Coffee is a beverage brewed from the seed (bean) of the Coffea plant. More than half of all Americans over the age of 18 drink coffee every day. Americans average 3 cups a day and spend about $40 billion a year on their coffee. (Harvard School of Public Health)

The History of Coffee: Ethiopian Legend to Modern Genetic Testing

In Ethiopia, they tell the story of Kaldi the goat herder who saw his goats become energized by eating berries from a tree. The legend has it that Kaldi tried the same berries and experienced the same effect. He then reported this finding to the abbot of a local monastery who made a drink of the berries and thus being the first person to drink coffee. According to the legend, the berries and the drink spread from monastery to monastery, and eventually beyond Ethiopia.

Recorded history tells us that by the 1400’s coffee was grown and traded on the Arabian Peninsula and by the 1500’s people were drinking coffee in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Persia (Iran). By the 1600’s coffee arrived in Europe where the clergy in Venice condemned the drink and asked the Pope to intervene. Pope Clement VIII tried the “bitter invention of Satan,” liked it, and gave coffee the papal seal of approval. (National Coffee Association)

Modern researchers have trekked the highland of East Africa in search of wild coffee. The genetic testing done on these wild varieties of coffee indicates that Arabica coffee originated in the Southeastern area of evergreen forests in the mountainous Sidarno and Harar provinces of Ethiopia. The same testing indicates that Arabica coffee was taken to Yemen and the Southern Arabian Peninsula and grown there as the next step in its spread around the world.  ( The researchers make no mention, however, about Kaldi or his goats!

What about the Plants That Give Us Coffee?

Scientifically, coffee is a woody perennial evergreen dicotyledon that belongs to the Rubiaceae family. You can now forget that part. What is more important to us coffee drinkers is that there are two main coffee species, Coffea Arabica (Arabica coffee) and Coffea canephora (Robusta coffee). ( Robusta is more hardly, more prolific, more disease-resistant, and does not taste as good. Robusta also has more caffeine. Arabica is less prolific, less hardy, more prone to diseases like coffee leaf rust, and has less caffeine. But Arabica tastes significantly better than Robusta, so your gourmet coffee brands are almost always Arabica.

Coffee in Colombia

Coffee in Colombia

Coffee does not survive freezing temperatures. So, all coffee is grown in the tropics (where it does not freeze) in what is called “The Bean Belt” or “Coffee Belt.” This is the tropics, between 25 degrees North latitude and 30 degrees South latitude. Arabica is grown at higher altitudes, at lower temperatures, and in richer soil. Robusta grows better at lower altitudes, at higher temperatures, and can tolerate poorer soil. (National Coffee Association).

Coffee is grown in the region between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, also called the Coffee Belt

The Coffee Belt or “Bean Belt” (Seasia)

Economics: The Money Aspects of Coffee

  • Worldwide coffee consumption is about 500 billion cups a year
  • Most coffee is consumed in economically developed nations
  • 90% of coffee is grown in developing nations
  • 25 million people make their living on coffee farms
  • The fastest growing niche in the restaurant business is coffee shops
  • Northern Europeans rank highest for who drinks the most coffee per capita
  • The USA consumes the most coffee of any nation

(Business Insider)

The Whole Process from Planting the Coffee Seed to Your Cup of Java

Yes, Coffee Starts with a Seed (the coffee bean)

To grow coffee, a coffee farmer plants the beans (seeds) in moist and shaded soil. This is typically done in a nursery where the seedlings are protected from bright sunlight and watered often. When the plants are strong enough, they are planted in the field. Farmers do this in the rainy season to let the coffee plant establish its root structure before the soil dries out.

Waiting and then Picking the Coffee

When the coffee farmer plants coffee, he needs to wait for the plant to mature before he can get a coffee crop. Coffee takes three to four years to mature and produce fruit, the coffee cherry. Coffee is ready to pick when the cherry is a deep and bright red. And, when the coffee cherry is ripe, there is also a distinctive odor in the field, another indication that the time is right to bring in the coffee crop.  In most coffee growing regions, there is one harvest a year. However, in some countries like Colombia, Arabica coffee has a primary and a secondary harvest each year.
The large and flat coffee fields in Brazil are commonly strip picked by machine. In mountainous regions at altitudes of 3,000 feet to 7,000 feet, coffee pickers climb up and down the slopes picking by hand. A hand picker can also strip the plant of all of its cherries or selectively pick just the ripest cherries. Selective picking is used for high-quality Arabica coffees and requires that the picker return every week to ten days to pick again. A picker can bring in between 100 and 200 pounds of cherries a day. After processing this is between 20 and 40 pounds of coffee.

Soaking and Raking the Coffee: Processing and Drying

The coffee farmer needs to process his picked coffee quickly. Otherwise, it starts to spoil. A few bad beans, called “stinkers” can ruin a batch of coffee. There are two ways to process coffee, dry and wet.

Dry Coffee Processing: Sunlight, Raking, and Time

Dry processing is pretty basic. The cherries are spread out in the sun. A worker rakes the bean frequently to turn them over and make sure that all of them are drying. And, the workers much cover the beans in case of rain and at night so that the morning dew does not moisten the coffee again. They keep doing this until the cherries are dried to 11 percent moisture content. This can take several weeks! Small coffee farms in dry areas and coffee farmers without a lot of money use this process.

Wet Coffee Processing: First You Soak the Coffee but You Still Need to Dry It!

With wet processing, the cherries are fed into a pulping machine. This separates pulp and skin from the coffee bean. Beans are separated by weight using water channels where heavy beans sink and light beans float. Then, the beans are separated by size using a series of screens or rotating drums.

For wet processing, the beans are left in fermentation tanks filled with water for up to 48 hours. This removes another layer called the parenchyma and a layer of mucilage on the parchment. Then the beans are rinsed one more time before drying.

Wet processed coffee beans can be dried by the sun to 11% moisture content as is done with dry processing. On a large commercial coffee farm, they will tumble dry the coffee in drying machines.

When the coffee beans are dry, they are still encased in a layer of parchment and are called parchment coffee.

Coffee Drying in the Sun

Coffee Drying in the Sun

One More Step: Milling the Coffee Beans

The parchment is removed from the coffee bean by a specialized hulling machine. Another optional step is polishing which removes any list bits of silver skin from the bean. In Latin America, the company that does this is called a “trilladora” and is also a company that sells or exports coffee.

Coffee Beans Before and After Removal of Husk

Coffee Beans Before and After Removal of Husk

Getting the Sizes Right: Sorting and Grading Coffee

At this point, the coffee beans are sorted by size. This is done by passing them over screens of decreasing size. Larger beans such as Colombian Supremo are considered superior and command a higher price. Defective beans are removed by hand and the coffee is ready for sale or export.

Exporting Coffee for Your Cup of Java

To make export cost-effective, green coffee beans are packed in jute or sisal bags and loaded into shipping containers. Alternatively, the beans are loaded into plastic lined containers for shipping.

(National Coffee Association)

Where Is Your Coffee Grown?

Coffee comes from the “Bean Belt” roughly between to Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The biggest exporters are Vietnam, Brazil, Colombia, and Honduras.

June 2018 Exports in Thousands of 60 KG Bags

  • Vietnam: 2,575
  • Brazil: 2,548
  • Colombia: 918
  • Honduras: 856
  • Ethiopia: 599
  • India: 591
  • Uganda: 320
  • Mexico: 300
  • Nicaragua: 300
  • Indonesia: 250
  • Peru: 240

Sixty percent of coffee exports are Arabica coffee and forty percent are Robusta coffee. The big news this year is that Vietnam passed Brazil in their total volume of coffee exports. However, Vietnam produces Robusta coffee while Brazil produces both Arabica and Robusta. The leading producers of Arabica coffee are Brazil, Colombia, and Honduras.

The August 1, 2018, Arabica mild coffee price was $132.70 for 100 pounds while Robusta was $83.70 for 100 pounds. (International Coffee Organization)

You may not know this, but much of Vietnam’s Robusta output is purchased for the caffeine that goes into soft drinks like Coca Cola! (NPR)

Social Issues Relating to Coffee: Making the World a Better Place

It used to be that coffee was coffee and nobody worried much about where it came from or how it was produced. But, that has changed. We have gotten accustomed to drinking better coffee and even buying gourmet coffee brands. And, we have learned more over the years about the effects of how coffee is grown. These effects have to do with impurities in the coffee we drink, deforestation of tropical forests, degradation of the soil and water tables in coffee growing regions, and the near poverty in which many coffee farmers and workers live. Thus, many coffee drinkers are fussier about the quality and safety of the coffee they drink and about social issues like fair prices for small coffee farmers and preservation of habitat for migratory birds.

Fair Trade Coffee:   A Fair Deal for Small Coffee Farmers and Their Workers

People drink coffee all over the world. But nine-tenths of all coffee production comes from developing countries. While twenty-five million people work in the coffee business, many work for subsistence wages. And, coffee is a commodity with a price determined in trading markets far from where it is grown. It was after the collapse of coffee prices in the 1980s that Fairtrade was started.

As the Fairtrade website states,

Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives.

The goal of Fairtrade is to guarantee predictable and better prices for coffee farmers as well as better wages, working conditions, and lives for workers at the base of the coffee industry.
As we mention in our article about Fair Trade Coffee,

None of these growers have the pricing power to gain a better market share or better price. They are largely at the mercy of a global supply chain. And the profits increase as one ascends the supply chain away from the coffee farmer.

Many coffee drinkers drink Fairtrade coffees because they are good coffees and because there seems to be more social justice in the Fairtrade movement than with other coffees.

Bird Safe Coffee: Preserving Rainforest Habitat for Birds

When farmers clear land in the tropical rainforest to plant coffee or other crops, they destroy the habitat where birds live. These are both local species and ones that migrate with the seasons. One of the important shade grown coffee benefits is that preserving the trees gives the birds a place to live!

Forested coffee farms are bio-rich buffer zones for plants, flowers, and wildlife that are at risk as a result of deforestation and poor land management. Planting coffee under the existing forest canopy results in a high-quality coffee.

The Smithsonian Institution has taken up the cause of the birds with their Bird Friendly® coffee certification.

The Bird Friendly® program aims to protect the most quality habitat from the threat of deforestation under the Bird Friendly seal. Bird Friendly coffees come from farms using a combination of foliage cover, tree height, and biodiversity to provide quality habitat for birds and other wildlife.

As with Fair Trade coffee, people drink these coffees because they are excellent shade grown coffees and to help protect the environment for the birds.

The Best Organic Coffee is Shade Grown with the Birds

Shade Grown Organic Coffee Saves Bird Habitat

Sustainable Coffee Farming: Saving the Land for the Next Generation

A coffee farmer loves growing coffee. It is a labor of love. But, coffee farming is also a business. Many large coffee farmers clear-cut the land, use synthetic fertilizers, and apply pesticides and herbicides to increase their yield. These techniques increase the amount of coffee they grow and improve their short-term profits. Unfortunately, pesticides and herbicides seep into the ground and the water table. Clear-cut land is often subject to erosion.

Coffee farmers who want to pass their farms on to the next generation are more likely to practice sustainable coffee farming in order to protect the water table and preserve their land.
If you want to support farmers who practice sustainable coffee farming, drink organic, shade grown, and Fair Trade coffees as these coffees are grown using sustainable agricultural practices.

Organic Coffee: Good for You and Good for the Environment

The best organic coffee brands have several things in common.

  • Climate, soil, elevation
  • A culture of growing coffee
  • Certification
  • Aroma, flavor, and antioxidants
  • Dedication to growing the best coffee

Growing organic coffee protects the environment and produces a cup of coffee free of many potential contaminants such as pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. You will like your organic coffee because it is the most often excellent Arabica. You will be safe drinking organic coffee because it is free of unwanted chemicals. And, you can feel good about drinking organic coffee because you can protect the environment for future generations.

To make sure that you are getting organic coffee, look for evidence of certification on the container. The gold standard for organic coffee certification is the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture. Look for their seal to make sure that the coffee you are buying is certified organic.

USDA Organic Coffee Certification Is the Gold Standard

USDA Organic Coffee Certification

The Rise of Specialty and Gourmet Coffee

The early rise of gourmet and specialty coffee can be traced back to Alfred Peet.

At a time when a cup of coffee was just a cup of coffee, Alfred Peet introduced us to the concept that coffee could be special. Alfred Peet taught us that the quality of coffee and its sourcing are important.

According to the (Investor’s Business Daily), Alfred Peet was a pioneer who brewed better coffee in America. He traveled to coffee growing regions and visited the farms. He sourced his coffee, bringing back the best to roast and brew for his customers. This was in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Berkley, California. Today, it is hard to pass through a major city without running into a Starbucks, Tully’s, Costa, or Caribou as well as countless neighborhood coffee houses serving specialty and gourmet coffees.

We referenced the Investor’s Business Daily article because coffee houses are the fastest growing niche in the restaurant business! Local coffee shops and large chains sell first and second wave coffee. What is this all about?

First Wave Coffee: Roasted, Ground, Ready to Brew

First wave coffee refers to companies like Folgers and Maxell House who sold mass produced coffee from the late 1800s to the late 1900’s. This coffee was roasted, ground, and ready to brew. The first wave also produced instant coffee, vacuum packed coffee, and drip coffee makers. The quality was not always so good, but no one noticed because there was little competition in the USA until the likes of Alfred Peet and others changed the game.

Second Wave Coffee: Sourced, Better Coffee, Gourmet Brands, Organic

After Alfred Peet, others picked up on the idea the coffee drinkers would pay more for a really good coffee that was freshly roasted and brewed.

The rise of Coffee house coffee in the USA also had its roots in Europe after World War II when GIs tasted espresso for the first time. The term “Americano” comes from the fact that American soldiers were used to the coffee that mom made back on the farm in Iowa, lots of it but not so strong. Europeans learned to dilute the espresso with water for these “Americanos.”
A coffee shop chain like Starbucks serves second wave coffee. Their coffee is sourced, roasted on site, and served as espresso, latte, mocha, and other variations to customers who come back again and again for reliably good coffee.

Third Wave Coffee: Which Farm, What Altitude, What Kind of Soil?

The Third Wave is very recent. Coffee connoisseurs learn the exact farm on which their coffee was grown. They become experts regarding altitude, soil, and production methods. Coffee tastings similar to wine tastings are common in coffee shops catering to the Third Wave. But, is Third Wave coffee really better, or just an expensive fad? There are coffee lovers who will visit a Third Wave coffee house for tastings but still regularly frequent their favorite local coffee house.

(Craft Beverage Jobs, the History of First, Second, and Third Wave Coffee)

Why Is Coffee Good for Your Health?

Once upon a time, we drank coffee to wake up in the morning and stay awake at work, or on long cross-country trips in the car. Too much coffee gave us the jitters and if we had high blood pressure the doctor said to cut out the coffee.

This has all changed! Researchers have uncovered a whole host of regular and organic coffee health benefits.

Would you like to reduce your risk of type II diabetes? Drink more coffee.

And, coffee appears to reduce the incidence of cancer of the prostate, liver, endometrium, and mouth and throat. (American Cancer Society)

Drinking coffee has been linked to a lower likelihood of developing degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. And there is evidence that at any point in life you can reduce your incidence of dying in the next few years by drinking coffee. (Circulation)

What interests many coffee drinkers are two more health benefits of drinking coffee, better athletic performance and better sex!

Most health benefits of coffee start at just a cup a day and increase up to about six cups. For better athletic performance, a cup or two before working out will be enough.

The Coffee World Moves On with Better Coffee at Home and Roasting Your Own

As we taste better coffee in the coffee shop or even in McDonald’s, many of us are no longer satisfied with our old Folgers or Maxwell House coffee at home. As a result, we buy gourmet coffee, organic coffee, Fair Trade coffee, and coffees from the far reaches of the world. We compare coffee from Ethiopia with coffee from Brazil. We try making Turkish coffee, organic Irish coffee, or café de olla to go with Mexican food.

And, we buy green coffee beans and roast our coffee at home! That becomes an adventure as we start with an old popcorn popper and end up putting out fires! Then, we move on to real home coffee roasters and become experts in first and second crack, the smell of roasting coffee, and learning just the right roasting profile for organic Kona coffee as opposed to mountain grown coffee from Panama. Useful Coffee Insights and Information for Coffee Lovers

At we observe the world of coffee. We write about the world of coffee. And, we try to provide you, our readers, with information you need regarding coffee, and coffee-related products. Our hope and our goal are to help you find the coffee you want whether it is organic, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly, or just sustainably grown.

When you need accurate and insightful information about roasting coffee and coffee roasters, we will provide it on our site. Likewise, we will post reviews about other coffee-related products from time to time.

If you have a question about coffee, organic coffee, or the equipment needed to produce a great cup of coffee at home, please feel free to leave a comment on our site. We will get back to you and may even feature your question, and our answer, in one of our blogs!

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