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From Plant to Brew: Everything You Want to Know About Coffee

Fresh ground coffee and coffee beans

First consumed as early as in 9th century Ethiopia, coffee has been an integral part of society for centuries. Shortly after the first coffee drinkers were recorded, the drink grew to real prominence.

As coffee maker techniques evolved, coffee spread throughout the Muslim world before spreading to Italy, where more modern coffee machine technology was developed - and ultimately perfected. From there it was on to the rest of Europe and eventually America, where coffee filled the void left when tea became scarce amidst the Revolutionary War.

If there's anything that can be learned from coffee's rich history, it's that coffee and even coffee makers have been a culturally-relevant consumable product for many different parts of the world. Coffee was used in religious ceremonies in Africa and Yemen. It was banned in Turkey in the 17th century, and associated with rebellious political activity in Europe. Nowadays, coffee is a key part of the economic climate for many countries, as it has become a valuable commodity worldwide.

But how exactly is coffee produced, and why are there so many different types? Read on for those answers and more.

The Coffee Plant

The coffee plant - Coffea - belongs to the family Rubiacea. Native to subtropical Africa and southern Asia, the plant is simple, and looks like an evergreen shrub or even a small tree. When it goes untrimmed and unmanaged, a coffee plant can grow as tall as 30 feet.

Typically, however, coffee trees are cultivated to be around 10 feet for ease of picking. The plants' leaves are dark green, and have a glossy texture. The most important part of the plant, however, are the berries. It's from these berries that the delicious coffee drink you enjoy comes from. Coffee berries start out green in their infancy, and ripen to yellow and then red during their lifespan. Typically, each berry contains two seeds, which make up the key ingredient for coffee making.

Coffee plants typically will abide by the "Rule of Five"

  • Arabica coffee plants take roughly five years to mature and produce their first crop
  • A healthy coffee tree will produce about five pounds of green coffee beans per year
  • Only one-fifth of a pound of coffee beans produced by the plant will meet the rigid standards of specialty coffee

Roasting Coffee

Fresh roasted coffee beansThere is a long and multi-step process involved in turning the coffee berries and seeds into the delicious coffee we all know and love. The berries are first picked from the tree, which is typically done by hand.

Once picked, the outside flesh of the coffee berry is removed, and the seeds are fermented. This removes the protective - and slimy - layer of mucilage from the bean. Afterwards, the beans are washed thoroughly to remove any leftover residue, before being dried and sorted. This process results in green coffee beans.

Next, the green coffee beans need to be roasted. Roasted coffee is the typical type and form in which you'll find coffee at your local store or coffee shop. All coffee is has to eventually be roasted before being consumed, regardless of the coffee machine you have. The process of roasting the coffee has a significant affect on the taste and flavor of the coffee. The roasting process in essence will change the physical and chemical makeup of the coffee bean.

The actual roasting of the bean happens once the temperature reaches a scorching 393 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius). Depending on the coffee beans you're using, they may roast at different temperatures based on their density and moisture content.

During the actual roasting process, the intense heat breaks down the starches in the bean, which has a caramelizing effect. The heat converts the starches to simple sugars, which then begin to brown - adding the brown color to the coffee beans. As the coffee roasts, the bean's oils, acids and caffeine all weaken, which in turn changes the flavor.

Once the temperature reaches 400 degrees, new oils will start to develop - the most important of these being caffeol, which is responsible for the delicious coffee flavor and aroma that we all know and love. The coffee bean will also typically double in size at this point.

There are several different grades of roasting for coffee. Dark roasts are usually smoother and have less fiber content and a more sugary flavor. Lighter roasts will have more caffeine, resulting in a slightly bitter-tasting coffee, and a stronger flavor. This is due to the exposure of the aromatic oils and acids that are destroyed by longer roasting times. Just like coffee makers, roasting grades can differ from place to place. There are some basic roasting grades, however, listed below from shorter to longer: 

  • Green/Unroasted
  • Light
  • Cinnamon
  • Medium
  • High
  • City
  • Full City
  • French
  • Italian

The Business of Coffee

Fresh roasted coffee beansCoffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, behind only oil. In fact, it is estimated that more than 7 million tons of coffee will be produced in 2010. In North America alone, coffee consumption is roughly a third of tap water consumption - and still growing. 

Brazil is the largest coffee exporting nation, but in recent years Vietnam has stepped up as a big producer of another type of coffee bean - robusta beans.

Robusta coffee beans are a less - expensive alternative to the traditional arabica beans. Due to the lower cost, larger industrial coffee makers prefer robusta beans. Arabica remains the popular choice today, especially by gourmet coffee makers, due to it's more robust taste. 

The price of coffee has fluctuated greatly, thanks in part to the increased demand for cheaper coffee beans rather than the more expensive arabica beans. For instance, in 1997, the price of coffee in New York was more than three dollars per pound, but by the end of 2001, the price had fallen down to 43 cents/lb.

The rise of "fair trade" coffee labeling has also had a great impact on the economics of coffee and the lives of coffee makers. Fair trade labeling guarantees that coffee growers make a price that was negotiated prior to harvesting the coffee. While the percentage of fair trade coffee compared to all coffee produced remains small - 0.51 percent in 2007 - it is still growing. In fact, the amount of fair trade coffee nearly doubled from 2005 to 2007.

Fair trade coffee and labeling has also been shown to positively affect the communities that grow it. In addition to adding to the returns of small producers, fair trade coffee can also strengthen producer organizations and lead to an improved quality of life and health for producers and growers. It has also been shown to improve the well-being of farmers and their families through improving funding, access to credit, and available training.