Coffee is inescapable. You can find it in McDonald's and five star restaurants, the break rooms in offices and just about every gas station around the world. It exists as a simple beverage or a borderline dessert, from whole beans or instant powder. A coffee addiction is an expectation in certain lines of life, and practical necessity for others. But despite it's constant presence in our lives, very few of us know the story of where it comes from or how it got into your cup. Our hope is to change that.
It might be surprising to you that coffee comes from a fruit, though we’re not talking apples or oranges here.
The coffee cherry is the fruit of a shrub native to Africa and parts of Asia, requiring a mild climate, lots of rain, and if you want to make a decent cup of coffee, a high elevation.
(Photo by Ignatio Icke is licensed under CC BY 3.0)
3. silver skin 4. parchment
We get coffee from the seed, which we call the coffee bean. As you can see to the right, there’s a lot going on in this humble cherry. The bean inside is surrounded by parchment, mucilage and the fruit itself. How exactly do we get the nice brown beans you know and love? It’s complicated, but we’ll get into that later.
No one really know why some humans saw a fruit and decided to take its seed, roast it, and then make a drink out of it, but there is a myth about it. Sometime around the 9th century, a goatherd in Ethiopia was watching over his animals when he noticed that they would become energized and excited after eating the fruit from a certain plant.
Some say that he then decided that he wanted in on that action and ate the fruit as well, then spread the word around to his tribe. Others say that he reported his findings to an abbot at the local monastery where it became used to stay alert during prayers.
Whatever the truth story, we know that by the middle of the 15th century it had made its appearance in Yemen, and from there it spread to the rest of the Middle East, then to Europe, and from there it spread all over the world, imperialists planting it wherever it could grow, most likely because conquering countries takes a lot of energy. It quickly became the drink of choice by everyone from American revolutionary soldiers to the Pope himself.
Skip ahead a few centuries and most of us can't face the day without it. Good things spread quickly. Catch us next time to find more about how coffee trees go from seed to tree to bean!