Coffee 101

What is a coffee blog without an introduction to the subject matter itself? Coffee is a beautiful, complex thing. Some of us need it to wake up in the morning while others simply drink it for the taste. Many only indulge in it on occasion while others (myself included) ingest multiple cups throughout the day. It can be prepared and enjoyed in numerous environments and in various ways; yet, there is still so much to learn and discover when it comes to this black beauty. As I personally evolve in my caffeination education, I think fondly of the following quote by author Alfred Mercier: “What we learn with pleasure we never forget.”  Now grab yourself a cup of coffee, and let’s get to it!

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Legend has it that the coffee bean was first discovered by “dancing” goats. In the 9th century, Ethiopian shepherds noticed their goats extremely active and unable to sleep after consuming coffee cherries. While I will choose to believe in the story of the dancing goats, the first credible historical account of the discovery of coffee was actually in Yemen in the middle of the 15th century. The popularity of coffee spread at an accelerating rate throughout the Arabian Peninsula during the 15th and 16th centuries and reached the European continent in the early 17th century . When it was first brought to Venice in 1615 it was condemned by local clergy, forcing Pope Clement VIII to make a ruling on the matter (don’t worry, he gave it two thumbs up). Coffee reached the United States by way of New York (then known as New Amsterdam) later that same century; however, it did not become popular until after the Boston Tea Party as many Americans vowed to avoid drinking tea and British imports decreased.

An Agricultural Product

The coffee plant is grown between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, also referred to as “The Coffee Belt.” As insinuated earlier, coffee beans are found inside the pit of a coffee cherry, making it a fruit (yay, I’m healthy!). The two main species of the coffee plant are Robusta and Arabica. Robusta is the easier strain to grow as it is not as temperamental, and it can be found mostly in canned and instant coffees. Though that might be a turn off to some, it does contain more caffeine than Arabica. Arabica, on the other hand, represents 70-75% of the coffee produced every year and is found in most coffee shops, especially those that are independent.

From Bean to Brew

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So what has to happen for you to get your fresh cup of coffee every morning? Once coffee cherries have ripened, they are picked, either by machine or hand, and processed. The environment in which they are grown and the method in which they are processed signify some of the greatest distinctions between different varieties of coffee beans. The first processing approach is the dry method, which is used in many areas where water resources are scarce. The coffee cherries are laid out to dry in the sun, turned on occasion to prevent them from spoiling; this might take place for several weeks, until the moisture content of the cherries nears 10%. The second is the wet method, which is a little more complicated.

First, the beans are stripped from the pulp of the cherry, left only surrounded by parchment skin. They are then transferred into water-filled fermentation tanks for anywhere between 12 and 48 hours to remove the slimy layer still attached to the parchment skin. The beans are then rinsed and dried, either by spreading them out in the sun or with the help of a machine. After going through the wet process, the coffee beans are hulled, polished, and sorted before making their way to your favorite roasters. Beans are stored green before roasting. As they are exposed to the heat of the roasting process, up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit, they become dark brown and fragrant, giving off that “coffee aroma” that we are all familiar with. Roasters advise you to brew your beans as quickly as possible following the roasting process to ensure freshness. There are numerous methods to brewing coffee with new techniques and recipes being discovered all the time. Almost everyone is familiar with drip coffee; however, there is also the pour over, Chemex, Aeropress, French press, siphon, and espresso (I am sure I’m leaving out some).

The major differences between these brewing methods, other than the equipment, are the ground size and time of extraction, meaning the amount of time the grounds are exposed to water, bringing out all that yummy goodness. Then voila! Your coffee is ready to enjoy black, with cream and sugar, or however else you choose to prepare your cup o’ joe.

This only skims the oily brown surface of this magical thing we call coffee. However, we don’t want to give it all away at once! What’s the fun in that? Be sure to follow along as we continue to discover and learn more about this wonderful (some might say miraculous) drink we all know and love and its place in our nation’s capital.

Fast fun facts:

  • The world consumes on average 400 billion cups of coffee per year.
  • Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world behind crude oil.
  • 125 million people depend on coffee for their livelihoods.
  • A single coffee plant produces about one pound of coffee each year.
  • It takes approximately 100 beans to make one cup of coffee and 42 beans for an espresso.
  • There is more caffeine in your regular cup of coffee than in your average espresso drink.
  • When coffee first came to Europe it was referred to as “Arabian wine.”
  • Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that commercially produces coffee.
  • Brazil is the top coffee producer, producing nearly 40% of the world’s coffee.
  • Finland is the top coffee consumer with the average adult drinking 4-5 cups a day.
  • Dark roasted coffees contain less caffeine than lighter roasts.
  • Decaffeinated coffee still contains the slightest amount of caffeine.