Coffee History, Cultivation, Botanical Notes

Coffee served in Arabia

Drawing of Coffee Plant, circa 1450 AD

The history of coffee

For us Westerners coffee is three hundred years old, but in the East it was widespread as a beverage, in every level of society, since earlier times. The first definite dates go back to 800 b.C.; but already Homer, and many Arabian legends, tell the story of a mysterious black and bitter beverage with powers of stimulation. In the year 1000 about, Avicenna was administering coffee as a medecine. And there is a strange story, dating from 1400, of a Yemeni shepherd who, having observed some goats cropping reddish berries from a bush, and subsequently becoming restless and excited, reported the incident to a monk. The latter boiled the berries, and then distilled a bitter beverage, rich in strength, and capable of dispersing sleep and weariness.

However the discovery occurred, the fact remains that the coffee plant was born in Africa in an Ethiopian region (Kaffa). From there it spread to Yemen, Arabia and Egypt, where it developed enormously, and entered popular daily life.

By the late 1500ís the first traders were selling coffee in Europe, thus introducing the new beverage into Western life and custom. Most of the coffee exported to European markets came from the ports of Alexandria and Smyrna. But the increasing needs of a growing market, improved botanical knowledge of the coffee plant, and high taxes imposed at the ports of shipment, led dealers and scientists to try transplanting coffee in other countries. The Dutch in their overseas colonies (Batavia and Java), the French in 1723 in Martinique, and later on in the Antilles, and then the English, Spanish and Portuguese, started to invade the tropical belts of Asia and America.

In 1727 coffee growing was started in North Brazil, but the poor climatic conditions gradually shifted the crops, first to Rio de Janeiro and finally (1800-1850) to the States of San Paolo and Minas, where coffee found its ideal environment. Coffee growing began to develop here, until it became the most important economic resource of Brazil.

It was precisely in the period 1740-1805 that coffee growing reached its top spread, in Center and South America.

Although coffee was born in Africa, plantations and home consumption are comparatively recent introductions. Actually it was Europeans who introduced it again, into their colonies, where, thanks to favourable land and climatic conditions, it was able to thrive.

Caffe Florian - Florence

The history of coffee in Italy

A great contribution to the diffusion of the beverage was obtained by the spread of Islam in North Africa, Europe and South Asia, first under the expansionist policy of the Ottoman Empire, and later thanks to the development of trades favoured by voyages of discovery.

In the second half of the XVI century coffee crossed the Eastern borders to land up in Europe, from many directions: the age of huge sailing-vessels ploughing the Mediterranean Sea, of the navigators developing their increasingly thriving trades, and importing every kind of merchandise from end to end of the known lands, were responsible for introducing coffee into the major ports of our continent.

That is how, in around 1570, it made its appearance in Venice along with tobacco. The merit of its introduction into Italy is ascribed to the Paduan Prospero Alpino, a famous botanist and physician, who brought with him some sacks from the East and, having observed the plantís characteristics, described it in his book "De Planctis Aegyptii et de Medicina Aegiptiorum", printed between 1591 and 1592.

Venice, more than the other sea towns, was "the Eastern market"; in its port docked European vessels coming from the Arabic and Asian countries. Coffee soon found its way there, and could rapidly be found in plenty. Venetians were the first, thus, to leam to appreciate this beverage. At the beginning, however, the price of coffee was very high, and only rich people could afford to buy it, since it was sold only at chemistís shops.

G. Francesco Morosini, high judge of the dogesí city, Venice, and ambassador of the Venetian Republic to the Sultan, in 1582, in his report from Constantinople, related that in the East there were numbers of public businesses where people were used to meeting each other several times a day over a dark and boiling hot beverage.

Coffee became thus the object of trade and commerce. In consequence of travellersí reports, some premises open to the public began to appear in Venice, too. Here they served a beverage which was by now making everybody curious! In 1640, the first "coffee shop" opened in Venice. Others followed in many Italian towns, among them Turin, Genoa, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples. By 1763 Venice numbered no less than 218 outlets!

Just as coffee had been met by the hostility of devoted Muslims, so in Italy too its introduction collided with some Church representativesí beliefs. So it came about that some fanatical Christians urged Pope Clemente VII to forbid the faithful to drink the "devilís beverage" Ė as they called it!

The Pontiff, before giving judgement, asked for a cup of the black but fragrant beverage. They say that at its sight he cried out: "This beverage is so delicious that it would be a sin to let only misbelievers drink it! Letís defeat Satan by blessing this beverage, which contains nothing objectionable to a Christian!" Once the Popeís approval and blessing had been obtained for coffee, a "beverage for Christians, too", its success was assured! By the late XVIII century, many Italian towns had adopted the same Venetian habit. Served in elegant coffee shops or on rough common tables, the beverage was everywhere very much appreciated.

And what about a little chit chat, while you drank? To raise oneís spirits, and banish worries! Seated at the table, in fact, they would drink, eye each other, and gossip about the other customers: it was another key factor in the unexpected success of these shops. Eighteenth century men of culture so loved it that it was called an "intellectual beverage". Coffee aroused interest not only as a "refreshing infusion" but also for its healing powers; so that in a leaflet, printed in Milan in 1801, high credit was given by some physicians to coffee as a "cure-all".In Italy the temples of coffee are still open, and old and picturesque atmospheres recreated. The Cafe Florian in Piazza San Marco in Venice may be the most illustrious of all! Ruby-coloured velvets, unobtrusive lights and small tables are still the lures of the Caffe Greco in Rome, the Pedrocchi in Padua, the Michelangelo in Florence and the Baratti in Turin!

The tradition is still intact today, as testified by the current splendour of so many old coffee shops, in every large European capital. Coffee is therefore a great invention, based on the art of processing and blending it; a specialty that has become a typically Italian tradition!

Coffee Cherries

Cutout of a coffee cherry

A botanical outline

Linnaeus classified the coffee plant in the Rubiacee family, to which belongs also, for example, the gardenia. The name given to it by the great naturalist was "Coffea". There are some sixty species of it growing spontaneously in the subtropical areas of Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Madagascar, that are without any commercial importance.

Only about ten species are cultivated in different parts of the world.

While the wild plant can reach even ten-twelve metres in height, the plantation one reaches a height varying between three and five metres, except in Colombia where it rarely exceeds two metres. This makes the harvest and flowering easier, and cultivation more economical.

The leaves are, depending on the growth stage, deep green, light green and bronze yellow. Flowers are white, in clusters, and sweet-scented like the Spanish jasmine. Flowers soon give way to a red berry, more or less dark, depending on the plant variety.

At first sight, the fruit is like a big cherry both in size and in colour. The berry is coated with a thin film (epicarp or esocarpo) containing a sugary mucilaginous flesh (mesocarp). Inside the pulp there are the seeds in the form of two beans coupled at their flat surface. Beans are in turn coated with a kind of parchment, very resistant, and golden yellow (called endocarp or pergamino).

When peeled, the real bean appears, coated -in its turn- with another very thin silvery film.

The bean is bluish green verging on bronze, depending on the species, and is at the most 11 millimeters long and 8 millimeters wide. For each species there are several varieties, each one distinguished by its own size, colour and resistance to disease.

Species, Growing

The principal coffee species grown today in the most important producing countries are two: Arabica and Robusta. From their graftings have been obtained several subtypes differently indicated with the names of the producing countries.

Raw Arabicas

Green Arabica Beans

Coffea Arabica, a valuable species, has been grown and selected for several centuries, and represents three-quarters of world coffee production. As the name suggests, it comes from Arabia, and thrives in land rich in minerals. Its better-known sub-varieties are the Moka, Maragogipe, San Ramon, Columnaris, and Bourbon. The Arabica coffees produced in Brazil take the collective name of Brazilian Coffees; those from Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Guatemala, Salvador, Haiti and Santo Domingo are called Milds. There are also Arabica coffees that come from Africa. The Arabica makes a flavoury full-bodied coffee, sharp in taste, with a rather low caffeine content. There are, however, different tastes, due to the different crop varieties. And there are so many varieties on the market that one can assert that some low-quality Arabica species are actually inferior to the best qualities of Coffea Robusta. Arabica beans look slightly elongated, with greenish-blue shades.

Raw Robustas

Green Robusta Beans

Flowers from a coffee plant

Coffea Robusta is a variety that can be over 12 metres high. It grows quickly in altitudes up to 600 metres, and is more resistant to parasites. Discovered in the Congo in 1898, this hardy species is widely spread, especially in Africa, Asia and Indonesia, where the climate is unsuitable for Coffea Arabica. It represents about one quarter of total world production. Because of their higher content of caffeine (about twice as much as Arabica) and strong character, Robustas are used mostly in specialty blends. Overuse and/or improper processing can result in cheap- and bitter-tasting coffee, with pronounced "woodiness", a typical characteristic of natural Robustas from Africa. Washed varieties from Indonesia are rare and particularly prized for use in certain blends. Its beans are typically small, rounded and brownish-yellow in appearance.

Coffee plants need special conditions if they are to thrive and give a satisfactory crop. These are:

  • Favourable climate: areas with hot-wet or hot-temperate climate, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, with frequent rains and temperatures varying from 15 to 25 Degrees C;
  • Soil deep, hard, permeable, well-irrigated, with well-drained subsoil. The best lands are the hilly ones, those cut into a mountainside, of volcanic nature with disintegrating rocks or from just-tilled woods. The perfect altitude is between 600 and 1200 metres, though some varieties thrive at 2000-2200 metres, and others at under 400 metres- or even on level land;
  • Careful culture, aimed at protecting the plants at every stage of growth, thus:
    • Selection of the seeds from the healthier, more luxuriant and long-lived plants
    • Sowing, beginning in sheltered and shaded nurseries from which -after about six months- the seedlings so obtained are moved to plantations, with all the earth surrounding the roots, in the rain season.

Depending on the growing areas (tropical or sub-tropical) coffee plants are alternated with other plants to shield them from wind and excessive sunlight. Treated and protected in this way, the plants will start to yield fruit only when three or four years old.

Hand-picking: the most selective method of harvesting (Colombia)

Drying the beans

Harvesting and treatment

Harvesting is made in different months of the year (depending on the geographic position of the producing countries), and it follows subsequent stages in accordance with maturing of the berries. Harvesting time depends on the geographic situation, and the climate and altitude conditions, and it can vary greatly therefore according to the various producing countries.

Ripe fruits can be plucked by hand, or picked with small rakes, or else brought down to earth with poles: the two first systems are used where low-cost labour is available, and they are more selective; the pole system is quicker, but less careful; and it calls for further operations of berry-cleaning. Where the terrain allows it, harvesting can today be effected with special automatic machines.

Only when the plant is five years old can it be counted upon to give a regular yield. This is between 400 grams and two kilos of "arabica" beans for each plant, and 600 grams and two kilos of "robusta" beans: one might say that for 500 grams of beans one will need 2.5 kilos of berries.

Since coffee is a very delicate product, the beans must be extracted within a few days after the harvesting. This is to prevent the pulp and surrounding films from fermenting. Seed extraction can be carried out in two ways:

  • the "DRY" process, producing so-called "Natural" coffees; this is adopted mostly in Brazil and Western Africa. Desiccation takes place via sun exposure on lands reserved for that purpose, and the berries are continuously stirred to expose them evenly to the sunís rays for a period of 15 to 20 days. Alternatively, after two or three days, coffee can be put in drying rooms, where it is dried by the heat of a burner at 45-60 degrees C.
  • the "WET" process, which is more demanding and difficult (and expensive). From this process are obtained the so-called "Washed" or "Mild" coffees. This method is adopted in Central America, Mexico, Colombia, Kenya and Tanzania. The processing stages are: berry cleaning, maceration, removal of pulp, fermentation, desiccation, and peeling; and final operations designed to remove any residual impurities, and to give glossiness to the beans.

At this point, beans are put into sacks, generally weighing 60 kilos (approx. 132 lbs.), and stored in special sheltered rooms, where they are ready to start their journey -from sack to package- towards the consuming countries.

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