Do you roll out of bed and hit the button on the coffee maker before your eyes are open? Do you need the caffeine hit from your flat white, strong black, espresso, cappuccino, or latte to kick-start your day? Then you, and millions like you, help to keep coffee the world’s favorite beverage.
Origins of the word “coffee”
Knowledge of the energy-boosting, keep-you-awake properties of coffee beans, is as old as the bean itself. Although generally associated with South American countries like Brazil and Colombia, the first mention of coffee goes back as far as 8th century Ethiopia. It was here that the coffee plant was originally discovered. And from here that it would eventually spread around the world. Although the name ”coffee” in English goes back to 16th century England, it was known centuries before. Coffee is a derivation of the Italian word ”caffe”, which is a derivation of the Dutch word ”koffie”, which is itself a derivation of the Turkish-Ottoman word ”kahve”, which comes from the Arabic “gahwah”, meaning ”that-which-prevents-sleep”.
The world’s biggest coffee drinkers
Who are the world’s biggest consumers of coffee, America, Canada, the UK, or France? None of these. America ranks 26th and the UK 45th. Northern Europe tops the poll, with Finland drinking its way through 12kg of beans per head of population. With Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Holland are making up the top five. If these are the coffee drinkers, who are the growers?
Wild coffee plants and dancing goats
Although Brazil has been the world’s biggest producer/exporter of coffee for over 150 years, it was first found growing wild in Ethiopia around the 8th century. Coffee is grown on a tree or bush very similar to a cherry tree, and the fruit is much like cherries. It is the stone, or seed, found in the fruit that is the coffee bean. With that in mind, could your morning coffee be one of your five a day? Legend has it that the coffee bean’s energizing powers were discovered by the 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herd, who witnessed the hyperactive dancing of his goats after they had eaten some of the fruit from wild growing coffee bushes.
Africa’s coffee-producing nations
Although the benefits of coffee growing were originally discovered in Ethiopia, there are now over 25 countries in Africa that grow coffee, with the following group growing the bulk of African coffee. Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Malawi, Uganda, Angola, Tanzania, Zambia, Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These countries produce 12% of the world’s coffee, with Ethiopia and Uganda accounting for around 62% of this total. The different soil types, altitude, and climatic conditions of these diverse countries mean the beans from each area retain their unique flavors. Surprisingly, except Ethiopia, who has embraced coffee drinking, tea tends to be the beverage of the majority of African countries.
Coffee: sixty varieties from two different beans
It’s remarkable how all those different coffee shops and baristas can produce so many distinct blends of coffee, from just two types of bean. Every coffee growing area worldwide grows either Robusta or Arabica beans, and in many countries, both. Climate, altitude, and the soil generally determine what countries grow. Robusta is easier and cheaper to cultivate, but with its higher caffeine content, it produces a somewhat bitter taste. Arabica is more expensive but produces a more palatable, sweeter taste, and tends to be the more popular variety.
Two beans – a myriad of flavors
From Africa to South America, and Asia to the Caribbean, coffee is grown on an industrial scale. However, in over 50 countries around the world, all the growing areas are within 25° north and 30° south of the Equator, in what is known as ”The Bean Belt”. While the Arabica bean fairs best in rich fertile soils at higher altitudes and colder temperatures, the sturdy Robusta prefers warmth over high soil quality, although having both is a bonus. Add to those such elements as the amount of rainfall, amount of sunshine, and soil chemistry, and things begin to change. Like many other plants, the coffee bush takes in moisture from the air around it, a process called hygroscopic. It is this process that gives coffee beans from different countries, and even different crops from the same country, their unique flavors.
Flavoring doesn’t end there. Much like wine, the manufacturing process, blending and storing, can influence taste. Even if coffee beans are grown in similar soil types and altitude, whether they are dried naturally in the sun or artificially by blowers, it can influence the flavor of the bean.
Experience the taste of African coffee
And then, of course, you have the blending. If you’re getting a little bored with your coffee tasting, try some African magic. Coffees across Africa have aromas and tastes all their own. East Africa’s coffee can provide a fruity, rich, wine flavor. Ethiopia’s Arabica coffee can release subtle aftertastes of Jasmine, blueberry, and bergamot while the popular Kenyan coffee beans offer a rich, sharp, fruity, full-bodied fragrance.
Whether you enjoy sampling coffees from around the world or are a budding barista, add a handful of African coffee beans to the mix. Who knows, it may provide that extra wow factor you’ve been looking for so long, and turn you into a coffee blending legend.