Nature Bulletin No. 328-A January 18, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Most of us start each day with coffee at breakfast and we may have had
several more cups by bedtime. The "coffeebreak" at midmorning has
become a custom in many offices and factories. We Americans use
more coffee per capita than any nation except the Scandinavians,
averaging 12 pounds or approximately 500 cups per person per year --
about half of the world's total crop. The Boston Tea Party which
touched off the Revolutionary War caused our rebellious American
colonists to switch to coffee for the steaming cup that cheers.
Coffee originated from wild plants in Africa and, according to one
legend, was used first in Abyssinia, By the 15th century it was being
grown in Arabia where, as in Persia and Turkey, it became the national
drink in spite of being forbidden for a time, by the Koran, as
intoxicating. It contains tannin and from one to two percent of caffeine,
an alkaloid which stimulates the heart and brain. All the coffee of
commerce was shipped from Mocha, or Mukha, in Yemen, until about
1700 when its cultivation was begun in Java and Ceylon. From there it
was taken to the West Indies in about 1720 and in 1770 to Brazil where
nearly two-thirds of the world's crop is now grown.
In the 17th century, coffee drinking was spread by Turkish ambassadors
to European countries where coffee houses became favorite resorts of
artists, actors, literary men, politicians and fashionable people. Charles
II, of England, tried to suppress them as "seminaries of sedition".
The coffee plant is a tall shrub or small tree, with glossy evergreen
leaves, requiring a hot climate with lots of rainfall, It thrives best on
rich well-drained soils at elevations from 800 to 8000 feet above sea
level. There are several species but the one most widely cultivated is
kept pruned to a height less than 15 feet. The sweet fragrance of a fazed
or coffee orchard in full bloom attracts a myriad of bees, gorgeous
butterflies and hummingbirds, and armies of ants. Each shrub is covered
with clusters of white star-like trumpet-shaped flowers that are followed
by berries about the size of cherries, which change from green to light
yellow, then scarlet, and finally deep crimson or black. Each berry has a
pulpy outer skin, and a parchment-like inner skin with a sweet yellow
pulp between. Inside, a pair of oval seeds which lie with their flat
grooved faces together -- the familiar coffee beans.
These beans, even in the same species, vary widely in size, shape, color
and taste, depending upon the soil, climate, altitude and -- to some
extent -- the age of the plant. Some varieties are sharp and pungent;
others are sweet and mild: some make a very rich thick beverage, while
others taste rank and thin. In general; the higher the altitude, the milder
the product. The aroma and flavor, which are best in the largest ripest
seeds on a given plant, depend upon a volotile oil and do not appear
until the bean is roasted. If raw coffee is aged from one to four years
before roasting, its flavor is improved.
Sixty years ago, we commonly bought "green" coffee beans of varieties
such as Mocha or Java, roasted them at home in the oven, ground them
in a little mill, boiled our own blend in a pot, and then threw in an
eggshell or a dash of cold water -- to settle the grounds. Nowadays, the
coffee from many lands, blended and roasted by highly trained experts,
may enter your morning cup, perfectly brewed in an automatic electric
Unless you forget, as we did, to put water in the bottom of the pot.
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Update: June 2012