Coffee has long been considered one of the world’s most popular beverages. The liquid brewed from the berries of this remarkable tropical tree was valued for its stimulant qualities since antiquity. Currently the United States consumes over 1/3 of the world’s coffee production.
The first coffee tree, coffea arabica, was indigenous to Ethiopia. Legend portrays coffee as a magical drink which enabled monks to stay awake nights to pray, and was also used as medicine in the ancient middle east. Widely popular in Islamic cultures, coffee, or kaffee – meaning healing – eventually became prized in Europe in the middle ages and began to be cultivated in Central and South American and Indonesia as early as the 1600s.
Four species of coffee trees are grown worldwide, but only two are significant. All the world’s finest coffee comes from one species – Arabica. The other variety is known as Robusta, which has a high caffeine content, but a bitter taste. In small quantities, it is most suitable for blending for a “high octane” brew.
The best arabica coffee beans are grown in ideal conditions – rich, volcanic soil, under shade trees, in high elevations, with temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, and 75 inches of annual rainfall. Although genetically they are all from the same species, different climatic regions produce their own unique characteristic coffee flavors.. Certain regions have reputations for consistently producing the highest quality coffee beans, although this varies from year to year depending on variations in climate and changes in harvesting and processing methods.
There are basically two different methods of processing raw coffee beans:
The natural method is allowing ripe berries to dry on the trees. The beans are then hulled dry. In most coffee growing regions, this process exposes the beans to potential microbial infestation during the drying stage, which can result in problems with rancidity and contribute to a bitter tasting product.. When proper environmental conditions exist, these risks are minimal and the finished product will be a superior, low-acid coffee with muted tone and texture, and a concentrated, exotic flavor. Very little of the world’s coffee is processed in this manner.
Washed coffees are produced by a method that allows daily pickings of ripe berries. They are soaked in water where the hulls ferment for 24 to 48 hours before the coffee beans are washed clean. This method reduces the chance of spoilage and is considered the industry standard in most of the world.
In areas where the trees are stripped during harvesting, a practice that is considered expedient by some shortsighted businessmen, flavor is compromised by many unripe and non-uniformly sized berries. In Mexico, for example, certain regions offer climatic conditions conducive to the production of superior coffee as farmers are better educated and harvesting methods continue to improve.
Coffee can be grown in an environmentally friendly manner. As an understory crop, shade-grown coffee can co-habitate in forests which simultaneously support wildlife and even other crops, such as bananas. Much of the world’s production of coffee is organically grown and free of pesticides as coffee is not prone to pests. Few farmers can afford to have their coffee “certified” as organically grown.
Fine coffees differ from crop to crop, depending upon a variety of environmental factors. Other important factors are freshness of roast, grind, method of brewing, and quality of water. Even the best coffee beans will get rancid and stale from exposure to air and light and taste will be compromised if brewed incorrectly.