This is no tea-lover’s ode to coffee - in the sense that I have no proven skills in versificaCoffee and coffee beansCredit: © bedolaga | 123rf.comtion. But otherwise, yes, I am partial to tea, and that has never prevented me from enjoying a good cup of coffee!  There is a certain allure about coffee which goes way beyond the fact of it being the second most traded commodity in the world – after crude oil. Coffee is a popular beverage consumed in many parts of the world. Produced from the berries of primarily two plants - Coffee arabica and Coffee canephora, coffee has a rich history and spawned the distinct culture of social interaction seen in a coffeehouse or coffee shop.


The origin of coffee is shrouded in a legend that goes back to the ninth century. Kaldi, a Ethiopian goat-herd, observed his goats becoming frolicsome after eating the berries of a plant. So Kaldi consumed a few berries himself and found that it had a powerful stimulating effect. Coffee was discovered.

Kaldi’s discovery of coffee was followed by its adoption by monks in a nearby monastery who started using the stimulant to stay awake. From Ethiopia, coffee spread to Egypt and Yemen and by 1554, the first coffee-house came up in Istanbul. The export of coffee was tightly regulated and only boiled or sterilized beans were allowed to be exported, so that coffee would not be cultivated elsewhere. The plant found its way outside Africa and the Middle East for the first time when Baba Budan smuggled seven coffee beans into India in 1670 and cultivated it in South India. It then spread to Italy and the rest of Europe, Indonesia and finally to South America.

The production pattern today does not reflect the history, because Brazil (36.14%) and Vietnam (13.90%) now account for half the global production of coffee, followed by Colombia (6.91%), Indonesia (6.39%), Ethiopia (5.60%), India (3.56%), Mexico (3.31%), Guatemala (3.01%) and some 46 other countries which produce the balance 21.18%.

Types of Coffee

Coffee is mainly of two types:

  1. Arabica Coffee is made from the berries of Coffee arabica plant, which is the original coffee plant from Arabia. This is the most common type of coffee, making up 75 to 85% of the total world production. It is grown mainly in Latin America, India, Indonesia and Central and East Africa.
  2. Robusta Coffee is made from the berries of Coffee canephora and is the other well-known type of coffee. Robusta ranges between 10 to 15% of the total coffee production, so that Arabica and Robusta together account for 99% of the world production. Robusta is today grown in West and Central Africa, South-East Asia and to some extent in Brazil.
  3. Liberica Coffee is a relatively lesser-known coffee made from the berries of Coffee liberica. It makes up less than 1% of the total world production and is restricted to Malaysia and West Africa. A variety of liberica called Baraco is grown in a major way in Philippines.  

Besides the above classification, coffee is also categorized in many other ways – depending on the method of cultivation, size of the coffee beans, the particular variety or cultivar and so on. Besides that, each country or region produces their own specialty coffees including organic coffee, which is gradually picking up. 

Processing of Coffee

The making of coffee begins with picking the coffee berries, removing the fruit pulp surrounding the coffee beans and then drying the beans. The dried coffee beans go through a process of milling, polishing, cleaning and grading. Sometimes the coffee beans go through a decaffeination process to make decaffeinated coffee beans. About 95% of harvested beans have two halves of a bean within the coffee berry but about 5% have only a single bean which is then referred to as peaberry. Peaberry coffee enjoys better value since it is considered to have a better taste.

After this the coffee beans usually move to the consuming locations where it is roasted and finally powdered to make the coffee powder that we all know. The coffee powder is brewed in hot water to make the decoction that makes our cup of coffee.   

Preparation of Coffee

We hear so much about the health benefits of tea that it may seem that coffee has no health benefit at all. But that is something far from the truth, for recent studies show that coffee does have a number of health benefits:

  • Reduced risk of stroke
  • Lower risk of prostate cancer   
  • Reduced risk of Parkinson’s Disease, gallstones and liver disease
  • Lower insulin and the risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Lower uric acid and the risk of gout

Although these findings confirm that coffee is indeed beneficial in many ways, it is still not clear how exactly coffee provides the benefits. Further research is underway and in course of time we should be able to understand the precise manner in which this happens.

Coffee has caffeine (also present in tea, cocoa and other foods), which is a natural stimulant. Caffeine made coffee seem harmful, and to reduce the possible adverse effect on account of caffeine, decaffeinated coffee was introduced. However some recent studies seem to suggest that caffeine could be a source of antioxidant activity and therefore beneficial to us.

The present thinking is that coffee may not do any harm, and actually does a lot of good, but since it is a stimulant, it is better to avoid too many cups of coffee as it may bring on headaches, increased blood pressure and insomnia. Children under sixteen can avoid it altogether as caffeine will only help calcium excretion and cause stunted growth, besides bringing on restlessness and hyperactivity. Pregnant women too should avoid it or restrict to a single cup of coffee for the day.

Beverage preparation

There is no single way of making coffee - unlike tea, there are different brewing methods, from different parts of the world using either boiling or steeping. But all methods involve the use of hot water and coffee powder to derive an extract with the distinctive aroma and flavor that makes it so very popular.

Instant coffee is the simplest method of preparation. The coffee powder is placed in a cup and hot water is poured in to dissolve it.  Sugar (or sweetener) and milk (or creamer) are added for taste. Your cup of coffee is ready.

The filter or drip method is also popular. Coffee powder (a heaped tablespoon for every cup) is placed on a filter and hot water allowed to boil and flow through the powder and collect in a carafe below. This is poured out into cups and sugar and creamer added.

Espresso and cappuccino method is very popular even though it involves the use of costly machines. Here hot water is passed through finely ground compacted coffee powder. This pressure-brewed coffee is collected in mugs and ideally taken without any additives, although if required, sugar or sweetener can be added. The espresso coffee can also be mixed or topped with steamed milk or cream to give the popular cappuccino, which can be sprinkled on top with cocoa or cinnamon, if required.

The Indian filter method involves the use of a filter which is made up of two cylindrical steel containers, one sitting on top of the other. The upper compartment has tiny holes and a removable perforated steel disc with a stem. Coffee powder is placed in the upper compartment and the steel disc lowered into the compartment to sit on the powder. Hot water is poured in and the compartment is then covered with its lid. The coffee decoction slowly collects in the bottom compartment and is ready to use. It may take 6 to 8 hours.

South Indian filter coffee or 'Kaapi' is simply divine. To prepare it, fresh coffee powder is used. Start by roasting equal quantities of peaberry and plantation beans. After it is roasted well, it is ground.  About 10% to 15% chicory is also added at this stage. This freshly ground coffee blend can be used straight away and should be stored in an airtight container, to be used within fifteen days. To make your cup of coffee, all you need to do is take two tablespoons of this coffee powder for every cup of coffee and use the Indian filter to prepare the coffee decoction. When the decoction is ready, fill a cup two-thirds with milk and add the decoction, sugar (or sweetener) and mix well.

South Indian filter kaapi is my favorite for its aroma and flavor but there are so many ways of making coffee that it is worth exploring and experimenting with some of these ways.

Gourmet Coffees

Gourmet coffees are highly rated for their consistent quality, unique taste and the satisfaction that they give, if budget is not the prime consideration.

Kona Coffee is considered to be the best gourmet coffee in the world. It is harvested from Arabica plants grown on the slopes of Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes in the North and South Kona districts in Hawaii.  Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee and Tanzania Peaberry are other premium coffees.

The most expensive coffee in the world goes by the name of  'Kopi Luwak', which is unique in the way it is made. Civet cats found in Sumatra (Indonesia) feed on coffee berries and excrete the coffee beans which are collected and processed to make this gourmet coffee. Connoisseurs explain that the unique, exquisite taste of Kopi Luwak is on account of the fact that the civet cat selects the best berries to eat and the digestive juices seep through the beans to cause changes that produce the unique flavor.  The rarity of the coffee ensures that it remains highly priced  ($600 or more for a kilogram) even though some may find it repulsive and refer to it disparagingly as “civet poop coffee.”

Current Trends

After touching highs in 2011 on account of a combination of factors, including rising demand in emerging economies, and speculative trading on the coffee futures market, coffee bean prices have dropped sharply in 2012. This is a welcome trend for coffee lovers, but sadly may not last long. There is a view that prices have perhaps bottomed out and therefore we can see a pickup in prices sometime in 2013. Wait and watch! 

A real positive trend for coffee is the spate of studies on the beneficial effects on health, which will trigger further research on the exact constituents of coffee and how they impact our health. This will give us better insight and hopefully help us enjoy our cup of coffee without any guilt pangs.