A History of Coffee
The Family Tree
Coffee varieties are mainly divided into 2 varieties: C.Arabica and C.Canephora (also known as Robusta). These 2 varieties are further divided into multiple sub-varieties, with each giving their own unique taste profile. Arabica makes up over 60% of the world’s coffee production and is generally regarded as superior to Robusta due to its ability in producing a better cup-quality (Kanniah, 2020). Hence, Arabica commands a higher price and is often referred to as the bean that produces ‘specialty coffee’ while Robusta on the other hand is more commonly used in lower quality blends or instant coffee.
So, where did coffee come from? To date, the origins of coffee are still ambiguous, however many people believe in the legend that coffee was first discovered by Kaldi, an Ethiopian goat herder, around 850 AD. One day as Kaldi was herding his goats, he noticed they were behaving unusually strange; the goats were full of energy, bleating loudly and jumping around excitedly. Kaldi concluded it was the bright red cherries found on the surrounding shrubs which caused this peculiar euphoria. Out of curiosity, he decided to try the cherries himself, lo and behold, he experienced a surge of energy. Coffee was born and the rest is history (Cubico, 2015)!
A Brief History: Coffee’s Voyage
While there have been countless theories on the origins of coffee, the one truth that is widely accepted is that the first Arabica coffee plant was discovered in southwestern Ethiopia. Soon after its discovery, coffee’s popularity spiked and it reached the Arabian Peninsula through trades. Large-scale coffee cultivation began in Yemen and word about coffee spread throughout the Islamic world and later on all across Europe (NCA, n.d.).
As demands for coffee increased and competition became intense in the markets, the Dutch decided to secure coffee seedlings to cultivate coffee outside of the Middle East to gain a competitive edge. They successfully propagated the seedlings on the Island of Java (Modern-day Indonesia) and became a prominent player in coffee production and trade. In 1714, the Dutch government decided to gift the French King with a coffee tree (of the Typica variety) from Java after a peace treaty was signed. This tree was treated like a royalty and it was cared for meticulously. The French named it “The Noble Tree” and specially constructed a greenhouse (Jardin des Plantes) just to house it. The tree produced numerous seeds and were taken to propagate coffee plants around the world — first in Latin America and the Island of Bourbon (now known as Reunion Island), and later in Central America and Africa etc. Thus, it is believed that The Noble Tree is the ancestor to most of the specialty coffee that we drink in the world today (Cubico, 2015).
The coffee plant that was first cultivated in Latin America from The Noble Tree was of the Typica (which also means ‘ordinary’ in Latin) variety. It is hailed as the ‘forefather’ of coffees due to its proliferation across the world (The Roasters Pack, n.d.). Typica is responsible for many varieties which are a result of natural mutation, natural cross-breeding and selective cross-breeding. Some varieties include: Kona (Hawaii) and Blue Mountain (Jamaica). Typica produces an excellent cup of coffee but it has a low yield in comparison to Bourbon.
Using the seeds from The Noble Tree, the other plant that was cultivated on the Island of Bourbon (now known as Reunion Island) in Africa was, of course, the Bourbon variety coffee plant. What is bewildering here is that, how did the plant end up being known as Bourbon instead of Typica? This was due to natural mutation. The plant ended up mutating into a significantly different variety from the original Typica. The Bourbon plant is 30% more productive than the Typica and has more complexity and sweetness in its taste profile. Thus, Bourbon became more desirable and its seeds were used to plant in different parts of Central and South America. Consequently, many varieties were developed from the line of Bourbon as well (WCR, n.d.).
Cubico, C. (2015, October 2). History of coffee. Custom Coffee - Gourmet Coffee Beans - Coffee Gift Ideas. https://www.cubicocoffee.com/blog/history-of-coffee.
Kanniah, J. C. (2020, August 18). "100% arabica": What does it mean? Perfect Daily Grind. https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/08/100-arabica-coffee-explanation-robusta-specialty-wcr/.
NCA. (n.d.). National Coffee Association. NCA. https://www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/history-of-coffee.
The Roasters Pack. (n.d.). Coffee Varietals EXPLAINED: Ethiopian Heirloom, Typica, caturra & more. The Roasters Pack. https://theroasterspack.com/pages/coffee-varietals-explained.
The Cafe Imports. (2019, January 19). Blog. Cafe Imports Blog The Cafe Imports Coffee Family Tree fourth edition Comments. https://www.cafeimports.com/europe/blog/2019/01/16/the-cafe-imports-coffee-family-tree-fourth-edition/.
WCR. (n.d.). History of Bourbon AND TYPICA. Arabica Coffee Varieties. https://varieties.worldcoffeeresearch.org/info/coffee/about-varieties/bourbon-and-typica.