by Rick Green
A tantalizing aroma wafts upwards, enveloping the senses, drawing my gaze into the shimmering blackness. There was a time when I wouldn't have given my coffee a second thought beyond the first sip. Yet, it represents so much more, which you realize when pursuing the path of coffee.
Most think of coffee as just a cup of joe, but that's as true as saying wine is only red and white or beer is straw-colored fizz. A trip to Germany exposed me to other possibilities and launched a never-ending journey of discovery. Coffee is no longer just regular or decaf, light roast or dark. It's a portal to the world, a gateway to future possibilities.
Sound far-fetched? Consider that coffee is commonly associated with place — Java, Colombia, and Brazil are the most familiar. Antigua, Harar, Kilimanjaro, Mocha, Sumatra, and Tarrazu are others regularly served up by the specialty coffee market — Lonely Planet in a cup.
In fact, with coffee grown in over 70 countries, it's not difficult to take an around-the-world journey through your daily habit. Here's a sample of the possibilities and some background to inspire your own journeys.
Cradle of Coffee
The Horn of Africa is the origin of Homo sapiens. It's also the cradle of coffee. Legend credits its discovery to frisky goats shepherded by a boy named Kaldi. The reality was likely less colorful.
Arabica coffee originated in highlands of Buno and Kaffa.1 in southwestern Ethiopia. Coffee's earliest known use was by Oromo warriors for energy on their march to battle. They rolled crushed coffee cherries and animal fat into balls to produce their version of a modern-day PowerBar. Unfortunately for the Oromo, their prowess in battle was less than renowned. In spite of their caffeine boost, many found themselves in the slave market of Harar. This spread coffee to the town's environs, the cultivation of which eventually eclipsed the slave trade.
Today, you experience coffee history when you drink a cup of Ethiopian Harar. It's a descendant of the original bean, still produced as it was hundreds of years ago. Small village garden plots use traditional, dry-processing methods without the use of chemicals. The coffee is organic, but usually not certified because of the cost. That alone should persuade you to sip and contemplate, not gulp.
If you are drinking a single origin (not blended with other coffees), don't be surprised that the characteristics may change from cup to cup. Much of how these beans are processed is left up to Mother Nature. This will be reflected on your palate — ranging from a winey, fruity, light-bodied cup to complexly sweet, earthy, and heavier-bodied. The beans may be roasted darker to tame some of their wildness, but it shouldn't taste burnt.
Ethiopian Sidamo, on the other hand, is wet-processed in larger quantities. Therefore, there is greater uniformity and control over the results. This will give you a more consistent cup with a rich, balanced flavor profile that doesn't require darker roasting. Nevertheless, if you are used to drinking Latin American coffees of the Juan Valdez variety, the Ethiopians will be noticeably different.
Wine of Araby
A short hop across the Red Sea introduces us to the fabled coffee of Yemen. With a common genetic origin, you'll notice its similarities with Ethiopia's coffees. The full body, intense flavor and aroma come from slow growth at altitude, which concentrates these in a small, hard bean. You may also notice a chocolate undertone, which is responsible for the classic combination of chocolate and coffee being named after Mocha (al-Makha), Yemen's illustrious coffee port.
The highest-grown Mattari, Hirazi, and Ismaili coffees offer the greatest complexity. However, due to the Yemeni demand for qat, a mild narcotic, coffee cultivation has declined. Therefore, a single origin Yemen Mocha will be harder to come by and more expensive. Yemen Mocha Sanani, a blend of both highland and lower-grown coffees, is more common. It offers greater balance, but is not as complex or acidic as the others.
Yemeni coffees can also lack consistency. As with the Hararis, this is due to the small-scale, dry processing methods that have changed little over the centuries. The remoteness and poverty of the coffee growing region west of the capital, Sana'a, has inhibited the adoption of chemicals or mechanization. Instead, coffee is organically cultivated on irrigated, terraced plots precariously perched on jagged slopes shrouded in an aura of misty mystery.
It's uncertain how arabica coffee came to be transplanted to these highlands, but a healthy trade (including Oromo slaves) existed between Harar and Mocha in the first millennium. This may have exposed it to Arab traders who then brought it across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula for cultivation.
It wasn't until about AD 1200 that we find the first recorded use of coffee as a drink specifically infused from ground, roasted coffee beans. Before, the beverage was prepared from green or roasted coffee tree leaves, husks from the coffee cherry, whole or crushed green beans. How the beans came to be roasted and then crushed probably came about by accident. Legends abound, but we'll unlikely know for certain.
A Sufi sect in Yemen began drinking this qahwa bunnīya to help them perform their nocturnal devotions. They gradually formalized the drinking of coffee as an initiation to their rituals. Through their pilgrimages this practice spread to Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Damascus and, eventually, Constantinople (Istanbul). As conservative objections to coffee were overcome, its use widened to the general public. A trade evolved that exclusively supplied the demand with Yemeni coffee whose export was tightly controlled through Mocha.
1. Some believe Buna and Kaffa are the root of the words for coffee in different languages—buna, bunn, caffè, koffie, qahveh—but "coffee" most likely comes from the Arabic, qahwa.
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