“Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.” That’s the recipe for coffee, according to the utterly French statesman Talleyrand (1754-1838).
(Circa A.D. 800)
Goats will eat anything. Just ask Kaldi the legendary Ethiopian (map) goatherd. Kaldi, the story goes, noticed his herd dancing from one coffee shrub to another, grazing on the cherry-red berries containing the beans. He copped a few himself and was soon frolicking with his flock.
Witnessing Kaldi’s goatly gambol, a monk plucked berries for his brothers. That night they were uncannily alert to divine inspiration.
History tells us other Africans of the same era fueled up on protein-rich coffee-and-animal-fat balls—primitive PowerBars—and unwound with wine made from coffee-berry pulp. Coffee later crossed the Red Sea to Arabia, where things really got cooking…
ESCAPE FROM ARABIA
(Circa 1000 to 1600)
Coffee as we know it kicked off in Arabia, where roasted beans were first brewed around A.D. 1000. By the 13th century Muslims were drinking coffee religiously. The “bean broth” drove dervishes into orbit, kept worshippers awake, and splashed over into secular life. And wherever Islam went, coffee went too: North Africa (map), the eastern Mediterranean, and India (map).
Arabia made export beans infertile by parching or boiling, and it is said that no coffee seed sprouted outside Africa or Arabia until the 1600s—until Baba Budan. As tradition has it, this Indian pilgrim-cum-smuggler left Mecca with fertile seeds strapped to his belly. Baba’s beans bore fruit and initiated an agricultural expansion that would soon reach Europe’s colonies…
EUROPE CATCHES THE BUZZ
(1615 to 1700)
“The Turks (map) have a drink of black color….I will bring some with me…to the Italians” (map). Thus a merchant of Venice introduced Europe to coffee in 1615. But the end product didn’t amount to a hill of beans to many traders—they wanted the means of production. The race was on.
The Dutch (map) cleared the initial hurdle in 1616, spiriting a coffee plant into Europe (map) for the first time. Then in 1696 they founded the first European-owned coffee estate, on colonial Java, now part of Indonesia (map).
Business boomed and the Dutch sprinted ahead to adjacent islands. Confident beyond caution, Amsterdam began bestowing coffee trees on aristocrats around Europe…
A SWASHBUCKLING SCHEME
(Circa 1714 to 1720)
Louis XIV received his Dutch treat around 1714—a coffee tree for Paris’s (map) Royal Botanical Garden, the Jardin des Plantes. Several years later a young naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, was in Paris on leave from Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean. Imagining Martinique as a French Java, he requested clippings from his king’s tree. Permission denied.
Resolute, de Clieu led a moonlight raid of the Jardin des Plantes—over the wall, into the hothouse, out with a sprout.
Mission accomplished, de Clieu sailed for Martinique. He might have thought the hard part was over. He would have been wrong.
CROSSING THE ATLANTIC
(Circa 1720 to 1770)
On the return passage to Martinique, wrote de Clieu, a “basely jealous” passenger, “being unable to get this coffee plant away from me, tore off a branch.”
Then came the pirates who nearly captured the ship; then came a storm which nearly sank it. Finally, skies grew clear. Too clear. Water grew scarce and was rationed. De Clieu gave half of his allotment to his stricken seedling.
Under armed guard, the sprout grew strong in Martinique, yielding an extended family of approximately 18 million trees in 50 years or so. Its progeny would supply Latin America, where a dangerous liaison would help bring coffee to the masses.
COFFEE BLOOMS IN BRAZIL
(Circa 1727 to 1800)
1727: Brazil’s government wants a cut of the coffee market; but first, they need an agent to smuggle seeds from a coffee country. Enter Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta, the James Bond of Beans.
Colonel Palheta is dispatched to French Guiana, ostensibly to mediate a border dispute. Eschewing the fortresslike coffee farms, suave Palheta chooses a path of less resistance—the governor’s wife. The plan pays off. At a state farewell dinner she presents him a sly token of affection: a bouquet spiked with seedlings.
From these scant shoots sprout the world’s greatest coffee empire. By 1800 Brazil’s monster harvests would turn coffee from an elite indulgence to an everyday elixir, a drink for the people.
Across the Channel the British took a more, well, British approach to coffee cookery: Seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of Londoners larding their coffee with butter, mustard, oatmeal, and ale.
Today’s choices, though arguably more appetizing, are no less confounding: Automatic drip or French press? Ground or whole bean? Fiery or frosty? Regular or unleaded? Americano, cappuccino, espresso, macchiato, mocha, or latte?
How do you take yours?
An average joe just doesn’t cut it anymore, so tell us what it takes to make the perfect cup.
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Everyday alchemy, coffee roasting coaxes golden flavor from a bland bean. Unroasted beans boast all of coffee’s acids, protein, and caffeine—but none of its taste. It takes heat to spark the chemical reactions that turn carbohydrates and fats into aromatic oils, burn off moisture and carbon dioxide, and alternately break down and build up acids, unlocking the characteristic coffee flavor.
A note on flavor: Describing the tastes of different roasts is as subjective as putting a wine into words. In both cases there’s no substitute for your own personal taste, so sample away! (Many descriptions below are based on Kevin Knox and Julie Sheldon Huffaker’s Coffee Basics: A Quick and Easy Guide.)
Aliases: Cinnamon roast, half city, New England
Roaster Watch: After about seven minutes the beans “pop” and double in size, and light roasting is achieved. American mass-market roasters typically stop here.
Flavor: Light-bodied and somewhat sour, grassy, and snappy
Aliases: Full city, American, regular, breakfast, brown
Roaster Watch: At nine to eleven minutes the beans reach this roast, which U.S. specialty sellers tend to prefer.
Flavor: A bit sweeter than light roast; full body balanced by acid snap, aroma, and complexity
Aliases: High, Viennese, French, Continental
Roaster Watch: After 12 to 13 minutes the beans begin hissing and popping again, and oils rise to the surface. Roasters from the U.S. Northwest generally remove the beans at this point.
Surface: Slightly shiny
Flavor: Somewhat spicy; complexity is traded for rich chocolaty body, aroma is exchanged for sweetness
Aliases: Italian, espresso
Roaster Watch: After 14 minutes or so the beans grow quiet and begin to smoke. Having carmelized, the bean sugars begin to carbonize.
Surface: Very oily
Flavor: Smokey; tastes primarily of roasting, not of the inherent flavor of the bean