Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I imagine that a fair number of people reading this column are also enjoying a cup of coffee at the same time. Enjoying the Sunday paper over a cup (or two) of coffee is one of life's simple pleasures in my opinion.
Coffee has been a popular beverage at least since the 9th century when it was discovered in the highlands of Ethiopia. According to legend, a goat herder noticed his goats were particularly energetic after eating berries from what we now know as the coffee plant. The goat herder tried some of the berries for himself and was just as perky as his goats. People of this time developed recipes for wine made from the coffee berry.
It wasn't until coffee was traded with Arabia around the year 1000 that the roasted "bean" was brewed into anything resembling the beverage we consume today. It became extremely popular, and a highly valued trade commodity. To protect its investment, Arabians heated all coffee beans destined for export to render the seeds dead so that they could not be used to grow new coffee plants. This worked until around 1600 when unheated coffee beans were smuggled out of the country and helped expand cultivation of coffee into European colonies.
Coffee came to Europe around 1615. While the public came to love the new beverage, traders saw that the real money was in figuring out how to produce coffee on their own and eliminate any middle men. The Dutch were the first to bring an actual coffee plant to Europe in 1616 (probably a descendent of the coffee beans smuggled from Arabia). By 1696 the Dutch had opened the first European-owned coffee plantation on their island colony Java, which is now part of Indonesia.
The Dutch were very proud of their accomplishments and shared coffee plants with European aristocrats as additions to their prestigious plant collections. Coffee was a luxury item at this time-- only the extremely wealthy could afford to drink it, let alone have the means to grow a coffee plant!
Coffee only became a drink of the masses when Brazil began growing it in much larger quantities around 1800. So following basic economics, the huge supply led to a drop in prices which allowed the average person to buy coffee.
Coffee has maintained its worldwide popularity and is the second most traded physical commodity on the open market, second only to petroleum. Brazil remains the largest coffee exporting nation.
There are several species of coffee plant or tree in the genus Coffea, but the two most commonly grown are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, also called Coffea robusta. Arabica coffee, produced from Coffea arabica, is considered to have superior flavor to robusta coffee made from Coffea robusta. Robusta coffee is more bitter and has less coffee flavor than arabica.
Along with its superior flavor, arabica coffee commands a much higher price in the market than robusta. Though it has a lesser quality flavor, Coffea robusta is far more disease resistant and has much higher yields than Coffea arabica. Robusta coffee's lower price makes it a common ingredient in mass market coffees, particularly instant coffee.
The beverage we call coffee is created by roasting and grinding the seeds of the coffee plant, often called coffee beans, though the coffee plant is not a legume. In extremely simple terms, the degree of roasting determines the flavor of the coffee produced. Darker roasts tend to have smoother more sugary flavors, and lighter roasts retain more of the typical "coffee" flavors that are destroyed in dark roasting. Lighter roasts may also retain more caffeine than dark roasts.
Long before the roasting process, coffee starts out as berries on the coffee tree. Coffee production is a labor intensive process because the ripe coffee berries are typically picked by hand. They are sorted by degree of ripeness and the flesh of each berry is removed by a machine. Each berry contains a single seed, or bean, coated with a gelatinous layer of tissue that is removed by allowing the beans to ferment. Following fermentation, the beans are washed with huge quantities of fresh water. Unfortunately, this creates enormous amounts of polluted wastewater.
Environmental issues related to coffee have received some attention in the media in recent years. Water use in coffee production has been highly criticized. One source estimated that it takes about 140 liters of water to produce one cup of coffee. Compounding this issue is the fact that often coffee is grown in regions where fresh unpolluted water is in short supply.
The cultivation methods of the coffee tree have also been questioned. The coffee tree is naturally an understory plant, growing in the shade of much bigger trees. Growing in the shade of the understory, the coffee berries ripen slowly, and relatively few berries are produced. This method preserves the existing forest and its wildlife.
Some farmers have switched to growing coffee in full sun, which allows the coffee trees to produce higher yields of rapidly ripening berries. But this requires clearing of existing trees and increased dependence on fertilizers and pesticides. This method has negative impact on existing forest and its wildlife.
Opponents of this practice encourage consumers to purchase "shade grown" or "organic" coffees which are said to be sustainably harvested using traditional methods which do not damage the environment like sun grown coffee.
Another label consumers may see is "fair trade" coffee. What does this actually mean? Global Exchange, an international human rights advocacy group, defines fair trade as an equal and fair partnership between producers and consumers.
Practically speaking this means that coffee farmers are guaranteed a price for their coffee harvest that will produce a living wage (currently $1.26 per pound!) as well as fair credit terms and a long term relationship with processors and consumers.
Coffee may seem like an average everyday drink. Its colorful history and relation to current environmental issues make me think it is anything but "average".