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The History of Coffee

by Cindy

by: Nicole Krenpasky

Coffee: liquid energy, a mesmerizing aroma, a quick 2 P.M. refresh. Most of us consume coffee at some point during the day. We brew, pour over, or french press our own or frequent a favorite java joint to get our fix. We’re inundated with advertisements of 100% Arabica, but what does that mean? Is that the only option for our morning wake up call? And where did it all start?

While South America is known amongst connoisseurs for its expert cultivation, the history of the coffee plant actually has roots in Africa. According to the National Coffee Association USA, or NCA, the first beans (which are technically berries) were found in the forests of Ethiopia in the 11th century by a goat farmer. Passing along his discovery, the local monks began creating an invigorating drink out of the plant, allowing them to work well into the night. Word soon spread and the delicious refreshment found its way to the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey. It was here that coffee-based agriculture not only thrived, but social gatherings booned and the world’s first coffee houses were established. These institutions quickly became cultural centers of knowledge and arts, spreading into Europe over the centuries, even earning the dark liquid a papal stamp of approval. Many of our modern day independent coffee houses still carry on the tradition of gathering like-minded individuals to engage in discussion, ideas, and meetings.


Where Does Coffee Come From?

Coffee plants can only be grown in the ‘Coffee Belt’, or the section of land near the equator between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Though there are hundreds of species of coffee plants in the world today, there are four main types that are commonly used for drinking. Each starting out green prior to roasting, they have individual features and flavors, allowing options for even the most discerning palates.


We commonly hear the word Arabica in conjunction with coffee. It’s plastered all over bags and tins, commercials and Starbucks menus. It’s the largest group in terms of coffee production and also considered the most delicate flavor. Chocolate and nuts are dominant, but trace amounts of berries and fruit are also tasted. Slightly sweet, there’s only a touch of bitterness mixed with slight acidity. It pairs well with sweeteners and/or cream, taming the flavor enough for those looking for a pick-me-up but not the full coffee experience.


Robusta is the bean to turn to when you want a supercharged caffeine kick. With twice as much caffeine as Arabica, drinkers note hints of chocolate and low acidity. It’s these same features that make it a great choice for espresso, but deter even the most avid drinkers from partaking too regularly. Robusta makes a great option for blends, amping up the caffeine content in Arabica. 


A little known bean variety once close to extinction, Liberica is mainly found in the Philippines. Fruity and floral with hints of smoke, experts claim the flavor of Liberica is more attuned to nature. Sometimes compared to ‘liquid tobacco’, this earthy variety is much lower in caffeine than the more popular Arabica and Robusta and infrequently found in the United States.


Excelsa is a tricky bean. While some consider it a species of its own, others have recently begun to categorize it as a variety of Liberica. No matter how you classify it, Excelsa can be fruity with opposing dark notes. It’s often used in blends to complement Arabica and Robusta due to its divisive flavor and aroma when served alone, giving them depth and complexity.

But what do all these flavor notes and smells in each bean mean? Why does an Arabica brew from a chain coffee shop taste different than at the local corner coffee house? Well, that’s where roasting comes into play (it's also how those green beans turn brown). The roasting is a bit of a science- it literally causes chemical changes within the bean which in turn dictates what flavors will be most noticeable in your brew. Caramelization and browning (also known in cooking as the Maillard Reaction) are responsible for most of the flavors, including nutty and toasted subtleties. Beans that aren’t roasted long enough tend to have a more pale color and lack taste. Those that go too long create a drink that’s acrid and burnt. 

No matter your flavor preference, the history, tradition, and complexity of this little bean is unique. And regardless of bean, blend, roast, and brew, there’s likely a cup out there waiting just for you.

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