The Coffee Bean – What’s behind a Great Taste

coffee beans on gray steel wok

Coffee is the stuff of history. The origins of coffee, according to legend, go back to the 6th century when an Ethiopian shepherd boy noticed that his herd of goats was staying awake all night after eating red coffee berries.

After realizing that the beans had the same effect on him, the resourceful shepherd told the abbot at a nearby monastery about the beans, which were then brewed by the monks into a hot drink that kept them awake for long hours of prayer.

From those somewhat modest beginnings, the popularity of coffee spread from East Africa to the Arab region, and from there to India, Europe and eventually North America.

In the 1700’s, coffee found its way to the Americas by means of a French infantry captain who nurtured one small plant on its long journey across the Atlantic. This one plant, transplanted to the Caribbean Island of Martinique, became the predecessor of over 19 million trees on the island within 50 years.

By end of the 18th century coffee had been established as the beverage of choice for millions of consumers worldwide.

Two Very Different Types of Coffee Beans

The world’s finest coffees are the result of a selection process that begins by choosing the best blend of coffee beans. Many coffee drinkers don’t know that there are two types of coffee beans, and each type has its own special qualities.

Coffea arabica, known as Arabica coffee, accounts for 75-80 percent of the world’s production. Coffea canephora, known as Robusta coffee, accounts for about 20-25 percent and differs from the Arabica coffees in terms of taste.

There are a number of important differences between Arabica and Robusta. The beans are different, their plants are different, and naturally their flavors are different.

The Robusta bean has a higher caffeine content than Arabica, which is why it was originally used by Italians to make espresso. Robusta, as the name suggests, is hardier with greater resistance to disease and variations in climate and weather conditions.

Arabica is grown at higher altitudes than Robusta. It is more aromatic with a milder flavor. It possesses fewer sharp or bitter tastes than Robusta.

Its cultivation requires greater care, and Arabica’s supporters compare it to the cultivation of grapes for fine wines.

Interestingly, the two types of coffee plants are also botanically different. Robusta is very different from the Arabica, even genetically, since it has 22 chromosomes, whereas the Arabica has 44 chromosomes.

How Coffee is Made from the Beans

The fruit of the coffee tree is called a ‘cherry’. Cherries can be picked by hand or machine harvested. After harvesting, the fruit is removed from the cherry leaving the bean to be processed.

There are two ways of processing beans: wet and dry. Dry processing is a centuries old method in which the harvested beans are laid out in the sun to dry for about 15 days or so. They are periodically turned and spread to dry evenly.

Wet processing is a more modern processing method that involves a cycle of washing and fermentation. It’s now the preferred way to process beans because it causes less damage to them.

The next step in processing coffee beans is roasting. Roasting cooks the beans to a certain level of roast – mild, medium or dark. The longer the beans are roasted, the more flavor is released.

The final step in the process of turning the beans into a beverage is grinding them so they can be used to brew coffee.

A Blend for every Taste Preference

Most coffees sold today are made from a combination of Arabica and Robusta beans that give each blend its distinctive taste. The great variety of blends enables coffee lovers to select their favorite from those on offer, or even make up their own custom blend.

“Today, coffee is a giant global industry employing more than 20 million people. This commodity ranks second only to petroleum in terms of dollars traded worldwide.

“With over 400 billion cups consumed every year, coffee is the world’s most popular beverage. If you can imagine, in Brazil alone, over 5 million people are employed in the cultivation and harvesting of over 3 billion coffee plants.”

Because of the extra effort it takes to produce the Arabica beans they are naturally more expensive than the hardier Robusta. But true coffee lovers don’t care about the cost of the beans; they just want the flavor they like best.

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