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The exciting story of coffee

Published : 01/01/2019 16:39:21
Categories : News

The exciting story of coffee

Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity, is also the birthplace of Arabica coffee. Indeed, we find traces of the first wild Arabica coffees to the west of the tectonic fault in the Rift Valley in the mountainous, moist, tropical forests at heights of between 100 and 3,000 m.

They are now designated as the Typica variety. However, it is difficult to put a date on their appearance. It probably goes back a hundred or two hundred thousand years.

Tales and fables are numerous on the discovery and usage of this beverage and of its benefits. Initially drunk in its various forms in Ethiiopia by peasants and shepherds, coffee is widely found in Yemen in the 7th or 8th century, very much appreciated by the Sufi communities as a stimulant facilitating the achievement of religious rites.

But it was only in the 15th century that the consumption of coffee became widespread and was cultivated in that country. The Arabs were the first to distribute the beverage and called the beans originating from the Yemeni territories and from Ethiopia, Arabica. Yemen and especially the port of Moka, became the first producer and exporter of coffee. It was there that the fabulous epic phenomenon started. Pilgrims returning from Mecca introduced coffee to Persia then to the entire Ottoman Empire: Egypt, North Africa, Syria and naturally, Turkey. The first coffee houses opened in Cairo and in Constantinople.

The 16th century saw Europe beguiled by the charms of this drink, initially in Italy, then Holland, England and France via the port of Marseille. Coffee became a huge success in Metropolitan France and its consumption became part of the Parisian lifestyle. It was henceforth integrated in cargoes of spices and other Oriental products by the large European shipping companies and became a real economic stake at the end of the 16th century.

The demand affected the whole of Europe and America and supplies were insufficient. Subsequently, the cultivation of coffee became worldwide. This was the era of colonial conquest and slavery: the new virgin plantations were countless and labour was inexhaustible and cheap.

Europeans were to introduce the cultivation of coffee in their new possessions in the same way as for cotton and sugar cane: the Dutch in Ceylon then in Indonesia, the French in Martinique, in Guadeloupe and on the island of Bourbon, the Portuguese in Brazil, the English in Jamaica and lastly the Spanish in Southern and Central America. Later still, the French would develop the cultivation of Robusta Coffee in West Africa, unfortunately to the detriment of our palates!

The above outlines very briefly the start of the exciting story of coffee. There are many works that cover this stimulating and tumultuous history and are worth looking at closely if that is of particular interest to our readers. From my point of view, I would like to highlight three points that bear reference to our subject: What did our first coffee amateurs drink? There is no doubt that drinkers of Ethiopian and Yemeni coffees - Moslem pilgrims, European travellers and later, the French Sun King - consumed coffees from terroirs.

Those coffees, originating from wild trees or later, from plantations, were collected locally as was the case in Ethiopia, then sold to Yemeni traders.In his Monograph of Coffee, published in1832, Germain-Étienne Coubard D’Aulnay relates the enthusiasm of Arabs for Harrar coffee and also notes that it was the Turks and Egyptians who bought the best coffees.. Recently, Emilio Lopez, owner of El Manzano farm among others, a pioneer of specialty coffees from Central America, told me that before the war, his parents already made what today are known as specialty coffees, each farm or terroir specializing in different botanical varieties and parcel differentiation which is the basis of specialty coffees.

Therefore, right from the start until the mid 20th century, coffee was a story pertaining to terroirs and those who drank it knew it as such. One heard then of Happy Arabia coffees (Yemen), of Moka coffees (Yemen - Ethiopia), of Bonifleur coffee (Martinique – Guadeloupe), of Bourbon Pointu (Sharp bourbon) coffee (island of Bourbon), and so on. Each place of origin had its gustatory characteristics.

Was the coffee better than today's? It was good, that is a fact, otherwise it would not have conquered the world. Better, certainly not. Indeed, sorting and fermentation techniques were random - even today, in the Ethiopian region of Wallaga, some villages leave their fruits to dry on the branch - the wet process of fermentation was unheard of, coffee was dried on the very ground.As for roasting, it was undertaken in baked clay on stones, even on the fire itself and in Europe in pans or in rudimentary roasting appliances that could not ensure that roasting was homogeneous and uniform.As for execution of the cup, the coffee was obtained by decoction (Turkish style), i.e. boiled in water, which is not the best way of obtaining a fine, pure and clear cup.

Let us recall that the filter was invented in France only in the late 17th century. The combination of all those defective details resulted in faults in the cup. Inversely, the combination of all the non-defective details leads us to perfection and allows us to define what exactly a specialty coffee is.

What consequences on the coffee? Before the war, every town and nearly every village in France had its own roasting plant where the coffee was roasted and customers bought it in bean form or ground. There were often tea and spices to be found there together with all that was required to make coffee - coffee mills and coffee makers. People also came to seek recommendations, to discover novelties and have a friendly chat.

The "Trente Glorieuses" (the 30 year post-war boom) celebrated the arrival of the society of mass consumption backed by the agrofood industry and the start of supermarkets. This combination was lethal for coffee and our artisanal roasting systems. Coffee, a basic necessity, consumed in all French homes, was quite simply taken out of our reach by industry and supermarkets. 

This complementary and implacable duo adopted the formula that it applied to all food products: the lowering of raw material purchase prices and an increase in volumes, lowering of transformation rates, standardisation of taste, simplification of use, deceptive marketing and misleading advertising.

In concrete terms, industry buys huge volumes at low prices, which involves batches of coffee with faults (immature or rotten cherries, or those affected by insects or worms, unregulated fermentation and drying processes, fissured fruits, old unsold harvests - the list is almost inexhaustible) that are gathered together into conventional batches of medium quality and batches of Robusta, twice as cheap as those of Arabica.

To hide all these faults, the coffee is cooked at high temperature so that empyreuma, or even a burnt smell dominates the absence of nice aromas and the presence of bad ones. Subsequently, all is ground to hide unpresentable beans and we are told that ground coffee is much more practical and that it keeps all its aromas when vacuum packed.

But what aromas are they talking about? We are told that soluble coffee has the quality of filter coffee and that it is even better with sugar (and it is true that it improves an intolerable bitterness). There is apparently a folkloric personage who sniffs the unripe coffee in the country of origin, small producers who live happily in their mountains even though they are at the mercy of the slightest decrease in coffee market prices.

The latest finding of the industry, now a sale leader, is portioned coffee, or in other words ESE (easy serving Espresso) paper capsules and pods. A wonderful way of selling still mediocre coffee two, three or four times dearer. We will come back to this.

Currently, 95% of coffee is sold in super or hypermakets. Over and above the fact that the product is not valorized, the mass distribution industry has caused French people to forget coffee fundamentals - freshly roasted coffee, bought as beans and ground just before preparation - and has introduced a standard taste coffee of very poor quality: flat with dominating bitterness. Rediscovering coffee is first and foremost changing one's bad habits.