03 Jan The coffee bean: a brief history through the ages
The cup of coffee is part of the daily routine of millions of people around the world. Prepared from a clever mixture of water and ground coffee beans, this concoction is nothing new, and yet, we forget the extent to which its appeal has fueled many legends since the era when humans first discovered its charms.
The history of the coffee bean reaches back several millennia, and the further back we go on this timeline, the harder it is to find an official and confirmed version that explains how people first began transforming the little coffee berries into roasted beans. However, the story we know is no less exciting.
The discovery of coffee: pure chance?
Coffee trees mainly grow in tropical regions, such as South America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa. It’s also in Africa, on land located in present-day Ethiopia, where several legends take place that recount the discovery of coffee.
The story that comes up most often involves a shepherd from the Kaffa province who noticed that his goats became very energetic after consuming the fruit of this little shrub. Upon learning of this discovery, some monks at a nearby monastery thought about using this berry to make an infusion. This story took place around 850 A.D. (but the sources contradict each other).
At first, historians asserted that the coffee bean was often consumed as is or as a paste. The beverage made from the coffee bean grew in popularity during a somewhat more recent era.
The consumption of coffee beans spread quickly throughout the Near and Middle East, but the product took more time to reach Europe. It was by following the expansions of the Ottoman Empire that coffee reached certain regions in southern Europe. The great explorers and merchants of the Renaissance era also carried the sacred bean in their luggage. The word “coffee” also starts appearing in several European languages around the 16th century.
In turn, the Europeans then transported coffee plants to their colonies around the world, from Réunion Island to Indonesia.
It’s estimated that coffee consumption became a worldwide phenomenon around the turn of the 20th century, with companies that introduced instant coffee. After that, the major coffee chains opened their doors in the big cities, allowing mass access to this drink that many people have since included in their daily routines.
Development of the roasting process
You would have had to be extremely bold to conduct the experiments that transformed the green coffee bean, hidden under the flesh of a red fruit, into the dark coffee bean, thereby releasing its flavours. Here again, though, it seems that the coffee roasting process was the result of a chance discovery.
Basically, we’re talking about drying food — in this case, the coffee bean. It was found that the act of exposing the food to heat — in other words, roasting it — sped up the drying process and even led to the carbonization of the bean, which could then be consumed as a beverage.
The current evolution of the coffee bean
These days, the demand for quality coffee beans is stronger than ever. Several roasting techniques have been developed over time to produce different types of coffee with rich and surprisingly varied flavours.
In addition, while the Arabica variety of beans was the most widespread during the first few centuries of coffee consumption, you can find other varieties on the market today, such as Robusta and Liberica, which grow in different regions and have their own taste characteristics. The coffee bean as we know it is therefore far from being done evolving!