Although the coffee industry has changed a lot over the last decade, with specialty coffee cafés coming to dominate cities across the globe, we nevertheless still carry with us some myths from the past. In the second instalment of his three-part series on coffee myths, Gwilym Davies of The Naughty Dog roastery questions some of the more persistent misconceptions that plague our industry.
Arabica is from Arabia
The myth that C. arabica originated from the Arabian Peninsula has long died out. Its precise origin is still debated, though we know it to be somewhere in the ancient forests of South West Ethiopia or maybe South East Sudan, which raises the question why is it called C. arabica not C. aethiopia?
The first taxonomical description of Coffee was published in 1713. Louis XIV of France had been given some coffee plants from the Botanical Garden in Amsterdam and had passed them on to the Director of the Botanical Gardens in Paris, Antoine de Jussieu. Jussieu described them as ‘Jasminum arabicanum, lauri folio, cujus femen apudnos coffee decir’ (‘Arab jasmine, with laurel type leaves, the beans of which we can call coffee’). Note that Jussieu did not name the plant Coffea on account of its laurel type leaves. It was Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who, when studying one of the plants descended from those that Jussieu described, recognized that it was a separate genus, and he called it Coffea. Linnaeus published his finding in his Hortus Cliffortianus in 1737, and in 1753, the species Coffea arabica was published in Species Plantarum, a botanical catalogue of all known plants.
It was understandable, and in keeping with the belief of the time, to think that coffee had originated on the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen, at the time, held a monopoly on the coffee trade, and with Ethiopia having not been colonized in the time of Linnaeus, few, if any, Europeans had been there.
Although Linnaeus later acknowledged that coffee did indeed grow wild in Ethiopia, the mythic seed had been planted, and the belief that coffee originated in Arabia would continue for another two centuries.
Coffee is a bean
Why do we insist on referring to coffee as a bean? While the term indicates an agricultural product, it’s a far cry from the beans I knew growing up in the North of England, the ones from a can that go well on toast. It’s an enlightening moment, when one goes from associating coffee with a brand or package, to connecting it to its origins as the seed of a fruit, and doing so can help us better understand the journey it takes before it ends up in our cup.
A seed’s job is to create another plant, and in order to do this successfully, it must be grown in a suitable environment, where it gets the nutrients it needs to properly germinate. A healthy seed, when ‘cooked’, can have its cells broken open and extracted into your cup, creating a liquid that can taste of anything from chocolate and almonds to jasmine, blueberries, and peach.
The main factor that dictates how a seed will grow is its genotype, a genetic code specific to the species or cultivar that provides a framework for its chemical composition and traits. For instance, C. arabica has higher sucrose and trigonelline than C. canephora, but lower levels of caffeine and chlorogenic acids, resulting in its potential to be higher in acidity and lower in bitterness.
As the seed reaches full maturity it enters a ‘storage phase’ in which it accumulates compounds to be used as an energy reserve during germination. The embryo will use the reserves during the five to 15 days it takes to penetrate the endosperm cap and reach the nutrients in the soil. This final ripening stage is important for taste, with unripe seeds resulting in an unbalanced, astringent coffee.
Once picked, the seed waits for germination to be triggered. The extent to which this happens, if at all, depends on the method chosen to remove the seed from the fruit pulp. Different processing methods start and shut down the germination process at different times, altering the metabolic activity and quality of the processed seed. In the case of wet-processed coffee, germination is triggered when the seeds are removed from the fruit but slows down during drying and stops completely when the seed’s moisture content level drops below 11 per cent. Germination also happens in dry-processed coffee, where the seed is left to dry in the fruit pulp, though it starts later and the metabolic process is slower, conserving more low-molecular-weight sugars.
When it comes to brewing, knowing that coffee is a seed can help us to understand the extraction process. The coffee seed is formed of a matrix of cells surrounded by a hard outer layer. When roasted, the nutrients stored is these cells become tasty and the outer layer weak, making it possible to grind the seed. The smaller the ground particles, the easier it is to extract flavour from the seed, while the bigger the ground particles, the more cells the water has to diffuse through, making extraction more difficult.
There are many factors that go into producing a tasty cup of coffee, but it is well to remember that it all starts with a seed, not a bean!
Robusta is a species
Of the 124 species of the genus Coffea, the international coffee trade is interested in two of them: C. arabica and C. canephora, though the latter is popularly referred to as ‘robusta’ by traders, professional bodies, and education systems, in apparent disagreement with biologists and taxonomists. While the history of C. canephora is complicated and not complete, the history of how it came to be called robusta is clearer.
C. canephora was published in 1897 by Albrecht Froehner in Berlin, and three years later C. robusta was published by Lucien Linden in Belgium. Unknown to them then, though, was that these two plants were actually one and the same. How did this misunderstanding come about?
In 1898 the agent for the Horticole Coloniale sent seeds back from the Congo to its new director, Lucien Linden, in Belgium. The seeds were grown and then sold to the Soember Agoeng Estate in Java in 1900 as a new coffee species, C. robusta. At this time, coffee traders were aware and terrified of the coffee leaf rust disease, and so it stands to reason that even the scantest evidence supporting the discovery of a species different to the C. canephora identified by Albrecht Froehner in 1897, would strike an optimistic note among traders and a name like ‘Robusta’ would pick up momentum. And it seems it did, as even despite our knowing the real story, the coffee industry continues to perpetuate the incorrect C. robusta, with trading houses and industry experts preferring to use the term invented by a trading company claiming to have found a new species in order to sell seeds taken from the Congo Basin.
Granted ‘robusta’ cannot correctly be used to refer to a separate species, can it be useful in describing the specific type of C. canephora Linden sold to the coffee farms in Java? C. Canephora has a natural genetic variability; even seeds collected from the same plant are likely to create different characteristics in their offspring. And while C. arabica is predominantly self-fertilizing, making identifying specific varieties easier, C. Canephora is self-sterile and has to cross-pollinate, making it more genetically diverse but its specific varieties difficult to identify. So those plants Linden sold have since mutated and cross-pollinated, both naturally and with help from humans, making the original variety extremely difficult to correctly index, and the claim of robusta as separate species even harder to credit.
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