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Coffee Facts

The beverage, coffee, is prepared from the roasted seeds of the coffee tree. Those seeds are called coffee beans. Coffee can be enjoyed hot, cold, and some even eat the beans straight or roasted.

Coffee beans are not actually beans. They are the seeds of the fruit of the coffee tree.

The Coffee Trade

Coffee is one of the most popular commodities in the world, only second to petroleum which is first. Coffee beans were first exported from Ethiopia to Yemen, but since then it has been the main source of worldwide trade for a naturally grown product, even more than sugar and spices.

Largely through British and Dutch East India companies, coffee became available in Europe no later than the 16th century Over 400 billion cups of coffee are enjoyed worldwide annually. Over 25 million coffee producers rely on this product for a living.

Ever since the mythical story about how a farmer noticed animals eating these berries and roaming about vigourously, mankind has used coffee in one form or another as a stimulant.

As with alcohol, coffee has had its critics because it is, after all, a drug. Drinking coffee was outlawed in Mecca and in Cairo in the 1500s, but was hard to enforce because the people were just too addicted to the beverage so law had to be reversed.

The Coffee House

Allegedly, the first coffee house was opened in 1554 in Istanbul By the 1650s, it has caught on in Europe The first coffee house in London was opened in 1652.

The London coffee house was well known as the place for the men to go to speak freely about political and social issues of the day. Mere women were not allowed to enter because it was perceived that it would offend their fragile nature and mind as well as cause them offense. Supposedly, the Guy Fawkes revolt was planned in a coffee house. [The holiday Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated on the 5th of November when the plot was uncovered and members were arrested. Guy Fawkes was executed on 31 January 1606.]

The tradition of the coffee house came to America with the settlers. In Boston, the first one opened in 1670, though they tended to be a bit more liberal by allowing women entry.

Types of Coffee

There are two main species of the coffee tree.

Coffea arabica, also known as arabica coffee, is thought to be indigenous to Ethiopia, but it was first cultivated on the Arabian Peninsula.

Coffea canephora, also known as robusta coffee, is a species of coffee that origininated in western Africa. It contains less caffeine than any other commercially cultivated species of coffee.

Coffea arabica is more susceptible to disease which is why these beans are often more expensive. Coffee aficionados usually agree this is the better coffee.

Arabica coffees traditionally were named by the port of origin. Some familiar names tagged onto coffee include Mocha, Yemen and Java which were ports for exporting coffee.

Coffea canephora is easier to care for than Coffea arabica which makes it the cheaper bean. It is usually included in lower grade coffee blends for filler purposes.

Various factors where the coffee trees are grown can affect how the coffee will taste. When merchants sell you coffee, it is often a unique blend of different types of beans from different parts of the world.

Coffee demand is higher in some places than others and the ability for that region to grow the trees may be limited. For this reason, Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona coffees are often the most expensive ones in the world. If you wish to spend a fortune on these rare coffees, be sure you know exactly if you are getting a pure sample or a blend. If it says, "blend," be sure to ask what the percentage would be of the rare commodity.

Coffee Ethical Issues - The Workers

As coffee is a very hot commodity, you do realise there would have to be issues in the production of coffee.

In Brazil they produce about 1/3 of the world's coffee supplies. Over 5 million people are employed in the cultivation and harvesting and as a result are stuck in poverty with poor working conditions.

Growing coffee is a very labour intense chore because it is not something a machine could take over the tasks that must be done by hand.

Agriculture workers in the coffee industry often toil in what can be described as "sweatshops in the fields." Small coffee farmers receive a payment which is less than the costs of production. This often forces them into a cycle of poverty and debt.

In order to continue to grow the crops, many have had to take out loans to help and are not in a position to ask for better payment for the crops because they could easily be squeezed out forcing them into further debts without a way to pay. If a farm fails, it is not as if they could just go out and get another job or start a new business.

Coffee farmers are often forced to sell to middlemen who pay between $.30-.50 per pound. This produces an average income of $500 - $1,000 which is below the poverty level.

Coffee workers are paid the equivalent to sweatshop wages and working conditions on these treeations are harsh. Many workers sleep in temporary shelters with rows of bunk beds. They often cook, wash and bathe from the same water source because they have no other choice as they cannot afford anything better. As these workers come from rural areas, they do not have access to the same legal rights or even know about their rights. Many cannot form a union and are vulnerable to threats and coercion, as treeation owners can take advantage of their control over the workforce to keep them from organizing into unions to demand their rights.

Coffee Ethical Issues - The Environment

Like most forms of commercial farms, coffee trees are sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals to ensure a better growth and to keep the insects away. These are harmful to the environment as they are often drained into the soil and into streams of water such as rivers and lakes which in turn harm other trees and animals.

Another environment issue is a result of "sun-grown" trees that require cutting down of trees leading to deforestation in the rain forest areas. By chopping down all of this lumber, it creates zones which are then prone to flooding because the roots are no longer there to help drain excess water and contain the soil which results in soil erosion which can further lead to desert conditions.

Solutions to the Issues

There are private label coffee companies who exclusively have deals with the farmers directly and eliminate the middleman. They do business only with the farmers who treat their workers humanely and give these farmers a fair price for their goods.

Many private label coffee companies also decide to deal with farmers who use so-called bird-friendly techniques which are also known as shade-grown. This eliminates the need to cut down the trees.

And of course there is organically grown coffee which is produced without the use of potentially harmful artificial pesticides or fertilizers.

Coffee - From The tree To Your Cup

The coffee tree is cultivated, often in high mountainous or hilly regions, by farmers who must tend to them daily. Seeds take about 5 to 6 weeks to germinate. A coffee tree can produce viable berries in the 5th year. The tree lifespan is usually around 25 years.

The coffee tree is only productive in a tropical area, a 25 degree latitude belt on both sides of the equator. A good altitude is betweent 3000-6000 feet. Too high and the weather is too cold and the air is too dry. Too low and the parasites can be too active and run the risk of being exposed to too much water.

The perfect temperature for growing coffee trees is between 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost will kill any coffee tree.

Coffees which are "washed" after harvesting must be quickly removed by soaking, scouring or mechanical rubbing.

The coffee seed is then flushed with water to remove clinging fruit and sugars. They are soaked in water to ferment a bit. Then the seeds are dried.

Coffees which are "natural" leave the fruit on and dried which allows it to ferment. Then the fruit is scoured from the seed.

There are other processing methods, but "washing" and "natural" are the most common.

After the initial processing, the seeds are spread over a large, dry rock or concrete surface to be exposed to sunlight and air. This can take several days. By this time, the seeds are referred to as "green coffee".

The beans are then sorted by color and size. Bad beans are pulled at this stage. All of this must be done by hand or machine. Small farms often must use the human method. Larger farms tend to rely on machine to speed up the process.

The green coffee could be sold at that point, but it is often further aged and processed by either the farmers or the middleman's factory. Aging coffee can be as long as 8 years, but most often done up to 1 year.

These aged beans are then prepared for roasting A roasted bean doubles in size and the method of roasting affects its color and taste. At around 400 degrees, it turns brown and releases its oil. This is when one can start to recognize that coffee aroma. Beans can roast to a very light brown shade on the shorter time or to a very black, nearly burnt bean on the longer time.

Flavoured coffees are given their unique taste shortly thereafter the roasting process when they are coated with a flavoured oil and sealed to contain the taste or for further roasting where it is baked into the seed.

When the beans are roasted, they are ready for further processing which can be done by the middleman or somewhere in transit between them and your home.

There are beans sold which are whole that you must grind yourself to suit your brewing method.

Beans can be grounded to many levels of coarseness or fineness. It is crucial you pick the right level for your brewing method because using one that may be too fine can produce a very bitter product while one that is too coarse can produce a very weak taste.

Depending on what method you are using to brew your coffee, you may use a different type of ground bean and different ratio of bean to water. It is generally accepted that the recommended brewing temperature of coffee is 204 degrees. The usual ratio of coffee to water is between one and two tablespoons of ground coffee per six ounces of water.

Coffee can then be sipped plain or with cream and/or sugar or in other manners depending on what form of the various hot or cold coffee treat you are enjoying.

Coffee And Your Health

Coffee contains caffeine which is a stimulant drug. Not all drugs are bad by the mere fact they are drugs. Drugs do have useful purposes, but like anything else can be harmful when abused. Sugar is a natural substance that is not a drug, but you wouldn't want to abuse that either. Carrots are natural and contain no drugs, but overdo it and your skin will turn orange.

Because of its stimulant status, people use it as a "pick me up" crutch to get started in the morning or to give them more pep in the middle of the day or to run "all-nighters".

Coffee also contains an unknown chemical agent which stimulates the production of cortisone and adrenaline.

Those with high blood pressure, suffer sleep deprivation, are pregnant or nursing, and various medical conditions should always check with their doctors for advice on what is a safe limit for them when it comes to drinking coffee. For some, they will be told to avoid it altogether. For others, they may be given reasonable guidelines on intake limits.

Decaffeinated coffee can be made in two different method if you wish to avoid the stimulant. The "Swiss water process" involves soaking raw beans to absorb to stimulant caffeine and dried repeating the process several times. The chemical process uses a solvent such as trichloroethylene or methylene chloride or ethyl acetate or with carbon dioxide. Some of these methods are considered worse than having caffeine.

What To Do With Those Used Beans

Used coffee grounds are a good fertilizer in gardens because of their high nitrogen content.

Coffee grounds also contain potassium, phosphorus, and many other trace elements that aid tree development.

Many gardeners report that roses love coffee grounds and when furnished with the same become big and colorful.

When added to a compost pile, spent coffee grounds compost very rapidly.