Here Are Seven Things You Might Not Know About Coffee

Coffee has taken a wild ride over the centuries, in ways that might surprise you.

For many of us, it's how we begin every day. There are those among us who would sooner give up a pint of blood than suffer a single day's absence of their caffeinated paramour. It has almost limitless regional variations as far as preparation and ways to enjoy it. Its exports account for more than half the foreign exchange of some countries. Coffee is a multifaceted thing, equal parts drinkable satisfaction, constantly-evolving art medium, and big business. Let's take a look at this beverage with which the world's love affair has endured for centuries and shows no sign of cooling anytime soon.

Dancing Goats May Be Part of Coffee's Origin

A well-known legend has it that coffee's wakefulness-promoting properties were first discovered when an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) goatherder by the name of Kaldi noticed a change in his goats' behavior after they'd eaten the red berries from a bush unfamiliar to him. The critters seemed, in Kaldi's view, to be kicking up their hooves and prancing about with an energy that, even for young goats, was unusual. He decided to sample some of the fruit as well, and in no time found himself joining his young charges in some hoofing. Some time later, when a passing monk noticed the hyperactive goats, Kaldi explained about the bush, and the monk suggested concocting a beverage from drying and boiling the berries (which would turn out to be coffee cherries). The monk's hope was that the drink might have the same effect on humans as on goats since the monk, a drowsy fellow, suffered from difficulty staying awake through his prayers. The resulting beverage not only did the trick, but was embraced for its restorative properties by his fellow monks, with whom the unnamed monk shared this brew, and a potable star was born.

Yemen Used to be the Only Place You Could Get Coffee

Nowadays, you can't swing a cat without hitting a coffeehouse, since there seems to be one on every corner in most major cities. There was a time, though, when mountainous regions of Yemen were the only source of coffee in the world, with the port city of Mocha developing a reputation for the rich, distinctive aromatics of its roasted coffee. It was in Yemen, around the year 1000 that coffee was first brewed. The beverage gained quick popularity among Muslims, whose religion prohibits them from consuming alcohol, and for a time, coffee was so closely associated with Muslims that Europeans began referring to the beverage as "The Wine of Islam." In fact, the Arabic word "qahwa," which previously had been applied to wine, began to be used in reference to coffee during this period.

It Was the Original Energy Bar

Before there was Red Bull or 5-Hour Energy, long before it could spawn a "culture" all its own, coffee's greatest relevance was as a deterrent to fatigue. The earliest concrete evidence shows that coffee cherries were consumed as early as the 10th century in Africa. Ethiopian tribesmen would grind the cherries before combining them with animal fats and mixing the ingredients to form a paste. Said paste would then be fashioned into little balls that they would consume as a source of energy before heading into battle.

Sending Coffee Through Animal Digestive Tracts Can Improve Certain Qualities

In more than a few regions of the world, coffee undergoes enhancements that would convert an unsuspecting witness to tea for life. These refining methods happen long before roasting, and won't leave your coffee smelling and tasting of blueberry muffins and iced cinnamon churros. They involve fishing intact coffee cherries out of animal droppings, Black Ivory Coffee being one example. Among the world's most expensive coffees, it uses coffee cherries retrieved from Asian elephant poop (elephant digestive enzymes break down the coffee proteins associated with bitterness, resulting in a smoother finished brew). Swap elephants for Asian palm civets, and you're drinking Kopi Luwak, a brew afforded unique flavor properties by the fermentation that ensues during the animals' digestion process. Partial digestion by Brazilian Jacu birds, meanwhile, is said to impart nutty characteristics with faint aniseed impressions.

Dropping a Chunk of Burning Charcoal Into Coffee Can Reduce Acidity

Since the 1960's, a roadside coffee brewer known locally in his Indonesian town of Yogykarta as "Pak Man" has been making coffee with a special ingredient: a lump of burning charcoal from the stove he uses to boil water for his brews. This incandescent infusion is said to mitigate the coffee's acidity, and given the legions of activated charcoal capsules sitting in the antacid aisle of your local drugstore, it doesn't seem so farfetched. Since the debut of this beverage, several imitator establishments have cropped up in the vicinity, though most of the visitors flocking to down glasses of the thick black liquid are likely going for the novelty rather than for deliverance from gas and bloating.

Most of We What Drink Comes From Two Species

The two species of coffee that account for the majority of the world's coffee production are Coffea arabica (though it commonly answers to simply "Arabica") and Coffea canephora (just plain "Robusta," to its friends). Of the two, Arabica coffee is considered to be of superior quality for its higher acidity and complexity of flavor and aroma. Because Arabica requires higher growing altitudes to thrive (and as such, demands that growers and harvesters navigate more mountainous terrain) and has little tolerance for climatic extremes, it's considered the more difficult of the two to cultivate. Robusta, for its part brings about 50% higher caffeine levels with its bold flavor and bodily abundance. Robusta is also less demanding, capable of growing at lower altitudes, which makes machine harvesting a more viable method.

Coffee's U.S. Popularity is Rooted in Tea

Long before Americans were guzzling dark roast and half-decaf low-fat no-foam lattes like it was the only thing keeping them alive, the Brits were doing the same, but with tea instead of coffee. It wasn't until the American Revolution that drinking coffee came into fashion and became a part of our culture. After the British-imposed tax on tea incited rebellion among the colonists, coffee filled the void as our hot beverage of choice. Coffee is, without a doubt, a preference that began centuries ago and looks set to continue on as such for the foreseeable future.

Anthony Beal

Food blogger, WSET3 wine scholar, comic book geek, Japanophile, aspiring gym rat. Never met a shrimp, prawn, or mussel I didn’t like. Explore eating & drinking culture with me one course at a time at FlavorfulWorld.com.

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Here Are Seven Things You Might Not Know About Coffee