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 The Bean that Traveled Around the World...

The fascinating story of coffee begins in the highlands of Ethiopia, the home of the wild coffee plant. Its descendants, named Coffea arabica, account for two thirds of world production.

Exactly when the properties of the roasted bean were discovered, however, is uncertain. Nevertheless, arabica coffee was being cultivated on the Arabian Peninsula by the 15th centure C.E. Despite a prohibition on the export of the fertile bean, the Dutch acquired either trees or live seeds in the year 1616. They soon established plantations in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and Java, now part of Indonesia. In 1706 the Dutch transported a young tree from their estates in Java to the botanical gardens in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The tree flourished. Its descendants were then shipped to Dutch colonies in Suriname and the Caribbean. In 1714 the mayor of Amsterdam gave King Louis XIV of France one descendant. The king had it planted in a greenhouse at the Jardin des Plantes, the Royal Garden, in Paris. The French were eager to enter the coffee trade. They purchased seeds and trees and shipped them to the island of Reunion. The seeds failed to grow, and according to some authorities, all but one of the trees eventually died.  

Nevertheless, 15,000 seeds from that one tree were planted in 1720, and a plantation was finally established. So valuable were these trees that anyone found destroying one was subject to the death penalty! The French also hoped to establish plantations in the Caribbean, but their first two attempts failed.

Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French naval officer on leave in Paris, made it his personal mission to take a tree to his estate in Martinique on his return voyage from France. He sailed for the island in May 1723 with a descendant of the Paris tree.

For the trip, de Clieu placed his precious plant in a box made partly of glass so that the tree could absorb sunlight and remain warm on cloudy days, explains All About Coffee. A fellow passenger, who may have been envious of de Clieu and who did not want him to enjoy the glory of success, tried to wrest the plant from him but failed. The tree survived. It also survived the ship's encounter with Tunisian pirates, a violent storm and, worst of all, a shortage of fresh water when the ship became becalmed in the Doldrums. "Water was lacking to such an extent," wrote de Clieu, "that for more than a month I was obliged to share my scanty ration with the plant upon which my happiest hopes were founded and which was the source of my delight."

De Clieu's devotion was rewarded. His charge arrived in Martinique in good health, and it thrived and multiplied in the tropical environment. "From this single plant, Martinique supplied seed directly or indirectly to all the countries of the Americas except Brazil, French Guiana and Suriname," states Gordon Wrigley in his book Coffee.

Meanwhile, Brazil and French Guiana also wanted coffee trees. In Suriname, the Dutch still possessed descendants of the Amsterdam tree but kept them closely guarded. In 1722, however, French Guiana obtained seeds from a felon who had escaped into Suriname and stole some seeds. In exchange for his seeds, the authorities in French Guiana agreed to give him freedom, and they repatriated him.

Initial, furtive attempts to get viable seeds or seedlings into Brazil failed. Then Suriname and French Guiana became involved in a border dispute and asked Brazil to provide an arbitrator. Brazil dispatched Francisco de Melo Palheta, an army officer, the French Guiana, instructing him to settle the dispute and to bring home some coffee plants.

The hearings were a success, and the governor gave Palheta a farewell banquet. As a gesture of appreciation for this guest of honor, the governor's wife presented Palheta with a beautiful bouquet. Hidden among the flowers, however, were viable coffee seeds and seedlings. Hence, it could be said that in 1727, Brazil's now billion-dollar coffee industry was born in a bouquet.

Thus, the young tree that went from Java to Amsterdam in 1706, together with its offspring in Paris, furnished all the planting material for Central and South America. Explains Wrigley: "Consequently the whole genetic base of the Arabica coffee industry is very narrow."

Today, over 25 million family farms in some 80 countries grow an estimated 15 billion coffee trees. Their product ends up in the 2.25 billion cups of coffee that are consumed each day.

  Coffee Bean

A coffee bean is the seed of the coffee plant (the pit inside the red or purple fruit). The fruits, coffee cherries or coffee berries, most commonly contain two stones with their flat sides together. Coffee beans consist mostly of endosperm that contains 0.8 - 2.5 % caffeine, which is one of the main reasons the plants are cultivated. Coffee beans are an important export product for some countries.

The origin of the Arabic qahwa (قهوة), is uncertain. It is either derived from the name of the Kaffa region in southern Ethiopia, where coffee was cultivated, or by a truncation of qahwat al-būnn, meaning "wine of the bean" in Arabic.

Species of coffee plant include Coffea arabica, Coffea benghalensis, Coffea canephora, Coffea congensis, Coffea excelsa, Coffea gallienii, Coffea bonnieri, Coffea mogeneti, Coffea liberica, and Coffea stenophylla. The seeds of different species produce coffee with slightly different characteristics.

Coffea arabica accounts for about 75% of the world's coffee trade, while Coffea canephora (syn. Coffea robusta) is cultivated where Coffea arabica does not thrive, and Coffea liberica and Coffea excelsa are grown in limited areas.

From Bean to Cup

In a crop of coffee, a small percentage of cherries contain a single bean, instead of the usual two. This is called a peaberry.

The ‘cherries’ when ripe are either hand picked (usually on the smaller independent farms) or my machines which shake the branches causing the cherries to fall into a collection tray. Once harvested, the beans must have their outer layers removed to expose the coffee bean inside. One of two methods is used to remove the outer layers. The ‘wet process’ involves the cherries being mechanically pulped and then placed in a fermentation tank for between 12 and 36 hours to loosen the parchment from the slippery outside layers of the cherry. The parchment layer, which still remains attached to the seed is then left to dry for 12 to 15 days in big open sunny areas, during which time they are turned several times a day to ensure even drying. The parchment then rots away from the seed. The ‘dry processes’ basically involves the harvested cherries being left in the sun for a period of about 4 weeks and then hulling the dried up parchment layers to reveal the beans.

Once the beans has been extracted, the beans are sorted and graded by size and density. This process also removes any unwanted materials such as twigs, small stones, etc. Once sorted, the beans are bagged and then transported to large storage depots ready to be shipped around the world.

The shipped beans, when they arrive at their destination are again warehoused ready to be distributed to the roasters. It is now up to the roasters to skillfully extract the best possible taste from the bean by means of heating them.

There are numerous devices for roasting beans but they all do the same, heat the bean to a high temperature in order for a chemical reaction to take place inside the beans that in turn produces the coffee flavor we all love.

Depending on the roasting style required the bean will be heated to between 210 degrees centigrade and 240 degrees centigrade. During this heating, the bean will double its size and turn from a green bean, to a brown to very dark brown color. About 20% of the beans mass will also be lost during this process. Also during the process of heating, the bean will begin to pop (like popcorn). Depending on the stage of popping and the color of the roasted bean, this is what the roaster will be using to determine the roasting style of the bean.

Once the bean has reached the required styles the roaster is looking for, the beans are cooled, either by water (mist spraying them) or by air (the most common method). The beans can then be ground immediately for consumption or left as whole beans for later grinding.



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