Coffee is brewed from the seeds of the coffee plant, an evergreen shrub indigenous to the high plateaus of Ethiopia and tropical Africa. The shrubs begin to bear fruit only between their fifth and sixth years. Their white flowers produce oval “cherries”, which turn dark red when ripe. They contain two pale-green seeds covered with a tough membrane called the endocarp (also known as the parchment); depending on the species, the caffeine content is 1% to 2%. Once picked, the cherries are cleaned and the seeds are freed from the pulp and the parchment. The green seeds are then dried in the sun or in dryers, sorted, graded and packed in bags. The decorticated seeds are roasted only after they arrive in consumer countries.
The origin of the drink prepared with coffee beans has given rise to various legends. According to one version, coffee was discovered around 850 AD in the area now known as Ethiopia. Noting that his goats frolicked about queerly after eating the leaves and the berries of a certain bush, a goatherd took a branch of the shrub to a monk, who brewed a drink from the plant’s seeds. Surprised by the drink’s stimulating effect, the monk and his peers ascribed the creation of the beverage to a divine spirit.
The term “coffee” is likely derived from the Arabic kawhah. Some linguists, however, trace the origin of the word to Kaffa, the name of the Ethiopian province where the plant was ostensibly discovered.
Although there are about a dozen varieties of coffee plants, the market is dominated by the beans of just two species. Coffea Arabica, the oldest and best known (approximately 75% of world production), and Coffea Robusta (about 25% of production). Arabica beans are relatively large and coffee brewed from these beans is highly appreciated for its mild, refined taste and fragrance. This species is cultivated mainly in Arabia, Ethiopia, India, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, and is also found in certain mountainous regions of Asia and Africa. Robusta beans are smaller and rounder, and have a less refined, somewhat bitter taste. Grown mainly in Africa, Robusta coffee fetches a lower price.
During roasting, a key process that brings out the coffee’s flavor and aroma, the beans are subjected to high dry heat in cylindrical ovens. They are then cooled immediately to minimize the loss of aromatic substances. Roasting transforms the beans in various ways: their color changes from greenish gray to brown, the beans expand up to 60%, and the beans become more bitter but less acidic. The beans are ready to be ground in order to prepare the popular beverage. The grind is all important and depends on the coffeemaker.
Coffee lovers can choose between a wide range of coffeemakers, which work according to a variety of principles: the automatic drip coffeemaker, the percolator, the piston coffeemaker (Bodum or Melior), the Espresso coffeemaker, etc.