove the mucilage, a slimy covering called the parenchyma. The beans beneath this layer are then dried and hulled to remove all the remaining layers.
They are sometimes polished by machine to remove the silver skin. Some traces of this thin skin, which is similar to rice paper, may still remain and will be removed during the roasting process.
Grading and sorting
After processing, the beans are graded and sorted by hand to remove the small, damaged, and lightweight beans. Buyers pay premium prices for bigger and heavier beans.
The coffee that is shipped is called green coffee. It is unroasted and stored in large sacks or plastic-lined containers. The next stop is the cupping house. This is where coffee is graded by tasters.
This involves heating the green coffee beans at temperatures ranging from approximately 400 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit in large tumbling drums to keep the beans from burning. As their moisture dries out during the roasting process, the beans change in color from green to a yellowish gold, and then brown.
Roasted beans are labeled as light, medium-light, medium, medium-dark, dark, or very dark. Darker roasts have less fiber content and are smoother with a sugary flavor. Lighter roasts have more caffeine and are slightly bitter.
Decaffeinated coffee is produced before roasting by soaking green coffee beans in hot water or steaming them. A solvent is then used to dissolve the caffeine-containing oils.
Roasting times vary
Lightly roasted coffee requires seven minutes of roasting time.
Medium roast requires nine to 11 minutes and is sometimes referred to as “city roast”.
Dark roast, also known as French or Viennese coffee, takes 12 to 13 minutes.
The darkest roast, known as espresso, requires 14 minutes of roasting time during which the beans will begin to smoke and their sugars caramelize and burn.
Next time you order that “cup of Joe”, which by the way is a phrase dating back to 1914 when Josephus Daniels (then Secretary of the Navy) banned the serving of alcohol on ships, you’ll know a bit more about it than just its great taste and that it’s a terrific stimulant to get you going.
- Coffee production
- Flax Seeds Nutrition Facts: Why & What is it Good For You
- 10 Steps from Seed to Cup – National Coffee Association of U.S.A.