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The Origin and Evolution of Coffee

Your cup of coffee is brewed from roasted and ground beans that grow on coffee plants. The coffee plant is grown in approximately 70 countries around the world and there are many hybrids that are usually unique to the geographic location they are grown, however it is basically only 2 varieties that are commercially used today. Arabica beans account for 80% and Robusta accounts for 20%.

The plant grows best in sub-tropic climates, and while a plant can grow to 30 feet tall if left untended, growers crop the bush to keep it to a harvestable size of generally no more than 12 feet tall. The bean is actually the pit or seed of the coffee fruit. Just like oranges or cherries, coffee fruit ripens over time and farmers pick the ones that are ready for processing. The fruit is then shipped to various plants where they are processed, have the bean extracted, roasted, often ground and then shipped to the supermarket.

The origins of coffee are still under debate, and with traces of its use dating back to about 500 AD you can see why it is difficult to pinpoint the exact time and place its use became common. One belief is that coffee originated in Ethiopia around 500 AD and the Arabs discovered it to be an energizing drink sometime around 700 AD. Of course it is impossible to know for sure but there is literature available at least somewhat confirming the knowledge of coffee in those time periods and even a chemical investigation of coffee from 1000 AD.

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By 1400 coffee was widespread along the Arabian Peninsula and it had become known in other regions as well. In 1453 it had become common place amongst the Turks, and the first coffee shop was opened in Constantinople in 1475. It quickly spread through Italy and Europe and after much controversy Pope Clement VIII eventually declared it acceptable for Catholics to consume in 1600. In 1650 it is believed the first coffee house in England was opened in Oxford which led to more than 3000 shops opened by 1675.

The beverage went through periods where it was condemned and times where it was considered medicinal. By 1873 it was introduced in America in bulk packaging. Thus the modern era of coffee was born, seeing Starbucks become the largest coffee shop network worldwide in 1998 when it reached 5715 outlets across the globe.

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Aside from the great taste, there are benefits to drinking coffee which have aided in the beverages growth and popularity. Obviously, a common benefit is the caffeine present in coffee. The caffeine acts as a stimulant, increases your metabolism and helps perk you up which is why so many people around the world drink coffee in the morning. One overlooked fact is that coffee contains antioxidants that help repair damaged cells, help prevent certain diseases and possess anti-aging qualities. Who knew coffee had so many health benefits?

Coffee is enjoyed differently depending on what country you’re in. Many European countries drink mainly instant coffee and espresso. Instant coffee is just powdered coffee. You put a table spoon or so of your favourite instant coffee brand into a coffee mug and then add boiling water. Stir until it is dissolved then add your desired amount of additional flavours like sugar, sugar substitute, and perhaps some flavoured cream. Espresso is made in ‘shots’ by forcing boiling water through the finely ground coffee and is also the base for many popular coffee beverages like lattes, cappuccinos and Americanos.

In North America coffee is most commonly consumed in the ‘drip’ version. Regular ground drip coffee, percolated coffee, and coffee made in single serve coffee maker. The ‘Coffee Culture’ is definitely spreading however and coffee shops like Starbucks have found a huge following for their espresso based drinks. People go to coffee shops for a pick me up, to socialize with friends, satisfy a craving for more exotic drinks, and even just to relax with their favourite beverage.

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Enhancements to the flavour of coffee happen at various levels. First, there are many different ‘roasts’. The three most common are light roast, medium roast and dark roast. Most drip coffee is made from a medium or dark roast, and espresso beans are almost always a dark roast. Next, the size of grind of your coffee changes the taste as well.

Generally, the finer the grind you use the stronger the flavour your coffee will be. Medium or regular grinds are fine for drip machines, and finer grinds for espressos. One thing to remember is never reuse coffee grounds because the coffee flavours have been extracted and all that is left is bitter grounds. Lastly, the type of water used in coffee makers affects the quality of your coffee as does temperature. Hard water results in the best taste, and maintaining a brew temperature of 185-195 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.

There are many flavours that can be added to coffee. Through various processes these flavours can be added to the actual coffee before it’s brewed, and there are many options that can be added after brewing. French vanilla, English toffee, hazelnut, and Irish cream are some popular choices.

You can add different syrups or powders to further enhance your beverage. Arabs first started to add flavour to coffee by adding spices while coffee is brewing! Many companies produce individual cups (K-Cups or T-Discs) or pods of flavoured coffees to be used in single serve coffee maker. This makes it extremely convenient to try different blends and flavours yourself.