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Learn the truth about your favorite beverage!
Where did coffee originally come from?
True origin of coffee, or just a cute story?
Myth: Sometime back in the 1500's the "legend" has it that a goatherder in Ethiopia saw his goat(s) dancing and prancing after eating the berries of a "strange new plant", and that he tried eating these berries and liked it, and that is how coffee was discovered.
Well, as far back as anybody can trace this myth there is no specific goatherder or goat to attribute any record of this myth to. Like most myths, it supports the Euro-centric view that wherever coffee first came to the attention of Europeans, must have been the time and place of its original discovery. You know, like when Columbus discovered America, right? The fact that there were myriad visitors and settlers here from centuries before just didn't matter. And any website that still copies and pastes this old myth about the goatherder probably spent no more time researching anything else on their website than they did researching the origin of coffee :-)
Coffee did first enter into world trade in the 1500's and the origin of the known plants was indeed Ethiopia. However, there is no evidence that coffee beans were dried and roasted to make a cup of coffee beverage as we think of it today until perhaps 50-60 years into the trading of the commodity. Coffee was brewed like a tea or juiced, typically. Coffee was not cultivated outside of Africa until live plants were smuggled out to other fields and the Dutch lost their monopoly on live plants.
Truth: Evidence of the use of coffee goes back hundreds and possibly thousands of years before the 1500's.
Most coffee traders today think that coffee only grows outside of Ethiopia because the Dutch, Spanish and French traded it along worldwide trade routes and in their colonies. But botanical experts on coffee generally acknowledge that coffee was widespread across the planet long before the Dutch started trading it around. It just hadn't been recognized and exploited by modern traders prior to the emergence from Ethiopia. To this day, we are still discovering wild coffee species in very remote regions of the world, and it is highly doubtful that these are domestic plantings gone wild, mainly due to the disparity in genetic similarity between some of these discoveries and the main body of coffee genes.
Roman soldiers were recorded by historians as chewing on a type of jerky whose principle ingredient was the fruit of the coffee cherry. The sugar and the caffeine gave them a lift in battle. Records of Shaman practices indicate that the medicinal properties of the coffee plant - leaves and cherries - were understood and used in rituals and healing in many cultures going as far back as we can find records. At one time there may have been dozens or scores of distinct species of coffee, although by recent times there are records of fewer than 20. By 2010, only 4 generally recognized distinct species remain in cultivation commercially. Those are Arabica, Robusta, Excelsa and Liberica.
What roast level is best?
Myth: Dark and French Roast are the best-tasting roasts.
Starting with Charbucks, the dark-roast mystique has led many coffee drinkers to believe that the best, strongest, most flavorful coffee is French Roast. The emergence of the strong roast on coffee was a stylistic trademark of a few major coffee chains. People responded to these coffees not really because of the roast level alone, but because these chains were in fact for the first time in decades bringing interesting and diverse coffees to the American public. If consumers knew they didn't like donut-shop coffee, they assumed they needed coffee that was roasted differently, like at Charbucks. But really, they just wanted something with more pedigree, most likely... more richness and deeper, darker taste profile.
We don't make this claim lightly. Over the course of many years, we taste-tested many coffees to people in public places during farmer's markets or expos, etc., and we recorded over 30,000 impressions from people. We found that people want coffee with deep, strong flavor, and if the coffee itself was of a high enough quality, they generally preferred a Medium R or City Roast to a French Roast.
Truth: French Roast is too dark for most beans, considerably less healthy, and a dangerous fire hazard for home roasters.
Most home roasting machines have no smoke/fire suppression sufficient to achieve French Roast without serious danger of the beans bursting into flames. Coffee fires burn very hot and will set off smoke alarms and probably bring neighbors running to your house! So, even if it did result in a perfect cup, we still wouldn't recommend it.
However, most beans actually lose flavor when roasted that dark. Delicate sugars and flavor compounds burn away at such a high temperature, resulting in a flatter-tasting cup. Poor quality beans can sometimes be improved by this, since the bitter and sour elements get burned away... but we don't recommend buying lousy beans just so you can improve them by roasting them dark. Not when you could buy delicious, full-flavored beans and roast them more gently (and safely) and end up with a way better cup of coffee!
Over 20,000 annual admissions to hospitals around the USA occur from people experiencing heart palpitations and serious gastrointestinal distress from coffees that are burnt. When coffee is roasted too dark, you create elements from the sugars and fats that resemble Monosodium Glutamate in the way they affect the body, giving sensitive people a myriad of symptoms. So if you know anybody who has told you "I can't drink coffee, gives me palpitations" or other such reactions, you might suggest that unless they have a life-threatening situation going on, they might try lighter-roast coffees and see if they have the same issue. 90% of people with issues have no problem drinking lighter roasts!
Hundreds of articles extolling the healthy virtues of coffee proclaim is as a cancer-preventative, weight-reducer, and many other things... but the elements in coffee that are said to bring these health benefits are destroyed at the high heats of super-dark roasts. This is one reason so many people have had good results with green unroasted beans as an extract or beverage. All the original healthy elements are intact, and the more you roast, the more these elements are reduced.
What coffee bean species is best?
Myth: Arabica. Always and only 100% Arabica.
"100% Arabica" is a catchphrase to be found on everything from gourmet fresh-roast beans to McDonald's (surprisingly inoffensive) brown water. Most folks on the street aren't even sure what else might be in their coffee, but they've been told to accept only Arabica. Here's the funny thing that we ask people at our coffee seminars: "Have you at any time had a really bad cup of coffee in the last year?" Most people respond "Yes, way too many!" To which we remark, and what species do you think those bad cups of coffee belong to? They have never thought about this. The answer is, of course, Arabica. Since about 2005, you can't find a cup of coffee in the USA sold commercially that is NOT 100% Arabica! No coffee shop dares to serve anything else or they will be ridiculed. So... if every bad cup of coffee you had was Arabica, and every good cup of coffee was Arabica... was the species the important thing, or something else? Doh... of course, it was something else. Bad soil, low altitude, bad cultivation or processing, bad brewing, etc.
Truth: Arabica is good for about 60% of American palates (less in most other areas); the rest of us prefer Robusta, and most people prefer a blend over a single-source.
Robusta coffee got a bad name after a coffee glut on the market some two decades ago at which time Vietnam dumped the first of their new crop on the market and destroyed the pricing structure... because Vietnam is a massive coffee producer, and when they came back into the market, they came BIG. In fact, for a brief time in 2012 they became the world's highest-volume coffee producer, beating even Brazil, traditionally the world leader. But this first crop in the 1990's was horrible. But because it was cheap, it found its way into almost everything, and some (not as wise as they think) pundits declared: "It's Robusta, and Vietnam! All Robusta must be bad and all coffee from Vietnam is bad!" That took over a decade to subside, thanks to millions of websites copying and pasting these wise words over and over and over, despite 5 almost consecutive years of Italian espressos winning world competition with their "secret ingredient", high-altitude peaberry Robusta from Dalat, Vietnam, between the years 2000 and 2010.
Robusta is, as the name implies, a robust plant, which can be forced to grow under conditions the more delicate Arabica won't survive. Farmers therefor often plant it on their marginal land where delicate Arabica would simply expire. Unhappy Robusta will still grow and produce beans, but they aren't very good... and the sub-par Robusta gave the entire species a bad reputation. Large coffee companies must purchase coffee in large volumes, and don't have the ability to pick and choose individual farms, relying instead on middlemen. As a result, the large companies had to stop buying Robusta altogether in order to avoid the poor-quality beans. But when given the same conditions and altitude as Arabica, Robusta can be an amazing coffee. It's also much lower in acidity, has more body and mouthfeel, more persistance on the palate and memory recall, and provides incredible crema to espresso.
Arabica is more expensive, being the smaller-yielding and fussier plant, so companies wanted to make it clear to the consumer that they were offering a premium product in order to justify the expense. Advertising 100% Arabica allowed them to clearly and succinctly inform customers that their coffee contained none of the new, bitter, unpleasant Robusta that was flooding the market. Soon, 100% Arabica became synonymous with "good coffee" in the USA, a fact that puzzled a lot of consumers in other countries where they prefer their other species of coffees and treat them with the same respect as Arabica... Sumatran Robustas can be superb and the locals often prefer their Robustas, selling us what we want, the Arabicas. And Philippines Liberica is an experience no coffee lover should miss.
Should you, as an individual, follow the same buying practices as massive world-wide conglomerates? Of course not! Thanks to the Internet, you can pick and choose from individual farms, even individual lots, and (provided you're using a good coffee bean shop that offers only top-quality beans) you can freely experiment to find your own personal favorite bean without risking running into any of the sub-par stuff.
For more information on this topic, including explanation of individual palates and which species work best for which people, please visit our Coffee Bean Species page.