Your Cup of Coffee - 1
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
Coffee in your morning cup has had a long tortuous journey before it reached you. Rather, a journey over many centuries, before it reached your home, your nearest McDonald’s and Starbuck’s, or the very shores of the USA.
In 1982 author Edward Abbey (‘Down the River’) said, “Our culture runs on coffee and gasoline.” It is hard to argue with this, particularly when, with an estimated retail value of more than $ 70 billion/year, coffee is the second most traded product in the world -- the first being petroleum. Coincidentally, ‘coffee’ has also been referred to as “black wine” and “black gold,” a label that it shares with oil.
There is no dearth of comments on coffee. Ranging from serious, poetic to humorous, these seem more like interesting confessions – a small sample here: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” [T. S. Eliot]; “[Coffee] civilizes me in the morning;/nothing else reaches and stirs/my deepest neurons faster” [Beeth]; “…if it weren't for the coffee, I'd have no identifiable personality whatsoever” [David Letterman].
It is unclear who first used coffee as a beverage, where and when. It is, however, known that the shrub which bears berries from which coffee is extracted is native to Kaffa province in the highlands of what is now Ethiopia.
It is a tropical evergreen shrub, and its each fruit (red cherry like, when ripe) contains two beans (seeds). The shrubs begin to fruit around 3-5 years, with each shrub yielding 2-4 kg fruit. In 1737, Carl Linneaus, the Swedish botanist/taxonomist, classified in the genus Coffea of the Rubiaceae family, may have also grown wild in neighboring areas, such as southeastern Sudan and northern Kenya, with the natives using the berries and seeds (beans) as food.
There is evidence of coffee cultivation in monastery gardens in these areas 1,000 years ago but no one recognized that before 15th century. From its native land, Coffea came to Yemen where, according to a famous coffee researcher Fernando Vega, its beverage was first used, and by 1450 it was much in use by the sufis.
Yemen is central to the global dissemination of Coffea in the next century – first to Cairo, then to Damascus, Istanbul, and later to the Far East (Java). Another key group in worldwide distribution of Coffea is the colonial Dutch and French.
The Arabs guarded the shrub and its berries jealously and never allowed foreigners near Coffea farms, but the Dutch somehow managed to take Coffea seeds (beans) or seedlings out from the port of Mocha (Yemen), and took it to their colony of Java in 1690s and began its cultivation there. Then in 1706, they brought it over to Amsterdam and from there it reached France.
Around 1718, the Dutch took Coffea to their South American colony, Suriname, from where it spread to French Guiana (1719) and Brazil (1727). In his article in American Scientist (Marc-April, 2008), Dr. Vega describes how a French naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu, took two Coffea plants to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, and how the one plant that survived the journey spread over to other Caribbean islands in a few decades: Haiti (1725), Guadeloupe (1726), Jamaica (1730), Cuba (1748) and Puerto Rico (1755). Around this time, coffee also reached the US (first in Virginia).
Coffee Scientific Information Center (CoSIC), Pan-European center established in the UK in 1990, mentions coffee houses (as social meeting places with music, dancing, chess, gossip and politics) first appeared in Mecca, and soon spread in other places in the Arab world. CoSIC also states that the Venetian merchants were responsible of bringing coffee to Europe in 1615, and the first café opened in Venice 30 years later. Coffee houses became popular as social and business meeting places in other European countries by the mid-17th century.
In UK, the first coffee house opened in Oxford (1650), and by 1715, there were over 3,000 of them in that country. One interesting factoid: the famous Llyod’s of London began as a coffee house in 1688. In the US, the first coffee house (“London Coffee House” opened in Boston (1689), then came one in New York (“The King’s Arms”), seven years later.
In his posthumously published book, “Sylva Sylvarum” (1627), Sir Francis Bacon describes what he saw in Turkey: “They have in Turkey a Drinke called ‘Coffa’, made of a berry of the same name… And they take it, and sit at it, in their Coffa Houses, which are like our Taverns.”
Most coffee is cultivated in the tropical equatorial countries in South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. Coffee grown in different locales acquires a distinctive flavor. According to published estimates, C. arabica represents most of the world’s coffee crop (about 70%). In Latin America, nearly all (more than 95%) of the crop is C. arabica, while a great majority of African crop (80%) is C. canephora. In 2006, the world’s largest producer of coffee was Brazil (42 million bags; 60 kg/bag), followed by Vietnam and Columbia (15 and 12 million bags, respectively). The top producer of both species is Brazil; C. arabica is grown mostly in Columbia and C. canephora in Vietnam .
In about 80 countries around the world, over 10 million hectares are devoted to coffee cultivation, providing livelihood to over 100 million people. Not just to the friendly workers at your neighborhood Starbuck’s and McDonald’s, their corporate officers and shareholders. We know the price of coffee, like most other products, has been going up recently, but think about this: the Panamanian-grown ‘Geshe’ cultivar, which fetched $130/ pound and the Indonesian-grown ‘Civet’ coffee or ‘Kopi Luwak’ at $120 to 150/pound. The US is the largest consumer of coffee, sipping 20% of all coffee produced in the world.
Coffea has more than 100 species, but only two are commercially used: C. arabica and C. canephora (robusta). There are, however, a large number of ‘cultivars’ or varieties depending on the cultivation locale and climate, but within the same species. Since 2001, however, Aaron P. Davis and his colleagues of Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (England) have described 16 new species, more on that, due to be published later this year.
C. arabica is self-pollinating (autogamous) whereas C. canephora (robusta) needs cross-pollination (allogamous), which produces genetic differences and in this case 10x more than C. arabica. C. canephora (robusta) is a diploid plant (with one set of 11 chromosomes from each parent; total 22 chromosomes) and C. arabica, on the other hand, is an allotetraploid (rare in nature), because during its evolution it hybridized and received two sets of chromosomes from two diploid species (total 44 chromosomes).
According to a recent paper in Brazilian Journal of Plant Pathology, over 30000 unique genes have been found in DNA libraries from C. arabica, C. canephora and C. racemosa. An International Coffee Genome Network, formed in 2005, meets annually to review the progress. [To be continued]