Ten curious facts you need to know for International Coffee Day

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You’re probably drinking coffee as you read this blog.  And you would not be alone.  In fact, 1.4 billion cups of coffee are poured daily throughout the world.  Coffee accounted for USD 76 billion in export revenues in 2017, while tea exports amounted to a paltry USD 48.5 billion.  Americans drink 400 million cups a day, while 71% of Canadians aged 18-79 drink coffee daily.  And coffee consumption among North American teenagers is increasing significantly.

Proponents of coffee quote all sorts of health benefits, including reducing muscle pain by 48% and  increasing fibre intake, thus improving digestion.  Caffeine is also said to produce antioxidants which lead to a reduction or slowing in aging, cardiovascular diseases, cancers and the general undermining of the immune system.  Sounds too good to be true!

I could go on with more statistics and arguments for coffee consumption.  Instead, I am going to present a few odd and interesting facts about coffee which I hope to contribute to the lore of this fabled beverage and might even improve the taste of your coffee:

  1. Is it a fruit or bean? What we call a coffee bean is scientifically considered the seed of the coffee plant, the pit inside the fruit, often referred to as a cherry, from which coffee is extracted.  But they are called beans since they resemble true beans.   The fruit surrounding the beans is usually discarded but is sometimes used to make an herbal tea called cascara

The first bean to be cultivated was the Arabica, which represents 60% of world production.  It’s distinguished by a full enveloping body and wine-like (hence kaveh, below) acidic undertones.  Robusta,  on the other hand, is a naturally resilient bean growing at low altitudes with a high yield.  It is considered full-bodied and slightly tart with a higher proportion of caffeine compared to the Arabica.

2. What’s in a word? Some have said that the word coffee derives from Kaffa Province in Ethiopia, where coffee may have first been “discovered” by the shepherd boy Kaldi (after whom a national coffee chain is named) when noticing that his herd had become quite frisky after eating from a certain bush.  Ethiopian coffees are renowned for their acidity, chocolate aroma and intense, fruity undertones.

But others say that the original Arabic word for coffee was likely kaveh, which meant wine and, was in turn, a derivative of a word meaning “to have no appetite”.   And the word bean apparently derives from the Arabic word bunn or bunc.  It was likely in Yemen, where Arabic is spoken, that coffee first became cultivated.  It was used by Sufi sects, among others, to induce a higher spiritual awareness and mental acumen

3. … but not everyone approved: Although the Arab world was quick to adopt coffee, a paranoid 16th century governor of Mecca thought that it might unite opposition to his reign through its stimulation of radical thought and the propensity of locals to meet while imbibing and, thus, banned it. There have been at least 4 other attempts to do the same. 16th century Italian clergy, for example, labelled coffee satanic and tried to forbid it. Unfortunately for them,  Pope Clement VIII took a liking to it and coffee houses mushroomed.

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5. To love and to cherish: Coffee became so popular in Turkey that a clause was added to marriage agreements stipulating that a husband had to ensure his wife had an appropriate amount of coffee.  Failure to do so was grounds for divorce!  The discussion of marriage proposals and the consumption of coffee before, during or after the marriage ceremony itself remain popular in many cultures.

  1. Penny universities: By the mid-17th century, there were over three hundred coffee houses in London, known as penny universities because a cup of coffee could be had for one penny in an atmosphere of passioned and interesting discussion.  The absence of alcohol made it possible to engage in more serious conversation than in an alehouse.  Political groups also frequently used coffeehouses as meeting places.  Business men met there, too, and Lloyd’s of London, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, was created in the coffee-house run by Edward Lloyd.

6.  Only in northern Europe you say? Pity! If asked which country drinks the most coffee per capita, you might answer Colombia, Brazil, France or Italy.  But in fact, Finland tops the list at 12 kg per capita per year.   Finns drink 8-9 cups of lightly roasted coffee per day, perhaps as a reflex against the winter cold, usually with cake in the company of friends. Curiously enough, international chains such as Starbuck’s have not caught on.   8 of those in the top 10 are northern European, plus Canada.  Brazil ranks a lowly 15  No other coffee exporters rank among the top 20 consumers per capita.

7.  Dark roast has more caffeine than light roast. This is not the case.  The amount of caffeine depends on:

  •      the bean used. Robusta beans normally have twice the caffeine as Arabica
  •      the amount of coffee used
  •      the type of preparation (Turkish infusion releases more caffeine than
  •      percolation, as an example)
  •      the temperature of the water. Higher means more caffeine is extracted
  •      the length of the process. The longer, the more caffeine is extracted; and
  •      the volume of coffee in the cup.

Espresso, despite its reputation, has the lowest percentage caffeine for any given blend, given the briefer contact in the brewing process, lower water temperature and smaller volume of coffee in the cup.

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  1. India is a major coffee producer: Although India is known primarily as a tea producing and consuming country, it is ranked 9th among coffee exporters at 767 million pounds per year. Indeed, the first Indian beans were probably sown 400 years ago.  Canadians will be less familiar with Indian coffee as it is exported primarily to Italy, Russia, Germany and the USA.  Domestic consumption has grown exponentially since 1996 with the Indian government’s liberalization of the industry.

9.  Kopi luwak: One of the oddest coffees is from Indonesia.  In this case, small palm civet cats eat the entire coffee cherry, which is then partly intestinally processed. The beans are collected by villagers and extracted from the excreta, finished off and sold as Kopi luwak.  It is a form of processing rather than a variety of coffee.  Unfortunately, collecting feces from wild civets has given way to intensive, battery cage systems where the cats are force-fed cherries, raising ethical concerns.  This coffee is highly prized and sells for as much as USD 700 per kilogram.

  1. To freeze the bean or not: Most coffee pundits agree that coffee is best brewed from three to ten days after roasting, during which the beans should be stored in an opaque, air-tight container at room temperature. The freezing/no freezing debate occurs when the consumer is unable to brew all her coffee beans in that time and must store them.

The National Coffee Association recommends not using a freezer for short-term coffee storage, arguing that taking the beans in and out of the freezer exposes them to moisture in the air, which will degrade their flavor.  Coffee Review, on the other hand, recommends freezing in a freezer bag, placed where the freezer does not lose temperature every time the door is opened, removing only as many beans as are needed for that day.

The main problem in adjudicating this dilemma is the lack of scientific research on this matter, which means that the choice is up to the consumer.  She should be prepared, however, to defend her position no matter what storage method is adopted.

The lore of the bean

What are we to make of this mysterious fruit (or bean)?  Its origins are unclear, and its health and storage properties require more research.  The popularity of the beverage seems to know no bounds.  The reference to Kopi luwak may have made you a little squeamish.  While there are other curious matters to discuss,  I hope to have dispelled some myths and perhaps help you to brew a better cup of coffee.  But you will now be able to speak a little more knowledgeably when you meet with friends for a cup of java.  Happy International Coffee Day October 1, 2018!