From Mean Bean to Mean Caffeine: Where Does Coffee Come from?

The high street, the shopping district, the mall, even your average office block in the heart of downtown anywhere is going to have coffee shops. From the big American chains to the small independents stores, all of them sell coffee in its various forms – black, white, cappuccino, espresso, mocha and many others. However as you take your first hit of caffeine of the day; have you stopped to wonder at the origins of your coffee? Do you know when coffee first came to our shores or which countries supply the world with coffee beans today? It is well worth looking in to.

No one is entirely sure when the first cup of coffee was drunk. Some authorities say it dates back to the eighth century when an Arabian writer referred to coffee. Others prefer to believe the story of the Ethiopian goatherd who noticed how perky his animals were after eating the berries from the coffee plant. However, there is historical data that points to Ethiopia as the first country to grow and use coffee as a drink. Locals who used the brew were careful to maintain their monopoly, as they dried and over-boiled every last coffee beans that left the country, making it impossible for them to sprout and grow elsewhere. However, one man sabotaged their efforts: Baba Budan of India successfully smuggled the precious beans to the region of Mysore in India, and began farming coffee successfully.

It was not long before European traders caught wind of this new drink and began procuring plants of their own. It became the drink of choice for the upper classes in the 17th Century particularly in France where Louis XIV is credited as the first European monarch to obtain a coffee plant for Europe. Indeed, some believe that the tree he planted is the predecessor of most modern day Arabica coffee trees in the Western world.

Today, coffee is big business and is second only to oil as the most traded commodity in the world. The main coffee growing countries are Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Kenya and Indonesia. The process from plant to coffee cup starts with laborers on plantations picking basket loads of green and red berries. Typically, consumer coffee uses green berries while the red berries are reserved for more upmarket brands. The flavor of coffee comes from the bean that is at the heart of the berry. Once the fleshy pulp has been removed, the beans themselves are spread out to dry before being sorted by color and size. Depending on where in the world you are this is done using machinery or by hand.

Next, beans are roasted. The beans are heated gradually and evenly so that they swell to double their size and change their color to the dark brown we associate with coffee. During this process, the bean also secretes oil that produces the distinct flavor of coffee. The more the bean is roasted, the darker and richer the flavor becomes although the caffeine level does not change. Once the roasting process is complete, the beans are allowed to cool before being packaged, tagged and transported along the coffee chain to the coffee producer and finally ending their journey on either the supermarket shelf or at your local coffee house.

The next time you reach for the coffee cup, think about the journey your drink has been on: All the way from the plantations of Indonesia or Colombia, journeying across the sea to provide you with caffeine hit. Moreover, depending on who you believe, you can raise your cup in a toast to the Sun King of Europe for planting the first coffee tree outside of Asia, or the lonely goatherd and his prancing goats for first discovering the elixir that we call coffee.