When you mention the word coffee, an image of the distant past in a distant land conjures in the mind. Just envision a sun-drenched day in the distant past, perhaps dating back to over a thousand years or may be even more. Visualize a group of primitive African warriors moving inside soggy mountainous woodland having thick lustrous bushes growing up to 12 to 16 feet in height and bearing large evergreen leaves. Bunched at the axils of the leaves of these shrub-like trees are smoothed, profoundly red colored berries that are perhaps even a wee bit smaller than the first joint of a man's little finger. These African warriors are aware that these deep red berries enclose some elements that stimulate them to perform better and achieve vigor and valor. Thus, these men collect large amounts of these berries to chew while preparing themselves for the combats further on.
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Now, we know that the element contained in these deep red, rounded berries is nothing but caffeine - a substance that the present-day Americans look for in a steaming breakfast infusion. In fact, caffeine invigorates our central nervous system by augmenting the blood circulation, particularly in the coronary arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. In turn, the heart rate improves and the muscles act in response to the insistent rhythm. In addition, the action of the caffeine also encourages improved breathing, makes the kidneys work a tad vigorously and the cerebral actions too become rapid. In other words, caffeine makes people more ready to act and prepare them to tackle the day ahead.
Consuming a couple of cups of coffee is definitely refreshing, but if you drink more than five or six cups of this brew, it is bound to result in undesirable side effects. In fact, drinking excessive coffee is akin to taking an overdose of the world's most favorite medicine. Once you have consumed more than five to six cups of coffee, the caffeine enclosed in it will change the gentle stimulation to a feeling of restiveness, petulance, a sensation of queasiness and even trembling and unsteadiness of the mind.
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Each fruit of a number of species of Coffea encloses two gray colored seeds that yield caffeine. Interestingly, a scientist stumbled upon this property of the Coffea fruit seeds in 1821 mistaking them to be enclosing quinine! Although caffeine is a good stimulating agent, it has its downsides too. Scientists have been able to find a way to have coffee minus the caffeine. Presently, once is able to take the pleasure of the flavor of coffee without the undesirable side effects caused by caffeine. For this, coffee is decaffeinated by eliminating the caffeine, while retaining the oil produced by the seeds, called caffeol. It may be mentioned here that the characteristic fragrance and essence of coffee are attributed to caffeol. On the other hand, the caffeine extracted from the coffee seeds is marketed to the pharmaceutical companies for use in different medications, especially medicines that alleviate pain and tenderness. The invigorating results of caffeine enable substances, such as phenacetin and aspirin, to dash off into the system and provide relief from pain. In addition, caffeine is also effective in invigorating the heart and respiratory system. In fact, caffeine is especially effective in combating the overindulgence of substances, such as morphine, alcohol and barbiturates, which depress the central nervous system.
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The species of Coffea called C. Arabica is native to Ethiopia and was later taken to Egypt, Persia and the remaining Arab land at some unidentified time in the ancient past. Initially, only the priests and the medicine men enjoyed the privilege of roasting, pounding, infusing as well as consumption of the coffee beans. This practice continued for a long time and it was only in the 15th century that Mecca took pride in having numerous coffee houses that were meant for the common masses. Later, such coffee houses were also established in other places, such as Venice, Constantinople and also in Rome. It is interesting to note that the church had made several attempts to stop the introduction of coffee houses in Rome on the pretext that coffee was an 'infidel drink', but it eventually failed in its endeavors. Around the middle of the 17th century, drinking coffee had become very trendy in major European cities, including London, Berlin and Paris.
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For a long time, the Arabs enjoyed an exclusive domination over coffee trade, as most of the produce was transported all the way through the port of Mocha. Consequently, one of the most favorite types of coffee came to be known as 'Mocha'. Although most of the coffee trade was carried out through the Arab land, for a long time, they were actually prohibited from exporting the plants of the unroasted seeds. However, in 1690 the Dutch managed to smuggle out some seedlings. With these smuggled seedlings they established coffee plantations in their settlements in Java, which eventually become another favorite name of coffee. About a century later, in the early part of the 18th century, coffee trees were introduced in Jamaica and Martinique in the Caribbean islands, where they prospered well. Soon after, coffee trees were also introduced in new Caribbean islands, Central America and Brazil. Over the years, Brazil ultimately ranked as the top coffee bean producer of the world. However, presently this distinction goes to Colombia. While cultivation of coffee trees was mainly confined to these parts of the world for a long time, in the recent decades many countries in Asia and Africa have also claimed some segments of the coffee market share. These Asian and African countries mainly cultivate the Coffea species known as C. liberica and C. canephora.
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As already discussed earlier, along with tea, coffee is the most popular beverage around the globe today. Connoisseurs of coffee especially prefer this drink for its stimulating properties. Despite the fact that coffee is very useful when consumed as all-purpose refreshment, especially creating certain effects on the central nervous system and enhancing sensitivity and physical feats, albeit for a short duration, many people are still not willing to accept coffee as a therapeutic herb. Coffee augments the flow of blood from the heart, encourages the secretion of digestive enzymes and is also a potent diuretic. In addition, drinking coffee also helps in alleviating headaches and migraine. Caffeine, the active element in coffee, is regularly blended with standard pain killer medications that are available without any prescription. Auyrvedic medical practitioners recommend the use of raw coffee beans to treat headaches and the ripened and roasted beans to alleviate diarrhea. Coffee enemas prove to be very useful in cleansing the large bowel.
Coffea arabica is the largest variety of coffee consumed by people worldwide and it enjoys a market share of around 75 per cent. This species of Coffea is a perennial low growing tree or shrub that thrives best in places receiving reasonable rainfall and is situated at altitude ranging between 2,000 feet and 6,500 feet above the sea level. However, there are exceptions to these conditions. For instance, the tree is cultivated at a height of 9,400 feet above the sea level in Ecuador, while in the sub-tropical climes of Hawaii, the coffee shrubs are cultivated at altitudes almost matching the sea level. In addition to the rainfall and altitude, another important factor that contributes to steady growth of coffee shrubs is the temperature, which should preferably be around 68°F. The type of coffee shrub that is promoted commercially normally grows up to a height of around 16 feet. However, these shrubs are normally trimmed to a height of around six feet with a view to facilitate the harvesting of the beans.
Coffea arabica takes around three to four years from its planting to bear extremely aromatic flowers. Following the blooms, it takes another six to eight months for the coffee berries to mature. Initially, the raw coffee berries are greenish, and they subsequently change to a red color and when they are fully ripened the berries have a profound crimson hue. Often the coffee berries are also referred to as coffee cherries owing to their similarity with cherries in size and color. Below the deep crimson covering of the coffee cherry, there lies a damp, soft and sweet pulp that encloses the green colored coffee bean. The covering of the coffee bean is known as the silver skin as it is skinny, subtle and lucid.
Generally, there is no fixed time for harvesting the coffee cherries and it largely depends of the climate and altitude of the place where the shrub is cultivated. In Brazil, where the conditions for growing coffee shrubs are not perfect enough, the cherries are collected during the winter months only. However, in places like Java, where the conditions for cultivating coffee trees are ideal, the planting is spread out throughout the year and, hence, the berries too can be harvested always or the whole time during the year. Harvesting is done manually, as the coffee cherries are either collected by hand or by shaking the shrubs, which causes the ripened berries to fall on the mats placed below.
It may be mentioned here that the Coffea arabica is basically a very frail shrub that is vulnerable to infections caused by over 40 different diseases set off by viruses, fungi, bacteria as well as deficiencies in the soil on which it grows. The most horrible disease confronted by Coffea arabica is leaf rust brought in by a fungus called Hemileia vastatrix. When the shrubs are infected by this disease, the leaves wither and fall from the branches and subsequently, the shrub dies after a few years. In fact, the leaf rust disease affects the coffee trees everywhere they are cultivated. However, it does not have much of an impact in Central and South America, as the farmers here are very cautious and they destroy the trees as soon as they are affected by the disease. The success of the farmers in Central and South America in controlling the leaf rust disease is one reason why most of the Coffea arabica comes from these regions. The coffee trees are also infected with other less serious diseases, but this occurs in places where the conditions for cultivating this cash crop are trivial.
Outside the Americas, the most widely cultivated variety of coffee trees is the Coffea robusta, also known as Coffea canephora var. robusta. However, Brazil in South America, where the conditions for cultivating this shrub is less than ideal, grows some amount of this species of coffee. In fact, compared to Coffea arabica, coffee trees of this species are able to endure extreme soil and climatic conditions and are also more resilient to insect invasions as well as diseases. In addition, Coffea robusta trees can be cultivated in lands situated at much lower altitudes. Moreover, Coffea robusta yields huge harvests and it is also much easier to collect the berries of these shrubs as the over ripened berries do not fall off from the trees, but remain as they are for quite some time. As a result of such variations, cultivating Coffea robusta is cost effective and the inexpensiveness enables the farmers to obtain more utilities from the plants of this species of coffee. However, the downside of cultivating Coffea robusta is that this coffee species takes two to three months more than the Coffea arabica for the berries to ripen. Another shortcoming of the Coffea robusta variety of coffee cherries is that their flavor is inferior to that of Coffea arabica.
As discussed earlier, although drinking coffee is useful in treating a number of conditions, many people are still not prepared to recognize this plant as a therapeutic herb. Nevertheless, the coffee plant encloses a number of elements and chemical analysis of the berries has revealed that on an average it contains 0.06 per cent to 0.32 per cent caffeine, tannins, theobromine and theophylline. While caffeine is a potent stimulating agent, theophylline is also invigorating and, at the same time, unwinds the soft muscles of the body.
Coffee processing is vital for maintaining the aroma and flavor of this herbal beverage. Basically, there are two main techniques that are used to isolate the coffee bean from the berry. One process, known as the wet process, involves a pulping machine to crack the freshly collected coffee berries and get rid of the outer skin and some of the pulp below. The separated skin and pulp of the coffee berries are put in water and allowed to remain there for around 24 hours and during this period more flesh is slackened off from the skin of the berries through fermentation or owing to the action of bacteria and yeasts present in the water. Later, the beans are removed from the water, rinsed and dehydrated in the sun. In the last step, the silver skin or the skin of the seeds is removed and they are polished by means of machines. The substance obtained through this process is referred to as green beans by the coffee traders. All Arabica coffee berries, except those produced in Brazil, are put through the wet process as it usually yields superior quality of beans.
The second technique used to separate the coffee bean from the berry is known as dry processing. Compared to the wet processing, this method is much less expensive and used for all coffee berries of the Coffea robusta species as well as the entire Coffea arabica produced in Brazil. This technique involves pricking berries from the trees and drying them by means of machines or putting them in the sun for a few weeks. When the coffee berries are dried, the dried pods as well as the silver skin of the seeds are removed manually or by means of machines to obtain the green coffee beans. When coffee is produced by the dry processing, it usually tastes much coarser compared to the coffee produced through the wet process. This is the primary reason why even the Coffea arabica variety produced in Brazil is neither of superior quality, nor in great demand. On the other hand, the Coffea robusta species grown in Uganda is usually wet processed and, hence, the bean has a superior flavor compared to the same variety of coffee produced elsewhere.
The coffee we drink undergoes further processing with a view to produce decaffeinated coffee or coffee minus its main active element caffeine. As a number of oils as well as the essence of the coffee bean go missing during the numerous processing that the coffee berries have to undergo, most people use the more potent flavored Coffea robusta variety or the Coffea arabica cultivated in Brazil for the decaffeinating process.
Coffee manufacturers usually adopt one of the two techniques to decaffeinate the green coffee seeds with a view to remove as much as 97 per cent or more of their caffeine content and, at the same time, retain the maximum possible flavor and essence of coffee in the seeds. These two decaffeinating processing techniques are known as the direct method and the water method. The direct method involves using a dissolvable liquid chemical called methylene chloride, which is exploited to get rid of the caffeine from the green coffee seeds. Once the caffeine is removed, this solvent is watered down and later the caffeine obtained from the green seeds is used for other purposes.
On the other hand, the water method involves soaking the green coffee seeds in water to remove their caffeine content. Once the caffeine is removed from the green coffee seeds, the seeds are taken out of the water and the caffeine is extracted from the water for other purposes. Later, these decaffeinated green coffee seeds are again soaked in the same water with a view to reinstate some of the solid substances that retain their flavor. In this case, the decaffeinated coffee obtained by the direct method usually has a better flavor compared to the coffee decaffeinated by the water method. This is primarily owing to the fact that when coffee is decaffeinated by the water method it loses much of the flavor along with the caffeine in the water.
The coffee that is sold in the retail market undergoes another processing before it reaches the consumer. In fact, both regular as well as decaffeinated green coffee seeds are roasted before they are sold in the retail market. The roasting process lasts for around five minutes and is carried out commercially by putting the green coffee seeds in gases that are heated to 260°C. In fact, the duration of roasting largely depends on the preferred darkness of the coffee beans and, to a great extent, influences the flavor and caffeine content of the brewed coffee we cherish every morning. There are basically two roasting durations - the shortest roast also known as the 'light city' and the longest roast, also called the 'Italian'. The shortest roast lasts for a lesser duration during which the green coffee seeds lose as much as 14 per cent of their water content, while during the longest roast the coffee seeds are dehydrated by as much as 20 per cent. In addition, the shortest roast yields a cinnamon-hued coffee bean, while the longest roast turns the color of green coffee seeds to dark brown or black. Before you can brew your morning cup of coffee, the substance needs to be grinded. Generally, the grinding is done by a processor in the store selling the substance. However, these days more and more people prefer to buy roasted coffee seeds and grind them at their homes or restaurants just before brewing it. This helps to ensure that the coffee you purchase from your retail store retains as much possible flavor and essence.
Instant coffee is very popular among the people these days, as it takes the barest possible time to prepare. Usually, one or two techniques are adopted to produce instant coffee from the roasted coffee seeds or beans. Both these methods involve first brewing an extract from coffee in large coffee machines or coffee pots called percolators. These techniques use pressurized water at 338°F to get more of the coffee beans into the solution. To manufacture spray-dried coffee, the extract is taken to the pinnacle of a hot air tower. This process helps the extract to dehydrate and the resultant coffee powder is collected from the base of the tower. Another variety of instant coffee is freeze-dried coffee. This is a more expensive method, but yields coffee with a superior flavor. In this method, the water and the solids present in the coffee extract obtained in the solution isolate on their own when frozen. Later, these solid coffee extracts are turned into granules or made into flakes.