Although many people may not have heard of coffee from Malawi, coffee originated in Africa before being cultivated in many tropical parts of the world including Brazil, Colombia, the Ivory Coast, India, Indonesia, Hawaii and Jamaica.
Wild coffee plants were taken from Ethiopia to southern Arabia and cultivated in the 15th century. One early legend has an Arab goat herder sampling the berries after noting the strange antics of his charges after they’d been chomping on the fruit.
He experienced a sense of exhilaration which is now put down to the stimulating effects of caffeine found in coffee and loved by coffee ‘addicts.’
It was introduced into European countries during the 16th and 17th centuries with the first coffeehouses opening in Vienna, Paris and London (1652). Lloyds, the shipping underwriters, began in a coffeehouse which was the meeting place of merchants, bankers, and shipowners and insurance agents.
Coffeehouses then became centres of political, social, literary and business influence, establishing a social ritual that was to be adopted by all cultures around the world. In America, it substituted for tea when tea was taxed by the British and became the prime beverage of choice in the U.S.
With its increasing popularity – but limited supply – propagation spread to Java, the Americas and Hawaiian Islands (1825). In the 20th century most production came from the Western Hemisphere, particularly Brazil.Industrial roasting and grinding machines came into use at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries along with decaffeination methods. Instant coffee was perfected in the 1950s – to the acclaim of many but the distaste of ‘real’ coffee devotees – and this led to an increase in the growth of cheaper Robusta beans in Africa.
Coffee beans are found inside the red berries, the fruit of the of coffee shrubs which are 5m high but pruned to 2m and fully fruit-bearing in five or six years, growing on frost-free hillsides with moderate rainfall.
The ripened fruit, known as ‘coffee cherries’ because of their striking appearance, are processed by separating the coffee seeds from their coverings and pulp, fermenting and washing before drying which reduces the original moisture content from 65-70% water by weight to 12-13%.
The aromatic and gustatory (taste) qualities come from the high temperatures used during roasting in temperatures raised progressively to about 230 C. Steam, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other elements are released and internal pressure of gas expands the coffee beans by 30% to 100%.
This process is achieved by hot air being blown into a rotating metal cylinder, the tumbling action ensuring beans are roasted evenly.
Deep brown beans are the result, with a porous, crumbly texture.
Over-roasting can demolish the fragile flavour and aroma.
Coffee is sold either as beans to be ground at the point of purchase or by the consumer at home, or already ground. The degree of fineness is critical. Too coarse and the water filters through without catching the flavour; too fine and water filters too slowly and leaves particles that collect at the bottom of the cup. Hence the phrase that perfect coffee leaves a ‘clean cup.’