A Brief History of Coffee


Five questions you were afraid to ask your favorite barista/o

by Nathan Smith 

A brief history: It’s commonly accepted that the energizing effect of this cherry plant was first noticed in Ethiopia by the Oromo tribe an East African tribe in the region of Harar. The story is often related as a fanciful account of a 5th century goat herder, who upon realizing that his herd had an extraordinary amount of energy from nibbling on the fruit of a small red-berried bush that commonly grew in his homeland, he decided to try this himself. After a small period of trial and error, he created the first version of the drink we know and love today. 

However, the first credible evidence of coffee as a drink or crop was in the middle of the 15th century in writings from a Sufi monastery in Yemen having been exported from Ethiopia.

With the expansion of Islam came the spread of coffee, reaching all of the Middle East, particularly the Ottoman Empire by the early 1500s, becoming a cultural standard due to its direct link to ancient Sufi mysticism and spiritual practices.

By the end of the 16th century, coffee had become an extremely sought after commodity across Europe and was soon brought to the Americas and much of Asia by the Dutch around the mid-1700s. Four hundred years later, coffee has become the second most traded global commodity after oil, and the fourth most commonly consumed beverage – tea, water, and beer being the top three, in that order.

Here’s the skinny:  As a 20 year veteran of the specialty coffee industry, I’ve often been surprised to find that many of our daily guests have a particular love of the drink and many questions about the process, but are afraid to ask.

I believe this comes from the exponential growth of the industry since the mid 1990s and the massive amount of conflicting information brought into the media over the years regarding the “proper” ways to prepare and drink coffee. As the industry has grown, it’s become filled with highly knowledgeable, skilled, professional craftsmen and women. Sadly, this has also resulted in a perceived view that we are the only ones who can know the mysteries of our favorite drink, and to ask seemingly benign questions of us may result in our judgement of a consumer’s character based on how much knowledge they already have coming in to the counter. Basically, people tend to feel like this is all common sense.

It’s not, so don’t hesitate to ask …it’s our pleasure to help educate you!

  1. What are coffee beans? Coffee beans are actually seeds of berries from the Coffea plant. Coffea is native to tropical Africa, Madagascar, the Comoros islands, Mauritius, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Coffee plants are cultivated in over 70 countries, primarily in the equatorial regions of the Americas, Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. The two most commonly grown are arabica, robusta.
  2. What is Espresso? Contrary to popular belief, “Espresso” is the term for the method of brewing, as well as a type of coffee beverage. It is not a type of coffee or roast level. Espresso as a term refers to the pressing or squeezing of near boiling water through finely ground high quality coffee beans resulting in the flavors and chemicals in a typical cup of espresso being very concentrated. But don’t worry, an Espresso is less caffeinated by volume per cup than an average cup of American drip brew coffee. It’s also used as the base coffee component for the majority of craft coffee beverages, such as the latte, macchiato, and cappuccino.
  3. What is the Cafe Macchiato? “Macchiato” could actually refer to two different beverages and means “stained” or “marked.” An Espresso Macchiato is an espresso, “marked” with a small amount of steamed milk, and a Latte Macchiato is the reverse … mostly steamed milk “stained” with espresso. Add some vanilla & caramel to the latte version and you get the big coffee company’s take on this traditional beverage.
  4. How should I store my coffee? The simplest and most effective way to store your beans is in an airtight opaque container, in a cool dry place. It is okay to store your unground coffee beans in a refrigerator or freezer for a short time. However, the beans run a higher risk of collecting moisture and being ruined.
  5. Which has more caffeine, light or dark roast? The truth is that caffeine remains stable during the roasting process. What changes the level of caffeine in your cup is actually in how the beans are weighed for brewing. At home you probably measure by the scoop, and in a café of quality, the beans are measured by weight. Because the darker roasted coffee has decreased in density and mass from the roasting process, more must be used to brew the same amount of light roast. In other words, the more coffee you use to brew, the more caffeine. Light or Dark is actually more of a description of what you can expect regarding flavor, body, acidity level, etc.  It’s all about volume and the origin of the bean (some types are naturally more caffeinated).

More questions? Feel free to ask!

Nathan Smith is a baristo at Coffee Park Arts inside the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts and the owner/roaster of Redstar Roasting Co. in Winston-Salem.


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