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Coffee History

 The small beans obtained from the perennial tropical plant commonly known as coffee, are morphologically very diverse, and in their roasted and ground state are used principally for preparing a drinkable infusion. Behind this beverage, however, there is a long and complex story.

The Coffea genus belongs to the Rubiaceae family, which has over 500 different genus and over 6,000 species. The majority of these are either trees or bushes. They are mainly of tropical origin, and of an ample distribution, including various medicinal plants, which include  ipecac root (Cephaelis  ipecacuanha) and cinchona bark (Cinchona spp.) from which quinine is extracted.

Taxonomically, the plants classified under the Coffea genus are characterized by a cleft in the ventral part of their seeds. This genus varies from small bushes up to trees that grow over 10 meters tall; its leaves are simple, opposite; its stipules vary as much in size as in shape; its flowers are hermaphrodites, white and tubular; and its fruits consist of drupes of different shapes, colors and sizes; and each fruit normally contains two seeds.

The first description of a coffee plant was done in 1592 by Prospero Alpini and a century later Antoine de Jussieu (1713) denominated the plant as  Jasminum arabicanum (as he considered it a type of jasmine). Linneo (1737) classified the plant as a new genus, Coffea, with only one known species at the time, C. arabica. Today 103 species have been identified, nonetheless, only two are responsible for 99% of the genus's global commerce: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. These two originated in Africa and Madagascar (including the Comoro Islands).

The coffee beans havetwo seeds contained in each fruit, commonly known as cherries. These cherries are composed by an external skin, the exocarp which determines the color of the fruit. The cherries have different internal layers: the mesocarp is a gum rich in sugars and adhered to the seeds; the endocarp, a yellow colored layer, covers each bean and is named the parchment; another very thin layer,  the epidermis is referred as the silvery film; and the beans or seeds which are the endosperm, are known as the green coffee, and it is the part that is roasted to prepare the different types of coffee.

Commercial Species and their Origin

The Coffea canephora Pierre ex-Froehner has an ample geographic distribution and is found wildly in meridional  Africa, in countries such as Congo, Sudan and Uganda as well as in the northeastern part of Tanzania and Angola. Approximately 35% of coffee that is commercialized comes from this species, which is commonly  referred to Robusta.  The Robusta varieties generally consist of small organs (leaves, fruits, flowers, and beans) that are sometimes also known as Conilon, Koulliou or Quillou. In the low tropical regions of Africa where this species was originated, developed throughout centuries immunity to many plagues and sicknesses. As a consequence, Robusta trees are more resistant to the many plagues, especially the coffee rust (Hemileia vastatrix). This characteristic was the essential to begin its commercial cultivation around the world at the beginning of the last century.

Robusta coffee is cultivated generally in altitudes below 1,000 meters above sea level. It is cross pollinated and therefore it should be cultivated with different, yet compatible, genotypes. It is not cultivated in Colombia. Its content of caffeine is greater than 2%, is bitterer and has a cereal like taste. Recent investigations have shown that the Robusta species is one of the most ancient, as it originated more than 5 million years ago, and is even believed by some to be more than 25 million years old.

Coffea Arabica currently the primary species of the genus. It makes up more than 60% of commercialized coffee in international markets. It is an autogamous or self-fertilizing plant. It originated in the southeast of Ethiopia, in the South of Sudan and in the North of Kenya. It is a tetraploid (has 44 chromosomes), that derives from ancient forms of two diploid species: Coffea eugenioides (22 chromosomes), likely as the maternal progenitor, and C. canephora (22 chromosomes), as the paternal progenitor. Scientific studies catalog Coffea arabica as relatively young species that was first engendered less than a million years ago. It is considered to be a high mountainous coffee plant that grows well in temperatures that range between 18° and 24°C. In Colombia the plantations are concentrated at altitudes that oscillate between 1,200 and 1,800 meters above sea level. The caffeine content of the bean varies between 1.0% and 1.4% in its dry state, and is less bitter than Robusta. It is the best quality cup of coffee.

Consumption of Coffee

The consumption of coffee originated in Ethiopia with the C. arabica species. At first infusions were prepared with the leaves and cherries, while the beans were chewed. They still are in some parts of Africa. It is likely that the cherries mixed in the infusions or cast into the fire permitted them to appreciate more of the aroma as well as a better taste, which gave rise to coffee's modern way of consumption.

The Yemenites are recognized for popularizing the beverage. There are many legends about the way that they began drinking it, the best known of these is one that revolves around a young shepherd named Kaldi. One day this shepherd noted that his flock was behaving in an irregular way: the goats jumped and ran around as if contaminated by an overwhelming euphoria. On seeing this irregular behavior, Kaldi's natural curiosity led him to take note that these animals changed their conduct after eating the leaves and fruits of a bush that produced small reddish berries. The fable recalls that the young shepherd tasted the fruits and soon afterwards began to feel possessed by a strange joy that made him sing and dance. Kaldi then took some of these branches to the superior of a convent located nearby. The superior accidently dropped the fruits into a fire, producing the first time that man appreciated the aroma of coffee. The more recent versions of the legend indicate that the shepherd was from Ethiopia and thus that Kaldi was shepherding in the Arabic peninsula. Therefore until the middle of the last century coffee was considered to have originated out of Arabia, making it consistent with other well known legends that explain the origins of the consumption of the beverage, such as the legend of Shadhiliya and Omar.

The Name

Apparently the Arabs referred to the coffee cherries and bush as Bunn, the pulp as Quishr, and the beverage as Bunchum. Afterwards, and in order to prepare the beverage in the form of a wine, the Arabs gave coffee the name of qahwah, a generic name for wine. The name then became degenerated as cahueh. The Turks named the grain cahve, the etymological origin suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary. According to the Islamic Encyclopedia, Kahwah is an Arabic word of uncertain etymology, and is the base of the word coffee. It proliferated through the Turkish word Kahweh, with different spellings according to the languages and regions but with the same root: café in Spanish, Portuguese, and French; coffea in Latin (its scientific name); kaffee in German, Swedish, and Danish, and coffee in English.

The spread of Coffee around the World

The Muslim culture and religion, and particularly the Arabs, played an important role in spreading the consumption of coffee as well as its cultivation. Many authors consider that coffee arrived to Arabia sometime between the VIII and XIII century. The Arabs were the ones who since the XV century first consumed the product regularly. The beverage soon spread to Mecca, Medina and Syria and from there to Aden and Cairo, thus spreading across the entire Muslim world by 1510. Coffee had been taken to Turkey by 1554.

The greater consumption generated an expansion in its production. By the XIV century the Arabs had taken the plant to Yemen, where the first economically important cultivations were produced. The Arabic monopoly on coffee production was based on the prohibition on exporting seeds and the maintenance of a carefully guarded secret about the techniques of its cultivation. Consequent with this strategy, the port of Yemini of Mocha, located in the Red Sea, became the principle center of commerce for coffee until the XVII century.

At the beginning of the XVII century, the consumption of coffee was brought from Turkey over to Europe, entering through the port of Venice in Italy and then taken to Holland, France, England and Germany. The consumption of coffee spread throughout all of Europe and new establishments to enjoy a cup of coffee emerged. Later, in 1689, the first coffee house was established in the United States in the city of Boston.

The expansion of the cultivation of coffee in diverse continents was initiated by the Dutch, whose traders wanted to reduce their dependency on the Arabs. The Dutch succeeded in acquiring the seeds and are responsible for developing the first intense cultivations in India and Ceylon (today the country of Sri Lanka) in the XVII century, as well as in Indonesia towards the end of that century and the beginning of the XVIII century. The merchant Nicholas Witizen, after many attempts, managed to obtain the seeds, which he took to ancient Batavia (modern day Yakarta, in the island of Java in Indonesia). The planted coffee trees belonged to the varietal later known as Tipica. In 1711 the first shipment of 894 lbs was taken to Amsterdam. Accordingly the Dutch were able to dominate the global production of coffee.

Through a peace treaty in 1713, France received the following year its first coffee tree, which was handed over from the Dutch  to Louis XIV. The French king entrusted its cultivation to the famed botanist Antonio de Jussieu in the Botanical Garden of Paris.

It is believed that the Dutch also were responsible for introducing the crop in South America in 1714 in Dutch Guyana (modern day Suriname). The first coffee bushes were brought to the Caribbean islands in the beginning of the XVIII century by the French, and from there they were taken to Brazil and Colombia where coffee was consolidated as an important cultivation in the XIX century. In the second half of that century the coffee rust, a disease caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix, devastated the coffee cultivation in Ceylon. This island was until then the foremost coffee producer in the world, favoring the need to develop coffee plantations in other continents. This new situation was an important element that helped these South American countries in their consolidation as the new primary coffee exporters in the world. As consequence of the devastating coffee rust, famers were also induced to begin the cultivation of Robusta coffee, which is naturally resistant to such disease.

Coffee processes

In the XVIII century, in the context of the Industrial Revolution, and specially in the XIX century, the most important advances in the post harvesting of coffee were developed thanks to the proliferation of new mechanical roasting, grinding and preparation methods. Amongst the myriad patented methods developed at the time, the development of soluble coffee as well as air tight coffee packaging stand out. The industrialization of coffee had commenced. These advances permitted the further expansion in coffee consumption during the XX century. More recently, and thanks to the development of coffee shops in the United States, the consumption of coffee regained one of its most important characteristics as a social beverage, and thus positioning it amongst new generations of consumers.

The consumption of coffee has never been far from important political and social events. Coffee has been present in the beginning of Revolutions and, also, it has helped inspire new models of cooperation. After all, coffee is much more than just a beverage.


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