A Story of Coffee: The Bean, The Myth, The Legend.

Posted: January, 2015

A Short History of Coffee

One of the worlds most widely traded commodities, its hard to believe that it was first discovered by a shepherd in Ethiopia after seeing his goats apparently 'dance' after eating the seeds contained within the fruit of the coffea bush. At least, thats how the story goes. Whether or not there is any truth in this story, Ethiopia, or at the very least East Africa is where this natural wonder called coffee was first discovered.

With a traceable history of cultivation outside of Africa going at least as far back as 1600A.D. Coffee, like alcohol, has had it’s problems throughout history. At one time coffee was seen by many to be a Muslim drink and consequently banned in several Christian countries. A prohibition of sorts. Like many other commodities, coffee went through a period of history where it was heavily reliant on slave labour and consequently has a dark past. It is now consumed freely all over the world in many different types, style and strength.

The most recognisable type of bean is the Arabica (Coffea Arabica), this bean makes up around 80% of the worlds consumed volume. Typically, the second most popular bean is the Robusta (Coffea Canephora). These two bean offer their own unique characteristics and open up a whole world of flavour.

The Language and Style

With coffee having established itself as an internationally recognised beverage, one would think that perhaps the way to order a coffee would be somewhat universal. However, through personal experience and a little investigation I have discovered that this is not the case. Here are a few types of coffees that you may drink but know little about;

Espresso: This is a thick, small, strong black coffee. Whilst the espresso doesn’t often get ‘lost in translation’ it does occasionally get called an ‘Expresso’. Though not inherently wrong, most coffee lovers and barista’s alike would probably mutter under their breath “Its espresso not expresso” or just directly correct their prospective customer. It’s also important to note that the expresso… sorry, espresso forms the basis of the majority of other coffees.

The Cappuccino

The Cappuccino: Made with an Espresso, steamed milk and milk foam, typically a third of each portion is used. The crema from the espresso should form a brown ring around the edge of the cup, with the foam creating a dome above the lip. These properties are what gives the drink it’s name, as it is believed that this bears a resemblance to the Capuchin monks and their ‘cappuccio’, or brown hoods. For the most part, you will get a similar looking drink in most places you order one. Though quite often it is finished with a sprinkling of chocolate or occasionally cinnamon.

The Latte: Espresso, steamed milk and milk foam. Depending on exactly what you ask for, and in what country you are, will ultimately determine what you get served. The literal translation of the word 'latte' is milk. So if you ask for a latte in Italy, then you're most likely to get exactly that, a glass of milk. In reality, we have just abbreviated the name, as we should really be asking for a 'cafe latte' which roughly translates to... yep, coffee and milk or a milky coffee, which is exactly what you get. In France, you can ask for a Grand Crème, this will get you pretty much the same thing. Yet, as I discovered on my recent trip, ask for this in Belgium, a French speaking country and all you will get is a funny look. Here’s a great video on Youtube on how to order coffee in France by Géraldine Lepère.

All of the coffees above would require some kind of coffee machine to prepare them, as they are all made from freshly ground coffee.

Convenience Over Quality

There is of course another type of coffee. Instant coffee. Just add hot water. You can of course just add hot water to ground coffee and allowing the coffee grounds to then sink to the bottom before you start to drink it. This is known as a Turkish coffee. However, for a lot of people this is still too much effort.

Instant coffee is freeze dried coffee that dissolves with the addition of hot water. Made popular during throughout the first half of the 20th century as a convenience food, Britain now consumes far more than most of the rest of the world. An article on the BBC website states that;

But instant still accounts for 77% of the coffee Brits buy to drink at home, according to market research specialists Mintel. In Italy it accounts for just 1%, in France 4% and 7% in the US. The UK market for coffee at home is growing and is now worth in excess of £1bn annually. Instant has lost market share recently but still dominates over the likes of ground coffee and beans. (bbc.co.uk, 2014)

These are interesting facts, if you like coffee, but is a clear indication that in Britain we are prepared to substitute quality for convenience.

You Can’t Instagram Flavour

There are of course more types of coffee than the ones I have discussed above, but I could go on forever. Especially if I go on to talk about the ‘bandwagon coffees’ like the flat whites, the skinny caramel frappuccinos and whatever else those hipster types drink on a morning when they’re not drinking craft beer, gin or tending to their beards. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even more concerning is the recent obsession with latte art or #coffeeporn, where the quality of the coffee itself becomes secondary to something that looks ‘Instagramable’.

I am no professional Barista and I’m not saying that my methods are the best. However, I have made my fair share of coffees over the years, to drink and to serve to others. Using what I have learnt, I have discovered my own style based around historical information and by indeed drinking lots and lots of coffee.

Just like those goats, I do love coffee.