Coffee 101
The fascinating history of coffee

The Discovery of Coffee

Sometime around 850, in southwest Ethiopia, a goat herder noticed that his goats became excited after eating the berries of a certain shrub. Legend has it that he decided to try some of these berries and achieved similar results.


Coffee was first cultivated in Yemen around 1000. Linguists argue over the origin of the word, debating whether it comes from the word "Kaffa" or from the Arabic word "Qawah".

Chewed or Brewed?

For the first several hundred years after it was discovered, coffee was chewed, often in ceremonies. It was first steeped into a tea by a Monk during the 1100's. The "brew" caught on.

Coffee, Spices and Slaves

Dutch traders doing business with the Ottoman Empire are generally credited with first importing coffee into Europe in the 1500's via Constantinople. They then took the plants to their colonies in Java and Bali.

The Coffee Belt

Coffee only grows in a narrow 1500 mile band on either side of the equator.

The Coffee Plant

The coffee plant is a small to medium sized tree, the fruit of which is called the "cherry." The coffee cherry contains two seeds that are covered by a fleshy pulp membrane. The coffee shrub has a life span of 70 years and reaches its highest yield in 5 to 7 years. It can flower and bear fruit (up to 30,000 per year) at the same time. It grows primarily in the tropical regions of the world The two most common types are Robustica and Arabica beans. Robustica beans are of lower quality with higher caffeine content. Arabica beans are of higher quality with lower caffeine content. Caffeine is regulated as a drug by the United States Food and Drug Agency.

Coffee -- Before You See It

Coffee is harvested in several ways. By hand in Panama, Costa Rica, Hawaii (Kona), and Jamaica, and by machine in Brazil, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Each worker has a quota and a worker number. The harvest is is weighed. Workers who exceed their quota are eligible for a bonus. While illegal in most countries, children are often pressed into service picking coffee.

The coffee is then sorted by density and size in a water bath. The best coffee sinks and is pumped out for further processing. The coffee that floats often has a flaw (coffee beetles) and is decanted off for processing into grocery store coffees.

Cherries are sorted for size and then they are husked. (Small and unripe cherries go to the processo where they become "grocery coffee." The husks are returned to the finca (farm) for use as mulch and fertilizer. The mucilage membrane is collected and burned to heat the dryers. Nothing is wasted!

Traditional beneficios (coffee processors) porch dry the coffee with the mucilage on. The coffee starts with a moisture content of 87% and must be dried to 17% before it is roasted. Porch drying takes more time but preserves the delicate flavors.

Un-roasted coffee is called "green".

Coffee roasting is a complex undertaking of carefully monitored time and temperature. The roaster can adjust both variables to deal with specific issues. Some roasters will roast coffee darker to hide flaws, taints, and faults with the coffee. Darker is not better! Marketers use the terms "bright", "lively" and "bold" to persuade consumers that dark roasts are good.

Storing Coffee

Heat, air, and time are coffee's biggest foes once roasted. Coffee contains over 400 chemical compounds, half organic, and the brewing process releases these aroma and flavor compounds. Coffee that is stored in a sealed container with a degassing valve will last for some time. Research conducted by the Specialty Coffee Association in 2011 shows that refrigerated coffee lasts longer and tastes better than coffee stored at room temperature. Coffee that is kept frozen did not lose its flavor after months of storage. Freeze It!

The Daily Grind

Grinding is one of the most important secrets to a great cup of coffee. Inexpensive blade coffee grinders (those that look like a small blender), pulverize the coffee and it is difficult to obtain a consistent grind. Burr Grinders cut the coffee maximizing the surface area of the "ground" coffee. This allows more extraction of the coffee's flavors. Burr Grinders are available at most culinary and home stores and cost as little as $50.


Coffee has been brewed using various techniques for centuries. When brewing hot water is added to the grounds. How this takes place is up to you. Most favor automatic drip machines (we normally grind our coffee for these machines) because they are convenient. Some prefer French Press, others prefer steam infusion.

Strength of the coffee

Coffee Strength is determined by the amount of grounds to the amount of water. Use 1 tablespoon per cup and adjust to taste. (A coffee scoop is 2 tablespoons).

A Spoonful of Sugar?

Traditional Panamanian Brewing adds a teaspoon of sugar to the grounds prior to brewing. This gives the coffee more balance (but does not sweeten it).