Ideas

10 facts about coffee, the world's most popular drink

An ordinary cup of Joe just won’t do anymore. It’s now gourmet, fair trade and organic. Whether the method is pour over, French press, or vacuum pumps, coffee is now described with terms like “mouthfeel”, just as fine wines are. Contributing producer Marilyn Powell brings us her documentary, The Coffee Chronicles, about the cultural history behind the world's most popular drink.

There are 124 species of coffee, but only two are consumed today

Over 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed in the world every day. (Amer Almohibany/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

From the morning coffee ritual, to coffee breaks, to an after dinner coffee — the world has been in a committed relationship with their cuppa Joe for centuries.

There's a lot to learn about the mighty brew, from how it's made, to the varied ways we can drink it. Contributing producer Marilyn Powell shares the history, science and culture behind the world's most popular drink in her documentary, The Coffee Chronicles.

Here are 10 facts about coffee to pour...er, pore over:

Robusta vs Arabica

There are 124 species of coffee, but only two — Robusta and Arabica — are consumed today. Robusta is strong and hardy, but Arabica has a sweeter, softer taste. In 1756, the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, dubbed it coffea arabica (coffee from Arabia), but Linnaeus was wrong. Coffea arabica is indigenous to Ethiopia, where it still grows.

Women in Ethiopia taking part in the traditional coffee ceremony. (Jeff Koehler)

Legendary origins

According to legend, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi made a startling discovery. One day, his goats wandered off. When Kaldi found them, they appeared to be "dancing" after they'd been nibbling on bright, red berries, known as coffee cherries.

He brought some to show a Sufi monk, who promptly threw them into the fire. Soon a tantalizing aroma began to fill the room. The beans inside the cherries were roasting in the flames. Then the other monks collected the beans from the embers, ground and brewed them, making the original drink of coffee.

Ripe coffee cherries in the Kafa's Ufa Coffee Forest. (Jeff Koehler)

Border crossings

No one knows exactly when, but centuries ago, coffee seeds were carried from Ethiopia to nearby Yemen, where the seeds were planted. The Yemeni began cultivating Arabica coffee for the very first time. By the 16th century, drinking it was spreading throughout the Muslim world. By the 17th century, Europeans were drinking it too. 

Out of Africa

In the 18th century, the Dutch and French planted coffee from Indonesia to the Caribbean to Latin America. By the 19th century, the British were cultivating it in India and Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Two-thirds of the world's production of coffee today is Arabica.

One lump or two?

Sugar — and milk — were added to coffee in 17th century Europe to temper the bitter taste. That's how the cafe au lait was created.

Wild cat coffee

One of the most coveted coffee varieties comes from the feces of the Asian palm civet, a wild cat-like creature.

A civet is eating coffee during the production of Civet coffee, the world's most expensive coffee in Bondowoso, in East Java, near Surabaya, Indonesia. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

In 19th century Indonesia, the practise of force-feeding coffee cherries to caged civets began. As they're unable to digest the beans, they excrete them whole. The coffee made from the beans is said to be a smooth, less acidic brew. The process of producing kopi luwak, "civet coffee" has been condemned by animal welfare activists. 

Elephant coffee

Blake Dinkin, heard in this Ideas documentary, produces his Blake Ivory coffee, using elephants in Thailand. He feeds coffee cherries to elephants and pays their owners to collect intact cherries from the elephants' dung. The coffee that results is said to benefit from the fermentation of the cherries in the elephants' digestive tracts, where protein breaks down, reducing bitterness, and sugars are released from the fruit into the coffee bean itself. 

Black Ivory Coffee is made from Thai Arabica hand-picked beans. The coffee is created from a process whereby coffee beans are naturally refined by a Thai elephant. It takes about 12-72 hours for the elephant to digest the beans, and later they are plucked from their dung and washed and roasted. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Coffee's enemies

Epidemics of coffee leaf rust began in Colombia in 2008, then in 2012 in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico; and in Peru and Ecuador in 2013. The disease remains an ever-present danger, along with pests like the vicious coffee borer beetle that drills its way into the coffee cherry, destroying the fruit.

Because of climate change, farmers sometimes move to higher altitudes to defeat higher temperatures. Scientists establish seed banks, grow plants in botanical gardens, research genes to find natural resistance.

Banning the bean

In 1511, the governor of Mecca believed coffee stimulated radical thinking and outlawed the drink. Some 16th-century Italian clergymen also tried to ban coffee because they believed it to be satanic.

However, Pope Clement VII is said to have loved coffee so much that he lifted the ban and had coffee baptized as a Christian beverage in the 1600s. Even as recently as the 18th century, the Swedish government made both coffee and coffee paraphernalia (including cups and dishes) illegal because of its supposed ties to rebellious sentiment.

Coffee's biggest producers

Brazil leads the world, producing about one-third of the world's supply, according to the International Coffee Organization, about twice as much as the second-place holder, Vietnam. Brazil supplies the coffee that appears in supermarkets.

Guests in the program: 



** This episode was produced by Marilyn Powell.

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