Coffee. It’s how you start your day and finish a nice meal. It’s a latte, a double shot, a cup of joe—Coffee, in all its derivations and styles, has become ubiquitous in much of the world.
The origins of the now ubiquitous ‘cup of joe’ were in Sufi monasteries in Yemen. From there the drink spread throughout the Middle East, Persia and northern Africa—then via Venice to the rest of Italy and Europe, carried in cargo as trade blossomed throughout the world.
Pope Clement VIII deemed it a Christian drink in 1600, and by 1645 a coffee house had opened in Rome. In the 1700s The Bean journeyed across the Atlantic and landed in the Americas, where in many places the climate was perfect for its cultivation. The rest, as they say, is history. The Bean has taken over the world.
Coffee, of which two varieties are predominant (arabica and robusta), is now grown in 70 countries throughout the world, mainly in the equatorial regions of the Americas, India, Southeast Asia and Africa. Each year some seven million metric tons of coffee are produced. In North America and Europe, coffee ingestion is roughly a third of tap water ingestion—a staggeringly high amount.
Even a short walk in any western city will take you by a coffee shop. So thoroughly has coffee spread—in tandem with the culture and lifestyle it imparts—that for many it’s the first stop of the day on the way to work. For many others, it’s the lunchtime pick-me-up. And for a growing horde of telecommuters, coffee shops have become the de facto office.
For 12 countries coffee is the largest agricultural export. From large scale production to family farms, coffee is the literal livelihood of thousands of people around the world.
How Is Coffee Made?
Consumers, however, are unfamiliar with the complex process involved in taking a bean and turning it into that delicious black nectar we gulp down with impunity. I had the privilege of touring a coffee plantation outside Salento, Colombia, a region where some of the world’s finest coffee is produced. There, at elevation near the equator, the climate is cool in the mornings and evenings—just the right temperature to make the plants struggle a tiny bit, which increases the flavor profile of the beans.
Harvesting The Raw Beans
The first step, after planting and growing the coffee plant, involves harvesting the raw beans. Traditionally, beans are picked from the plants by hand, though most of the time entire plants are stripped, and the beans are sorted afterward.
Processing the Cherries
Once the raw beans are harvested, machines strip them of the flesh, leaving a mucus-covered white bean. This slimy covering is washed off and afterward the beans are dried. There are a few ways to do this, but at the plantation in Salento beans were sorted onto concrete tables and dried under clear awnings—raked occasionally to ensure even drying.
One of the more peculiar ways to strip the beans of their flesh is to feed them to Civets, a small mammal which resembles a cross between a ferret and a raccoon. After passing through their digestive track (a fancy way of saying after they poop out the beans), one is left with a bean devoid of its bitterness. Civet coffee is the most expensive coffee in the world, with prices ranging up to $160 a pound.
However the beans are stripped and dried, the next step is to roast them. This gives them the oily, characteristic brown/black color anybody who has seen whole-bean coffee would recognize. Along with origin and drying, roasting has the largest influence on flavor. A dark roast, for example, will taste bolder because of lower fiber content. A light roast, in turn, will have stronger flavor because of aromatic oils and acids that are removed during a more intense roasting process.
Finally, it’s time to put that worldwide journey to a taste. In the United States, the standard drip coffee is the most prevalent. However, espresso has been making a strong push—due to the popularization of the latte (thank you, Starbucks). In Europe, espresso is overwhelmingly the preferred preparation. In Turkey, the finely ground coffee is added undiluted to the water, leaving a gooey residue at the bottom of the cup.
However you take it, coffee has taken over. From humble origins in Yemeni monasteries, the bean has spread over the world much in the same way as humanity itself. There are infinite varieties, combinations and roasting methods. There are infinite ways to prepare it. Coffee, from plant to beverage, contains a story as complex as each of our own. So next time you stop by that bodega, or a trendy coffee shop, spend a moment thinking about your cup. What story might it tell?