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The early beginnings of coffee

Early reports about the first use of coffee date back to the 13th century with the first coffee believed to have come from the East African country of Ethiopia. Coffee was reportedly cultivated for the first time by the Arabs in the 14th century. At the time, coffee was mainly used in the Islamic world, probably as a popular alternative to alcoholic drinks which were not allowed. There are numerous romantic but unsubstantiated stories of how coffee itself was discovered, or how the seed of the coffea shrub was actually identified as a source for what was to become the worlds most sought after beverage.

It was only in the 15th and 16th centuries when the use of coffee was expanded into the Middle East and Northern Africa. It then spread to Europe and then Indonesia in the East and the America’s to our West.

Due to then then unknown properties of caffeine, coffee was known as a stimulant, not perhaps unlike our modern day drugs. During the 1500’s coffee was often either banned or forbidden by those in control. Forced closures of coffee houses and stories about how women were banned from coffee houses were not uncommon, even into the 1600’s, coffee remained a substance of some debate. The spread of coffee throughout the world knew no end however.

Did you know

The word coffee was recorded as an English word in 1582 via the Dutch word koffie, the same as our Afrikaans ‘koffie.’ Other early references at the time were the Turkish kahve and the Arab word qahwa, a derivative of ‘wine of the bean.’

Biology

The coffee bean as we know it is not actually a bean but rather the inner seed of the fruit of a flowering shrub or small 3.5m tree called coffea, a member of the Rubiaceae family. Coffea is indigenous to the African and Asian tropics but is now widely grown in Central and South America, Asia and Central Africa. While several species do exists and are grown for their seeds, coffea arabica (70-80%) and coffea canephora account for almost 100% of the seeds used for the manufacture of coffee.

After 3-4 years of growth, the evergreen tropical trees produce reddish, cherry like fruit which mostly contain two seeds. The trees live up to sixty years. The fruit is picked when ripe and stripped or processed to reveal the seeds. These are dried, bagged and shipped in large bags as ‘green beans.’


Coffee is big business

Coffee is one of the most sought after commodities in the world but is also under threat due to global warming which, as a result of warmer and wetter weather, is increasing the likelihood of disease in the high lying tropical coffea plantations.

The bitter brew is often scorned as the cause of insomnia and the jitters!

Some studies have however shown that this bitter-sweet anti-oxidant brew can protect us against dementia, some forms of diabetes and perhaps even cancer. Coffee contains anti-oxidants which help us fight the free radicals which push us closer to the dreaded diseases associated with the ageing process.

Coffee production is estimated to have reached US$ 17 billion and coffee is produced in approximately seventy countries. The production of coffee involves some 26 million people. One could conservatively double this if one was to estimate the add-on effect on worldwide employment. It is a critical contributor to the economy of many of the worlds poorer countries in that it generated employment, gross domestic product and most importantly, brings in foreign currency and investment.

 

Brazil, Vietnam and Columbia, in that order, are the three largest coffee producing countries in the world. Over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world every day and the USA is still the worlds largest market although the Europeams consume some 20% more per capita than the Americans do.

Learn a little about the more commonly found types of coffee

New: Watch a coffee growing video from Rwanda

Read more about each individual coffee growing country or area