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History And Properties Of Coffee (II)

Continuing from the last post we published, today we want to tell you more about the history of coffee and its preparation. If you haven’t read the previous one yet, you can do so by clicking here.


Coffee trees, or coffee plants, are native to East Africa and were likely appreciated first for their sweet fruits, which resemble cherries, and their leaves, which can be used to make a type of tea. An infusion of dried fruit pulp is still consumed in Yemen, where it seems that the seeds or “beans” began to be roasted, ground, and used to make infusions in the 14th century. Our word “coffee” is derived from the Arabic “qahwah,” the origin of which is not clear. The coffee plant was brought to South India around 1600, from India to Java around 1700, and shortly thereafter from Java, passing through Amsterdam and Paris, to the French Caribbean. Today, the world’s largest coffee exporters are Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia; African countries account for one-fifth of global production.


The original version of the infusion of roasted coffee beans is the Arabic version, which still survives in the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece. Finely ground beans are combined with water and sugar in an uncovered container, boiled until foam forms, allowed to settle, boiled again to create foam one or two more times, and finally poured into small cups. This is the coffee that made its way to Europe around 1600; it is concentrated, includes some sediment (grounds), and must be consumed immediately, as otherwise, the grounds would increase the already considerable bitterness.

French Refinements

The first Western modifications to coffee infusion were made around 1700 when French cooks isolated the solid grounds within the liquid by enclosing them in a cloth bag, thus obtaining a clearer and less gritty infusion. By 1750, the French introduced the most important advance before espresso: the coffee pot, into which hot water was poured over a bed of ground beans to pass through it into a separate chamber. This invention achieved three things:

  1. It kept the temperature of the extracting water below the boiling point.
  2. It reduced the contact time between water and ground coffee to a few minutes.
  3. It produced a sediment-free infusion that remained good for a while without becoming stronger.

The reduction in temperature and infusion time meant less complete extraction of coffee, reducing bitterness and astringency, giving more prominence to other flavor elements of coffee, acidity, and aroma that were more satisfying to the European palate.

Expresso from a Machine

The 19th century brought the invention of new infusion methods. First, percolation, which allowed boiling water to rise through a central tube and irrigate a bed of ground coffee, and then the French press, which allowed the operator to soak the ground coffee and then push it down to the bottom with the plunger and pour out the liquid. But the biggest innovation in coffee infusion made its debut at the 1885 Paris Exposition. It was the Italian espresso, a word that means something made on the spot, quickly and for only one customer. The way to make coffee quickly is to pass water at high pressure through ground beans. In the process, the pressure extracts a significant amount of essential oil from the beans and emulsifies it into tiny droplets that create a velvety texture and a lingering flavor in the mouth. Espresso coffee is a manifestation of the machine’s power to extract the maximum and the best from a traditional ingredient, turning it into something new.


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