Updated: May 24, 2021
Coffee’s historical origins
It remains unknown exactly how and where coffee was discovered first but there are numerous myths and legends speculating its origins.
An Ethiopian legend
Most coffee grown worldwide can be traced back to ancient coffee forests in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian legend says that the goat herder Kaldi first discovered the potential of coffee beans.
Kaldi discovered the coffee beans because after his goats ate them they were energetic and couldn’t sleep.
He spoke to the abbot at the local monastery who made the berries into a drink and was able to stay alert through the night while praying.
The knowledge of the energising berries spread amongst the monks.
The discovery spread east until it reached the Arabian peninsula.
By the 15th century coffee was being grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia and by the 16th century it had spread to Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.
People enjoyed coffee at home as well as in coffee houses then called ‘qahveh khaneh’ which became frequent social meeting places.
These coffee houses became places of music and performances and conversation, making them important centres for information exchange (giving them the nickname ‘Schools of the Wise’).
The news of this ‘wine of Araby’ spread via the pilgrims who visited Mecca each year.
Ethiopian coffee ritual
The traditional coffee making ceremony in Ethiopia is called Buna.
The raw coffee beans are washed and roasted on a flat pan until they appear shiny and black.
The roasted beans produce a powerful aroma that is wafted around for each guest to sample.
Incense is also traditionally burned, adding to the engulfing aromatic experience.
A pestle and mortar is used to grind the coffee by hand.
It is then put into a traditional handmade clay pot called a Jebena.
It is also traditional to pray while you roast the coffee.
The coffee is then served multiple times before being served.
The process takes up to an hour and so encourages socialising while it takes place.
It is traditional to have three cups of coffee with the guests who are present.
The coffee can be drunk with added sugar or salt but usually not milk.
Any elders present should be served the coffee first.
How did coffee arrive in Europe?
Travellers returning to Europe from the Near East talked of a dark black drink.
By 17th century coffee was becoming popular across Europe.
Some people were sceptical of this new concoction called it a ‘bitter invention of satan’.
Coffee was even condemned by local clergy when it arrived in Venice in 1615.
Pope Clement VIII tasted the drink himself, and despite the clergy condemnation, found it so pleasing that he gave it papal approval.
The concept of the coffee house soon spread throughout Europe and people enjoyed a cup of coffee for as little as one penny and engaged in stimulating conversation.
People swapped the usual breakfast drinks at the time of beer and wine to coffee and found themselves much more focussed and able to work.
By mid 1600s, there were over 300 coffee houses in London - which were hubs for artists, merchants, shippers and brokers. Many businesses grew from specialised coffee houses.
Coffee in America
About the same time that coffee houses were becoming well established in London, the British introduced coffee to New York (called New Amsterdam at the time).
However, tea remained the preferred drink until the introduction of the tea tax imposed by King George III in 1773.
This marked a drastic shift to a preference for coffee which seems to have remained to this day.
As demand increased, competition to grow coffee outside of Arabia increased.
The Dutch obtained seedlings in the 17th century but failed to plant any successful coffee in India. They did succeed in Batavia though, on an island called Java (in what is now Indonesia).
This flourished and the Dutch soon had a successful coffee trade.
They proceeded to expand production into the other tow islands of Sumatra and Celebes.
Coffee in the Americas
In 1714 King Louis XIV of France was gifted a young coffee plant.
He ordered it to be planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris.
A decade later, a naval officer named Gabriel de Clieu obtained a seedling from this plant and despite a tumultuous journey (involving pirate attack, terrible weather and attempted destruction of the seedling) he safely transported it to Martinique.
This seedling flourished and is credited with the spread of over 18 million coffee trees on the island over the next 50 years.
It is also the parent seed of all coffee trees in Caribbean and South and Central America.
Coffee arrives in Brazil
Brazilian Francisco de Mello Palheta was sent by the emperor to get seedlings from France.
The French refused to share their coffee seedlings, but the French governor’s wife took a liking to Francisco and gave him a bouquet of flowers containing seedlings when he travelled back home.
Kenyan coffee is renowned for its high quality and unique floral flavour profile.
In 1893, missionaries imported Bourbon coffee from Brazil to Kenya for the first time.
At this time, Kenya was controlled by the British who managed the agriculture, including coffee production.
Typically the white settlers grew the coffee and the natives were expected to provide free or cheap labour
In 1934, auctions were established as a way of selling coffee in Kenya.
It wasn’t until after the Mau Mau uprising ended in 1960 that locals gained permission to grow their own coffee - there were still government restrictions in place on the specific process and quantity.
The best coffee was typically exported, leaving the lower quality beans to be sold locally.
Today, Kenya can grow, process, sell and consume as much coffee as they wish.
Mainly grown by small scale farmers under various co-operatives.
Varied sizes of coffee estates across the country.
Usually grown in rain-fed farming systems but some estates have irrigation systems.
Most crops are grown without shade but shaded coffee is growing in popularity due to its environmental benefits.
90% of Kenyan coffee is wet-processed and the rest is dry-processed.
The ‘Connoisseurs Cup’ is a nickname for Kenyan coffee - it typically has a zesty or winey aftertaste.
Selling coffee in Kenya
Typically green coffee gets marketed through a central auction and direct sales.
The Nairobi Coffee Exchange Management Committee administers the auction.
Coffee marketing agents contracted by growers sell the coffee to the highest bidders amongst all the available licensed coffee dealers.
Bids are made per 50kg bag.
Or, direct sales take place where the grower marketers negotiate with buyers Sometimes contracted commercial marketing agents help with sales agreements between producers and buyers.
Differences between America’s and Africa
Known for their balance and even temperament. A classic flavour profile.
Some provide deep berry, chocolate, nut, caramel, spice and fruity notes.
American coffee is a very palatable choice for someone new to the coffee world.
Lower in acidity and less heavy bodied.
African coffee is typically more varied in flavour - a more exotic flavour profile.
Hints of blueberry, tomato, spice and melon are common.
Express higher acidity and are more heavy bodied.
Ethiopian coffee can be extremely strong in its blueberry flavour while Kenyan coffee can be very juicy in taste.
Ethical coffee production
Coffee pricing is currently the lowest it has been for the past 12 years.
The global market has fallen to a point where the cost of coffee production is barely covered, let alone any profit being made.
Production by country
10-16% of the country’s GDP comes from coffee.
Surprisingly most Columbian coffee production happens on small scale farms.
Recently, Cenicafé (the Centre for Coffee Investigation) has developed a production method that uses very little water - reducing water consumption by 95%.
But traditionally, Columbian coffee involves the fully washed method.
The reduced water method is being used increasingly throughout the country and not only preserves ecosystems from contamination but also produces consistently high quality coffee.
Columbia have a unique method of drying - they spread the parchment across their houses’ flat roofs called ‘elvas’ and allow it to dry in the sun.
In certain conditions, the parchment is dried in polytunnels which act like greenhouses and protect it from rain and mist.
Colombian Coffee plants grow on steep slopes amongst banana plants which provide shade and sponging water.
Coffee plants flower and then the beans ripen into coffee cherries.
Coffee cherries are picked twice a year once ripe, usually, during the rainy season.
The picking occurs between every 1-8 days and is a crucial step contributing to quality.
The more optimally ripe the cherries, the better the resulting coffee will taste.
Due to the hilly setting of coffee production, coffee is picked by hand.
Many small-scale family-run farms will pick the cherries daily during the picking season.
Next, the inner husks and pulp are removed mechanically and the coffee bean (effectively the pip of the cherry) is separated.
The beans are soaked as a quality test - floating beans are overripe.
The beans are also washed and left to ferment before being raked out to dry in the sun.
This results in what is called ‘parchment coffee’.
The shells of the parchment coffee is then removed mechanically and the beans are sorted for size and quality.
These green beans are exported to be roasted, usually in the country of consumption to achieve the optimum freshness and flavour.
Columbians opt for a light roast - this makes a less bitter but more caffeinated coffee.
The beans now become the dark brown we associate with coffee.
Described as mild, clean cup, mid-high acidity, balanced body and pronounced aroma.
The dry method is the most common in Brazil since most other countries don’t have the suitable conditions for this to work.
The dry and wet seasons mean cherry maturation and flowering occur at the same time, so beans can be stripped mechanically.
This if followed by an extremely careful selection process - choosing only the perfectly ripe beans.
The beans are then dried while still in the cherry.
This drying method means the coffee is heavy bodied, sweet, smooth and complex in flavour.
The drying method can be problematic since there is a risk of fermentation, but Brazil invest a lot of money and time into developing processes to prevent this.
Tends to be low acidity, smooth bodied and with sweet chocolately and nutty hints.
Ethiopia has been producing coffee longer than any other country - since about the 10th century.
The mixed terrain in Ethiopia allows for a huge variety of coffee to be produced.
Ethiopian coffee is processed either using the fully washed or the sun dried natural method.
Washed process = outer skin of cherry is removed the day of harvesting and the pulp round the bean is washed away.
Dried process = berries are dried out in the sun before the husks are removed. This is the most natural method.
Nearly the whole process is still done by hand.
Examples of Ethiopian coffee regions:
- HARRAR - in eastern Ethiopia, coffee is sun-dried and has a distinct blueberry flavour. This region is known for its amber/ golden coffee beans.
- SIDAMA - southern Ethiopia, use both processing methods here due to microclimates - coffee here is fruity and complex.