Coffee: The Ethiopian gift to the world

Reading time 3 min.

Kawa, espresso, Turkish coffee, milk shakes, what else? A lot more! The terms used to describe this dark brown concoction are many. The most consumed beverage after water in many western countries, coffee is an established institution in its own right. But where does it come from? How is it prepared? What are its benefits and dangers?

Coffee is experiencing new heights of fame since the ultra chic Nespresso advert featuring George Clooney. Notwithstanding all the pomp, however, coffee is above all a popular drink. Marking its entry into Europe in the seventeenth century, coffee has its roots in Africa.

According to a legend, an Abyssinian shepherd named Kaldi was the first to discover the invigorating effect of this beverage in Ethiopia, in the province of Kaffa. The shepherd, according to local history, noted that his flock became agitated every time it consumed the red coffee berries. Sometime later, Kaldi burnt a branch of coffee plant and to his utter amazement discovered the delicious coffee aroma. He thereafter developed a delicate habit of grinding and infusing the grains. Coffee was born!

From Ethiopia, the tradition was exported to the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, who in turn introduced the coffee tradition to northern Africa in the sixteenth century. Once in Egypt, coffee seeds were shipped across the Mediterranean sea by Persian, Turkish and also European merchants from Venice. Coffee was almost immediately adopted by Italian monks by virtue of its ability to keep the human mind alert. In the seventeenth century, Europeans exported the precious plant to the Americas, where Native Americans and Black African slaves, working on large plantations, were forced to cultivate it.

A stimulant

What makes coffee a stimulant is the caffeine. This molecule, which in its pure form is a white powder, is extremely bitter, accelerates the heart rate and may provoke a feeling of alertness. If consumed in large quantities, coffee can cause physical addiction and also lead to insomnia and nervousness. Coffee has its benefits too. It limits the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

Otherwise, for those trying to avoid caffeine and yet cannot resist the magnetic power of this ancient drink, there is decaffeinated coffee. Decaffeinating coffee adds another step to an already arduous coffee roasting process.

The roasting of coffee beans is a critical phase in coffee production. From green, coffee beans turn to brown during the roasting process — from a lighter shade to dark brown depending on the temperature and cooking time. They are then ground with great delicacy after which traditions take over. Turks add sugar and water to a very finely ground coffee. Italians, on the other hand, prefer the espresso coffee machine which gives a less dense concoction.

A thriving economy

In cafés, the usual question before a coffee service is: long or short? The question should rather be: arabica and robusta? Although there are 60 different types of coffee, these are the only two used today. The coffee industry supports the livelihoods of some 125 million people worldwide, according to the International Coffee Organization. It is an important economic resource in Africa, especially in countries like, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire and Ethiopia.

Coffee is the second most traded product in the world after oil. Another proof that very few people can resist the pleasure of this little dark brown drink. Just like fine wines, coffee can be fruity, wild, full bodied and even winy!

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