Monday, August 24, 2009

How Did they Discover Coffee from a Bean?

Written by Andrea Scalici

I don’t know if it’s my inquisitive nature or my obvious love of food but I often find myself pondering the origins of some of my favorite, can’t live without, treats. Like coffee for example; who would have thought that simply roasting some beans would turn into this amazing black elixir I couldn’t start my day without? And so began my quest to finally uncover such answers...
We start in Ethiopia around the 15th century. Legend has it that a goat herder came upon a lively group of “dancing goats” chewing on bright red berries from a bush. He decided to try to berries for himself, immediately enjoying the exhilaration. The man ran with the berries to a nearby monastery and showed them to an Islamic holy man, who in turn, disapproved of their use and threw them into his fire. The "Legend of Dancing Goats" goes on to describe the enticing, billowing aroma that came out of the fire where the beans were swiftly rescued from the flames, ground up, and dissolved in hot water – producing the world’s first cup of coffee.

The story then moves throughout Arabia, where qahwa beans were roasted and brewed similar to today, Persia, Turkey, and northern Africa. From the Muslim world, kahve spread to Italy and the rest of Europe, Indonesia, and the Americas. The first European caffè house opened in Italy in 1645.

Coffee has since seen many advances and reformations. One I have to wonder about is the world's most expensive variety, Kopi Luwak, named for the Indonesian word coffee and its "processor", the Asian Palm Civet.
These cat/raccoon-like animals ingest the red coffee cherries containing the fruit and seed. The inner bean is not digested, but a unique combination of enzymes in the stomach break down the proteins that give coffee its bitter taste. The beans are defecated, still covered in some inner layers of the berry, washed, and given a light roast (so as to not destroy the complex flavors that develop through the process). The most pronounced characteristic of Kopi Luwak is a marked reduction in bitterness. How did anyone think to do this?! It is said that these omnivores tend to pick the ripest and sweetest fruit, thus providing brewers with a natural selection for the best coffee beans. But still?! Is there anything left to discover about coffee? I have to wonder...

In today’s world, these magic beans are a vital cash crop for many Third World countries where coffee is the primary export. Though the process hasn’t changed very much relatively speaking, the culture certainly has. On any given day in America you can choose regular or decaf, bold or medium, and au lait or light and sweet. You could even attend a cupping or coffee tasting to explore different regions’ distinctions. And on any given day, you can find me with my billowing aromatic, piping hot cup in my hand, complete with a little cream.

Stay tuned for the upcoming installments that explore the origins of popcorn, bagels, and more!


Kitchenhacker said...

Civets aren't raccoons... they are more closely related to the hyena, mongoose, and meerkat.

Also, the Ethiopian legend usually names the goatherd Kaldi.

Andrea said...

My bad-i didn't mean to imply that they are raccoons tho reading it again thats what it sounds like! i was trying to say they look like a at like raccoon. Thanks for the info!

Anonymous said...

Which came first? Sambucca or espresso which are best enjoyed together? As Nonna would say, "una bella tazzi di caffe." And don't forget biscotti made more delightful when dunked into the coffee... leave it to the Italians to make a good thing better... bellisimo article Ani. B.

Christine said...

The Legengs of the Dancing Goats is very interesting. I had never heard that legend before.

Regarding the Kopi Luwak, even though it is supposed to be the best/most expensive, I would have to think about trying it considering where it comes from!

Very informative!