Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Coffee

Like a lot of first time mothers, I was extremely cautious during my first pregnancy, and owing to a lot of (mostly internet-based) advice, I gave up coffee while I was pregnant with my first kid and continued to eschew it while I was nursing him. In retrospect, this was a huge mistake. Not only was I tired from caring for a newborn, I was caffeine-deprived, to boot: a perfect storm of exhaustion. Needless to say, with my midwife’s approval, I was happily on the coffee bandwagon when I got pregnant again, and have stayed there ever since. (Just one cup a day!) I firmly believe that coffee makes me a better person, not to mention far more efficient.

But how did the fruit of a desert shrub become one of the most popular (and for some of us, necessary) beverages on the planet? And what are the environmental implications of our global addiction?

A Brief History

Coffee plants are thought to have been first domesticated in Ethiopia – but the drink’s origins are shrouded in many myths and legends. You may have heard the story of the Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi who discovered his goats frolicking exuberantly after eating coffee berries. Kaldi tried the berries himself, and the rest is caffeinated history. (For the record, it’s unclear if this legend is actually true, but it is quite persistent, as legends go.)

Coffee has a long history – Alan Davidson, writing in The Oxford Companion to Food, writes that the earliest written record of the beverage is from an Arabic physician-writer in the 10th century, but that cultivation likely began several centuries earlier in the Middle East. Davidson notes that coffee berries were eaten whole at first, and later turned into an alcoholic beverage.

Roasting the beans began in the 13th century. It was then that what we now know as coffee obtained its first name, Qahwah, in Yemen. Muslim pilgrims spread coffee throughout the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Davidson says that by the 15th century, intensive cultivation of the plant had begun, also in Yemen.

Tori Avey, writing for PBS, describes the Arabic technique of drying and boiling the beans, which rendered them infertile: an effective way to allow the Arabs to maintain a stranglehold on the coffee market for many centuries. Avey describes another coffee legend: that coffee plants did not exist outside of Arabia or Africa until the 17th century, when fertile beans were finally smuggled out of Arabia by an Indian pilgrim to Mecca. By 1616, the Dutch had established coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, and rapidly expanded to Indonesia. Soon after, the French began growing coffee in the Caribbean, the Portuguese in Brazil and the Spanish in Central America – and all of these areas remain important coffee producers today.

Coffee houses first appeared in Italy and France in the 16th century. In the US, coffee became popular only after the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

Factual Nibbles

  • Teddy Roosevelt is said to have consumed a gallon of coffee a day.
  • The first Starbucks opened in 1971 in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
  • The first version of instant coffee was invented as long ago as 1771, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War that instant really took off. Smithsonian magazine has more on this history of the powdered drink.
  • More than two billion cups of coffee are drunk around the world every day, according to Nature.
  • The caffeine in coffee plants isn’t just for your morning buzz – Nature notes that pollinators also become habituated to the drug, making them come back for more. A clear evolutionary advantage!
  • Coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity after oil.

Cultivation and Production

Coffee plants are low-growing shrubs in the Coffea genus, closely related to Chincona(the source of quinine) and gardenias. The beverage is made from the roasted seeds (coffee beans) of the plant: either Coffea arabicaor C. canephora, known as arabica and robusta, respectively.

Coffee fruit are called “cherries,” pulpy berries that contain the coffee bean (actually a seed). The pulp is separated from the seed by two major methods: dry and wet. In the dry method, the cherries are spread on the ground to dry in the sun. This may take several weeks. In the wet method, the cherries are pulped in a machine, and the pulp is washed away with water, leaving the beans; the beans are then fermented for a few days to naturally remove the last pulpy layer, and finally dried. (Here’s a great interactive that explains the production process in more detail.) 

Coffee only grows in the “Bean Belt” – an area that spans the globe near the equator. Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Columbia and India are the top coffee-producing countries in the world. Hawaii is the only US state that grows coffee. (Here’s the interesting history of coffee production in Hawaii, if you want a deeper dive.)

Environmental Impact 

As coffee’s popularity has grown across the globe, so has its ecological impact. Coffee shrubs prefer shade, but are commercially grown in a variety of ways – from traditional shade-grown polyculture (i.e., multiple plants or crops are grown along with the coffee shrubs, which helps shade them) to sun-grown monoculture. Traditionally, coffee was shade-grown on biodiverse farms, which preserved animal and bird habitats, but the demand for coffee has fueled the creation of “sun grown” monoculture plantations, which means a number of bad things for the environment, including clear cutting of native forests and intensive fertilizer and pesticide use. (In fact, The Guardian reports that 37 of the 50 countries in the world with the highest rates of deforestation are coffee producers.) The industry is also chock full of labor abuses – as The Guardian notes, coffee farmers, on average, receive only about 10 percent of the retail price of their own coffee. And we wrote recently on the food waste and water pollution issues with coffee production.

Two major coffee certifications are trying to rectify some of these concerns: Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance. Fair Trade is generally concerned with fair labor practices, cutting out middlemen and ensuring that coffee farmers get a fair price for their product. Rainforest Alliance certification is focused on the ecological effects of coffee-growing – their major goals are protection of biodiversity and stopping deforestation. You can also look for organic coffee to ensure that your beans are free of pesticides and were not grown with chemical fertilizers.   

Characteristics

About a third of the world’s coffee production is robusta, much of it grown for the instant coffee market. Arabica has less caffeine, but is described as superior in flavor. It’s also lower in acidity and bitterness. Coffee beans vary widely in flavor depending upon where they were grown, the quality of the bean, the way they were harvested and the method (and length) of roasting. Coffee aromas and flavors are described in as much detail as wine; some descriptive terms of its various flavors include chocolate, caramel, dried fruit, flowers and spice.

What to look for 

So how do you pick the best beans? For best flavor, look for fresh roasted, whole bean coffee and grind it yourself. The kind of coffee you prefer is based on personal preference, of course, but choose coffee that has a balance between bitterness, sweetness and some of the flavor profiles you prefer (e.g., caramel or chocolate). Here’s a guide to picking the perfect beans.

Nutrition and effects on the body 

A cup of brewed coffee has very little by way of nutrition – it’s got a tiny bit of protein, some riboflavin and a bit of potassium, magnesium and phosphorus and about 95 milligrams of caffeine.

Its overall health benefits have been debated ad nauseum, but the scales have tipped lately in favor of coffee (at least, in moderation). Moderate coffee drinking (usually defined as five cups or less per day) has been linked to decreased risk of several chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease. The beans are loaded with chemical compounds and antioxidants that seem to have a beneficial effect on the body – but beware: the health benefits of coffee are generally for black coffee, not the popular coffee drinks loaded with fat and sugar.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Coffee has spread its caffeinated goodness to all corners of the globe, spawning coffee drinks as elaborate as a pumpkin spice latte with whipped cream and as simple as a single espresso. Here’s a super fun infographic of the mind-bogglingly different ways coffee is made across the globe – from the Australian flat white to the French café au lait to Turkish coffee.

Coffee isn’t just for drinking – it’s also used as a flavoring for everything from ice cream to candies to beer and liqueur (here’s the DIY version). Chocolate and coffee are natural partners – in fact, adding black coffee to chocolate desserts is a tried-and-true way to up the chocolate flavor. Coffee also pairs nicely with citrus; espresso shots are frequently served with lemon peel (but the jury is still out on the so-called “authenticity” of this practice).

Ground coffee also makes a nice rub for rich meats – especially beef – like steak and brisket. And of course, there is the famous Southern red-eye gravy, made with black coffee and country ham, (usually served over said ham).

Storage

Contrary to popular belief, it is not a great idea to freeze or refrigerate coffee beans, ground or not – because contact with moisture of any kind is no good. Instead, store whole beans in an air-tight container out of reach of sunlight.