One legend has it the effects of coffee were first noticed by
a goatherd in Ethiopia, seeing the friskiness of his flock after
consuming the leaves and berries. Another says it was a Sufi mystic
noticing frisky birds in Ethiopia. There are others - and, like
most food stories, none are likely true.
The primary active ingredient in coffee is caffeine, but there are
others that have been insufficiently studied. Coffee was first
used as a tea made from the leaves, and some indigenous peoples in East
Africa still use it that way. It was found, however, that the beans
within the berries were more effective, and roasted they were more
palatable. The photo specimens are Colombia Supremo on the right,
about 0.50 inch long, 0.35 inch wide and 0.22 inch thick, and
Colombia Peaberry on the left, up to 0.43 inch long, 0.29 inch wide and
0.24 inch thick, both high grown and roasted medium. There are usually
two "beans" per berry, but only one in the case of peaberry.
Because coffee beans do not ripen evenly and
incompletely ripe beans are inferior, quality coffee beans must be
picked by hand, making several passes through the plantation. This is
the most labor intensive part of coffee production. In the lowland
plantations, whole branches are stripped of berries, ripe, unripe and
overripe and prepared for shipment to large commercial roasters who
sell ground coffee in cans.
There are many species of coffee, but only three are widely used for
- C. arabica: This is the most popular with
connoisseurs as having a lower acidity and a more delicate taste and
aroma. Unfortunately, arabica is particularly vulnerable to a fungus
infection called "coffee leaf rust" which makes growing it expensive.
Over 75% of coffee grown is arabica.
- C. canephora: Two varieties of this species,
commonly lumped as "robusta", are favorites of coffee growers as they
are less trouble and offer a higher yield. Major coffee blenders often
use quite a bit of robusta to make their blend stronger. Also, robusta
has over twice as much caffeine as arabica. It accounts for about 20%
of coffee grown.
- C. liberica: "Liberian Coffee" from West
Africa was heavily planted in Indonesia and the Philippines in the
1890s when the leaf rust wiped out the arabica plantations. Some is
still grown in Indonesia but it is the major variety in the Philippines.
In character it is more like robusta than arabica.
- C. charrieriana: This species from Cameroon
in central Africa is a curiosity - it is caffeine free. I don't
know if any attempt is being made to commercialize it.
In wholesale trade there are three basic categories:
- High Grown Mild: arabica beans grown at least
2000 feet above sealevel, often between 4000 and 6000 feet.
- Brazilian: lowland arabica beans, which may or may
not come from Brazil, but are grown at below 2000 feet.
- Robusta: beans of the canephora species
Coffee Terms & Trivia
Green Coffee Bean Extract: An extraction long used in
the "Swiss Water Process" for decaffeination, this is the latest "sure fire
magic cure" promoted by the weight loss industry. It's probably at least
as effective as all the other "sure fire magic cures" they've promoted
over the years. It's just amazing how these wonderful products have
completely banished obesity from America. What is that you say?
Grinding Beans: Coffee should be ground as fine as
will work with the type of filter used. It degrades very rapidly after
grinding as aromatic elements evaporate. Best to have a coffee grinder
at home and grind fresh every morning. I use a burr grinder, but a very
low cost whirling blade grinder works well too (but I use mine only for
grinding spices). Second best is to buy whole bean and grind it at
the store and seal it back up. Trader Joe's, for one, provides a
grinder for this purpose, and their containers reseal tightly. Some
supermarkets also provide a grinder, but their packaging is usually
not as good - just bags.
Water: This must be brought to a full boil or the coffee
will taste terrible, but it should be turned off immediately it boils or
it will get flat. A French gourmet did extensive experimenting with water
temperature and found the coffee was better if you let the water cool
a few minutes to about 200°F/95°C before pouring on the grounds
- but only by a very small margin. Just as with beer, the quality of the
water affects the quality of the brew.
Coffee Maker: Basically, you steep ground coffee beans
in water at about 200°F/95°C until the water tastes like coffee.
Simple is best and glass or ceramic are the best materials for making
coffee in. I use a Chemex flask and unbleached filters, with the flask
set over warming heat. My only addition is to insert two bamboo chopsticks
(now very thoroughly blackened) before placing the filter cone - this
speeds the filtration. I have no interest in any other kind of coffee
maker, so if you want comparative reviews, you'll have to look elsewhere.
I do also have a French plunger coffee maker, but use it only for tea.
Roast Levels: The exact temperature reached by the beans
during roasting affects the balance of varietal coffee flavor versus the
roast flavor, as well as acidity and body of the resulting brew.
Personally, I think it could stop at "Full City", but it doesn't.
Recently (2011), the yuppie class was much into dark roasts, but I've
heard they've been lightening up. Of course the marketeers may favor
darker roasts - they can buy the cheapest beans they can get since you
won't be able to tell the difference. The darker roasts are preferred
by Europeans and others who smother their coffee with cream and sugar,
the lighter roasts are ideal for those of us who take our coffee without
This table is pretty representative, but there are minor variations.
- Cinnamon Roast: (385°F/196°C) Tea-like character,
sharp acidic tones. Beans are mottled light brown with no gloss.
- New England Roast: (401°F/205°C) A specialty roast
that particularly displays the regional character of the beans, with
distinctive and interesting acidity.
- American Roast: (410°F/210°C) A roast used for some
single origin coffees displaying their regional characteristics.
Medium light brown, no surface oil.
- City Roast: (426°F/219°C) A roast very often used for
specialty coffees. Coffee flavors with regional characteristics still
quite good. Medium brown, slightly glossy surface, no obvious oil.
- Full City Roast: (437°F/225°C) A common roast for
espresso blends. Medium dark with just noticeable oil sheen. Roast
flavor is beginning to take over from coffee flavor.
- Vienna Roast: (448°F/230°C) Regional coffee flavors
are now significantly eclipsed by roast flavors. Moderately dark brown
with light surface oil.
- French Roast: (464°F/240°C) Roast flavors now
dominate over coffee flavors, and burn flavors become noticeable -
acidity rather subdued. Dark brown and shiny with surface oil.
- Italian Roast: (473°F/245°C) Roast flavors begin to
be overcome by burned flavors, acidity is gone and it brews a thin
bodied cup. Very dark brown and very shiny with surface oil.
- Spanish Roast: (482°F/250°C) Burned coffee -
tar and charcoal flavors dominate. Brews a flat cup (no acidity at all)
with thin body. Pretty much black and very shiny with oil.
Health: Claims and counter claims regarding the
health impact of coffee drinking have been all over the map, with the
anti-coffee voices particularly shrill. Current medical opinion is that
moderate coffee drinkers (2 to 3 cups a day) are 10% to 15% less likely
to die than non-drinkers in any period of time. The cause of this is not
known, but another study showed that moderate coffee drinkers are less
likely to commit suicide than non-drinkers. If you want an extensive
health rundown, the article on Wikipedia
Health effects of coffee is probably as good as any and better than
Coffee Houses: The first European coffee house was
opened in Venice in 1645, but the most famous was opened in Vienna
in 1683 by Polish/Ukrainian Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki (Georg Franz
Kolschitzky in Viennese). It was to him the King of Poland awarded
the coffee beans abandoned by the Turks in their defeat at the Battle
of Vienna. Business was not real good - until he invented filtering
the coffee and adding milk or cream - then business was very good
- Armenian Coffee: This coffee is found in Los Angeles
County and Armenia (for other regions see "Turkish Coffee"). Just about
every multi-ethnic market here in LA has medium and dark beans (often
used "half and half") appropriate for this concoction. It must be ground
to powder, boiled and served unfiltered, with or without sugar, but
no milk or cream.
- Brazilian: Brazil is the world's foremost coffee
grower, producing between 30% and 35% of all the world's coffee. It is
pretty much all undistinguished lowland coffee destined for the biggest
commercial roasters. The best grade, that sold to specialty roasters
as "Brazilian" is "Bourbon Santos", which is produced only by young
trees in their first two or three years of production. It is a middle
of the road coffee, but better than most Brazilian.
- Celebes: Situated northeast of Java, this island produces
another world famous coffee, similar to the Sumatran. Perhaps a little
less rich and a little more acidy. Manado is considered the best,
with Rantepao considered a close second.
- Civet Coffee: In some coffee growing regions, including
the Philippines, mongoose relatives called palm civets are up all night
eating coffee berries. Of course they are up all night, anyone who eats
that much coffee won't be able to sleep. Civets are very fussy and only
eat perfectly ripe berries. The pulp is digested and the beans pass
through (though slightly altered), to be collected and rinsed by
gatherers. Most is exported to Japan, where they are willing to pay
absurd prices, over 2013 US $50 per pound, for "special" coffee.
- Columbian: This country is a coffee powerhouse
second only to Brazil, but produces better coffee. The best grade is
"supremo" with "extra" the second grade - but there is also a mix of
the two called "excelso". The leading regions are Medellin, Armenia
and Manizales, often mixed as "MAM". All very respectable coffees.
- Decaffeinated Coffee Coffee for people who don't
want to stay awake. Green beans are steamed, then subjected to one of
several solvent processes to remove the caffeine, hopefully leaving all
the flavor constituents (success varies). For a run down of the many
processes see the Wikipedia article
- Dominican: A "middle of the road" coffee from the
Dominican Republic, often labeled Santo Domingo because it sounds
- El Salvador: Rather bland coffee for commercial
roasters. Best grade is "strictly high grown".
- Ethiopian: Ethiopia is probably where coffee originally
came from, and many wild varieties still exist there. Most Ethiopian
coffee shipped to North America comes from around the city of Harrar,
and may be called "Ethiopian Harrar" or some other name with "Harrar"
in it. This coffee has a rich taste with winey aftertaste. On the other
hand, wild coffee gathered in southeastern Ethiopia and sold (generally
not in North America) as "Ethiopian" or "Abyssinian" is bland and of
- Guatemalan: Distinctive, rich and slightly smoky
flavored coffees, amongst the best in the world. Best regionals are
Antigua and Coban, best grades "strictly hard bean" (grown above 4500
feet), "hard bean" grown between 4000 and 4500 feet.
- Haitian: The best are "strictly high grown" and
second best "high grown". Both are soft rich flavored coffees.
- Instant Coffee: An abomination of our "convenience
culture". Coffee, mostly from lower grades and robusta, brewed in
industrial tanks, then dried and crumbled. Meant to be spooned into
styrofoam cups of hot tap water for persons of low self esteem.
- Jamaican: A very classy coffee. The highest grade is
"Blue Mountain" and the highest of that is "Wallensford Estate", but
nearly all is shipped to Japan where a much higher price can be
fetched. "High Mountain Jamaican" is second best. Lowland Jamaica is
not much better than El Salvador.
- Java: Java once lead the world in coffee production,
but it was all wiped out by the coffee leaf rust in the 1890s. Most
of the arabica plantations were replaced with robusta, but arabica
has made a slow comeback to some extent. Java arabica is full bodied
and rich, and just a bit more acidy and spicy than Sumatra.
- Kenyan: An excellent coffee. Kenyan coffee is
similar to Ethiopian Harrar with a winey aftertaste, but the flavor
is more intense and full bodied. Considered by many one of the greatest
coffees available. Grades are AA, A and B in that order.
- Kona: This is the only coffee of the United States,
and it is fading fast due to the high cost of doing anything in Hawaii,
a result of the booming tourist industry. It is medium bodied, richly
flavored and highly aromatic with moderate acidity and a slightly
- Maragogipe: From Brazil, a mutant producing very
large porous beans. It has now been transplanted to many coffee growing
regions. Opinions vary from "woody and disagreeable" to "best coffee
in the world". It is of limited availability.
- Mexican: Very good light coffee. Best are
Oxaca Pluma and Altura Coatepec, also Sltura Orizaba and Altra Huatusco.
This coffee should have a medium roast and be taken without milk or
cream, which would swamp the flavors.
- Mocha: Coffee grown and processed by ancient methods in
Yemen, in the southwest corner of Arabia. It is still considered one
of the best coffees in the world. The beans may look a bit rough due
to the primitive milling methods. The best grades are Mattari, Sharki
and Sanani in that order.
- Mocha Java: This was the first significant blend, and
is still very popular today as a premium blend. It was found that
Yemen grown coffee (exported through the Arabian port of Mocha) and
coffee grown by the Dutch on Java (Indonesia) compensated for each
- Mysore: This is the main coffee of India. It is
considered of heavy body, low acid and somewhat lifeless in flavor
and aroma. The best grades are "arabica plantation A and B" and
"arabica cherry AB".
- New Guinea: From Papua New Guinea, this is another
fine Southeast Asian island coffee. Compared to the Sumatran it is
rich but a little less full bodied and has similar acidity.
- Nicaraguan: Similarly bland to El Salvador - good for
- Peaberry: This is coffee beans from berries containing
only one "bean". This is a form often associated with Ethiopia, for
marketing purposes, but about 5% to 10% of the crop in any plantation
is peaberry. Experts (rather than marketeers) say they provide a
slightly different cup of coffee, but not consistently better or worse.
- Peruvian: A mildly acid, thin bodied but flavorful
coffee similar to the middle grades of Mexican.
- Philippine: The Philippines were once a very major
coffee exporter, but in the 1890s the leaf rust wiped out the plantations.
Some were replanted in liberica and the Philippines is now the only
country where major amounts of liberica are grown (though arabica and
robusta are also grown there). Very little is exported because the
Philippines is still a net importer of coffee, though production is
- Sumatran: A very famous coffee grown on the
Malaysian island of Sumatra. Many consider Sumatran Mandheling and
Ankola the best coffees in the world. These coffees are noted for
richness, fullness of body and gentle acidity.
- Tanzanian: Coffee grown in the north, on the slopes
of mount Kilimanjaro and nearby are quite similar to Kenyan, bright,
full bodied and with a winey aftertaste. Grades are AA, A and B.
In the south, completely different coffee is grown, usually called
"Mbeya". This coffee is similar to Sumatran, full bodied, mellow with
very little acid, and with hardly a hint of the winey aftertaste of
other East African coffees.
- Turkish: A style, where coffee is roasted medium dark,
ground to powder, brought to a full boil and served in a tiny cup without
filtering. Usually it will be moderately or heavily sugared. This was
the form in which coffee first appeared in Europe, before Jerzy Kulczycki
started filtering and adding milk or cream. This form of coffee is
extremely popular in the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine and the Arabic
regions. It is unknown in Los Angeles County and Armenia (see Armenian
- Yunnan: This coffee, grown a little north of the
Vietnam border, is similar to Sumatran, but with lower acidity. It
has been available mostly in California but is considered worthy of
- Venezuelan: This country was once Colombia's most
serious competitor, but they've traded coffee for oil. Little is
exported because they now barely grow enough for local consumption.
US Consumption: The United States is the largest
importer of coffee. In 2009 the average American consumption was 9
pounds per year. I'm not a heavy coffee drinker, but I probably account
for something like 5 pounds.