The Origins of Coffee


A Portuguese Captain-Lieutenant of the Coastguard, Francisco de Malo Palheta, paying a visit to the Governor of Cayenne, French Guiana, in 1727, was so pleased with the coffee served to him that by ingratiating himself with the governor’s lady, he managed to obtain secretly seeds of the coffee plant. With these he returned to the Portuguese Colony of Para on the Amazon river. Today, many types and grades make up 30 per cent of the world’s total consumption.

Santos, especially Bourbon Santos (named after the French island colony of Bourbon, now Reunion, where the seed was grown), are the most popular for their sweet, clear, neutral flavour. They can be drunk straight but are also excellent partnered with any Mild. The true Bourbon is obtained from only the first few crops, which are grown from Mocha seed. After the third and fourth year, the bean changes in character. By the sixth it has become a Flat Bean Santos. Red Santos is sweet, Bourbon Santos is bitter. New Crop Santos is acidy. Ageing decreases the acidity.

The rest (Rio, Parana, Victoria, Bahia) are the less labour-intensive, mass-produced ‘price’ coffees; heavy, pungent and harsh, muddy and often peculiarly smoky from being dried on wood fires. They do, however, age well, losing their grassy flavour. Occasionally, accidents of nature such as the development of certain bacteria result in a special quality.

Although coffee will grow almost everywhere in Brazil, it suffers more than in any other country from unseasonable rains and storms, and winter winds from the Andes. It is also permanently endangered by crippling frosts which dramatically lose a great deal of its production at least once every five years on occasion as much as 80 per cent.

The chief plantations are on plateaux 1,800 feet to 4,000 feet above sea level. The two most fertile soils are ‘terra roxa’, a top soil of red clay three feet thick with gravelly subsoil in Sao Paolo and ‘Massape’, a yellowish soil.

Apart from the better grades, coffee is essentially a ‘quantity’ and not a ‘quality’ product. The planter’s eye is on economy. In the giant fazendas care is not exercised in either cultivation or harvesting. Trees are not shaded, so the yield is greater, but the ripening is even more uneven. For quick picking whole branches are ripped off with unripe and overmatured beans, and to these are added those already fermented that have fallen on the ground.


Colombia is the world’s second largest producer after Brazil, famous for consistently good fine mild coffees – good enough to drink straight – whose distinctive characteristic is a caramel sweetness, rich flavour, slight acidity and heavy body. They produce a quarter more liquor of given strength than Brazilian Santos.

There are many grades ranging from poor to first class. The finest are grown in the foothills of the Andes, 3,500 to 4,500 feet above sea level, in the shade of banana and rubber trees. Some of the best coffee lands consist of rich loamy soil mixed with disintegrated volcanic rock or porous subsoils. Hundreds of thousands of small farms are family enterprises, organized into a federation on a co-operative basis. Great care is taken in cultivation, picking and processing by the wet method.

The most exported grades are Supremo and Excelso. The finest is the larger-bean Supremo, prized for its sweet, delicate and aromatic taste, slightly nutty bitterness and light body. Excelso, soft and slightly acid, is not always consistent. Other famous names are Medellin, Armenia and Manizales, Bogota and Bucaramanga. The government makes every effort to encourage the coffee trade to maintain its high standards and position in the world market, to keep up the living standards of coffee-growers and help the fight against the narcotics trade.


The high grades are rich and aromatic with a good body and high acidity. There is also a soft mild, less acid variety. Cultivation was introduced by Belgian colonists in 1930. Production had dropped but has recently been revived.

Costa Rica

The high altitude Costa Ricans are among the world’s finest classic coffees: rich in body, of fine mild flavour, sharply acid and fragrant. The acidity level increases with the altitude. The lower regions produce coffee of more neutral tastes. The most famous zone is the Central Plateau around San Jose, where the soil is a rich black loam made up of continuous layers of volcanic ashes and dust three to fifteen feet deep. Beans are especially known for their fine preparation and screening. Large plants (beneficios) process the coffee produced by small farms. Fincas are farms big enough to have their own processing plants. Famous names of top ‘grands crus’ are Tarrazu, Tres Rios, Santa Rosa, Montbello and Juan Vinas.

The first plants were brought from Cuba in 1779 by a Spanish traveller, Navarro. Later, growths from Jamaica came with a Spanish missionary, Padre Carazo.


A pleasant coffee – like the Jamaican in character but not as acid because the mountains are not very high. It is sold largely to Russia, eastern Europe and France, where it is appreciated because its character resembles that of the historic but now non-existent coffees of the French overseas departments in the Caribbean (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion).

In 1792 Haitian slaves rebelled against their French colonists and took refuge in Cuba. It was these refugees who first developed coffee plantations there.

Dominican Republic

The best grades are strong and heavy bodied. Barahona, which is acidy and resembles Jamaican high mountain, is the most attractive and has the best reputation. Bani and Ocoa are soft and mellow.

El Salvador

Their best coffees, labelled ‘Strictly High Grown’ are classic Central American coffees – pleasant with medium acidity, full body, mild sweet taste and delicate fragrance. They are much appreciated in France.


Ethiopian coffees are among the most distinctive in the world. They can be quite splendid – winey, fruity, acidy with a singular ‘wild’ exotic taste – but the quality is inconsistent. The reason they do not always live up to their promise is because loWer grades are sometimes sent instead of the top ones.

The indigenous wild trees of Ethiopia are the progenitors of all the arahicas grown in the world. Much of the coffee produced is still gath- ered from wild trees and most is processed in primitive ways (a wooden pestle and mortar is still used). Before civil war, drought and famine crippled the industry, coffee production had been expanding and atten- tion had been given to improved methods of harvesting.

A variety of coffees are produced, each with its own characteristics. Harrar, graded as ‘Longberry’ and ‘Shortberry’, is the most famous. It resembles the Yemen Moka which it often replaced in the days when it was more readily available. That is why it is sometimes called Harrar or Ethiopian Moka. It is processed by the traditional dry method and varies from extremely rough to soft, mild and fragrant with highly acid, winey, fruity, gamey, and spicy qualities.

Djimah and Lekempti coffees are thick-bodied and highly acidic with earthy wild gamey flavours. They are produced in areas where wild trees are barely touched and berries are just picked off the ground.

The ‘washed’ coffees are remarkable for their soft, fragrant, rich, not too acid, balanced qualities. Of these the Gimbi have winey tones; Sidamo is fruity; Yirgacheffe is fragrant and flowery and highly appreci- ated in the USA where Ethiopians are seen as mysterious and exotic. Ethiopians generally, like Yemen Moka, are the traditional and favoured coffees of the Middle East.

Some people believe that coffee derives its name from the region of Kaffa of which it is native. All the early legends about the discovery of the drink are based in Ethiopia. Though not much esteemed as a drink at first, it was consumed as a food. The beans were roasted, pulverized and mixed with butter to form hard balls to be eaten by the wandering Gal- las on their journeys. Coffee was, however, an important export sent via Mocha – hence the early misconception of its origin.


The high grown ‘Strictly Hard Bean’ grades are among the finest coffees in the world – complete, perfectly balanced, full bodied, very acidy with a soft mild flavour and delightful bouquet. The most famous are the Cobans, Antiguas, Atilans and Huehuetenango. In severe weather, rub- bish and pitch are burnt near the plantations. The dense smoke saves the trees from frost and gives the coffee a smokey flavour. Cultivation was developed by German emigrants in the nineteenth century.


The best high grown grades are remarkable. Sweet, mellow, rich in flavour, fairly acid and heavy bodied, they resemble the famous Blue Mountain which they are sometimes used to extend. The more care- lessly cultivated grades of not too high quality are used for high roasts in Europe and especially in France where they are much appreciated for their sweet caramel taste.

Cultivation was started in 1715 by Jesuits. The deep volcanic soil and wet climate are very favourable. Trees have always been allowed to grow wild. The political situation and the general lack of enterprise have resulted in low production.


Kona is the very special coffee grown on the dark volcanic lava in the Kona district of Hawaii which nestles between the twin towering volca- noes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. It is a deliciously rich, medium-bodied and slightly acidy coffee with a heady aroma and complex winey, spicy taste. It should be savoured pure and straight. The beans are beautiful and lustrous. It seemed not long ago that coffee might be a vanishing industry in Hawaii, but in response to the demand for quality coffees in America and Kona’s new found phenomenal prestige, production revived and prices shot up. Kona is now more expensive than it is worth.


Mysore is the most celebrated of Indian coffees, so much so that other regional coffees are sold under the name of Mysore. In 1610 a Muslim pilgrim Baba Budan brought back Yemeni beans from his pilgrimage to Mecca and planted them near his hut in the state of Mysore (now Kar- nataka). The first systematic plantation was established in 1820 by the English in southern India. Other names are Coorg, Bababudan, She- varoys and Billigris. As coffee is generally sold through central auctions where lots are made up from different provenances these names are often lumped together.

In the days when coffee was transported by sailing ship, it took six months for cargoes from India to reach Europe. During that time beans turned yellow and acquired a mellow taste. That special taste was so appreciated that India continues to reproduce the flavour and golden colour in a treatment called ‘monsooning’ by which unwashed beans are first exposed to dampness in warehouses then to the hot air of the mon- soon winds which is allowed to circulate around loosely stacked sacks of beans for a month. Monsooned Malabar is one of the best: heavy-bodied with a deep colour, rich spicy flavour and aroma and a little acidity.


Plantations were introduced by the Dutch in 1699 with plants from the Malabar coast of India. ‘I’he once very important trade diminished when Bra/il and Cx’ntral America l)ecame dominant in the market. Indonesian coffees enjoy ^reat Instonc prestige but their (juality is not consistent.

Java produces a spicy strong-flavoured, full-bodied coffee with a well- balanced acidity. In the years before 1915, when slow-moving sailing ships transported coffee to New York, the sweating of the l)eans during the lon^ voyage resulted in a much-pri/ed unique musty flavour. ‘I’oday therareOldJava,agedforaboutthreeyears(‘it wasf>nceaminimumof ten), reproduces some of the characteristics of the sailing ship coffees with a mature, weet, melh^w flavfjur and spicy fragrance, good body and strength.

Sumatra coffees are unusually strong, complex and heavy bodied with a unique musty flavour. They are among the most famous in the world but they are an accjuired taste. They are best drunk l)lack after dinner. Mandheling and Ankola are the finest with an almost syrupy richness, exquisite flavour and aroma.

During the French revolution Frenchmen fleeing from Haiti found refuge in Jamaica. They started the plantations; later, cultivation was encouraged and fostered by the British. In 1969 the Japanese were granted favourable loans to develop production and they guaranteed a market. Since then nearly all the production of the legendary Blue Mountain has gone to Japan and scarcity, myth and snob appeal have kept prices sky high.

Blue Mountain coffee – so called because it is blue-green and grown at high altitudes – is easy to like, very simple with no complex flavours, good acidity and distinctly sweet and aromatic. But you hardly ever get it at its best and you hardly ever get the genuine article. It is magic and romance that you pay for. High Mountain supreme has similar but less pronounced attributes. The low grown ‘naturals’ are popular for French roasts. They remind the French of the vanished historic coffees in their overseas territories of Martinique, Reunion and Guadeloupe, which were once among the best growths in the world.


Kenya is a most delightful coffee, extremely popular in Britain for its sharp acidity, excellent flavour and fragrance.

Coffee came to Kenya not through neighbouring Ethiopia but from the island of Reunion with Roman Catholic missionaries as late as 1893. Now the industry is one of the most sophisticated in the world and stan- dards of quality are consistently high. (Only ripe cherries are picked, grading is strict.)

In the much prized Kenya Peaberry, one of the ovules never develops. The single ovule, because it has no pressure on one side, is round and absorbs all the goodness of the cherry, which accounts for its intense flavour, and special Hquoring. It is also called Chagga after the tribe that grows it.


This coffee is similar to Kenya but lighter and less fine.


Lately private exporters have been concentrating on high quaUty. The finest now compare with the best of Central America, with fine acidity, sweet, mellow flavour and pleasing bouquet. Coatepec, Huatusco and Orizaba, Oaxaca and Chiapas are the best known. Their Margogype is the best of that special variety of arabica found in Central America but the quality varies according to the plantation.


Their neutral taste makes them ideal blenders. The high grown have a good body and acidity with a mild flavour. The Jinotegas and Mata- galpas could be among the best Central Americans but the quality is irregular.


Their fine quality with good acidity, full body and mild pleasant flavour can rival Costa Rica.


This country is a recent producer. Coffee was first cultivated commer- cially in the 1950s and it is growing fast in popularity and stature. The high grown milds, grown from Kenya seeds by smallholders, resemble Kenya coffees but with less acidity and more sweetness. They are full- bodied and aromatic with a smooth mild flavour. Special names are Sigri, Kiap and Arona.


The Chanchamayos can be as good as the best classic Central Americans – full-bodied, delicate and gently acid – but large exporters have mixed mediocre coffees with good ones which has damaged their prestige. Buyers must go directly to the producers.

Production remains low and quality irregular because of the terror wrought by revolutionary groups and because plantations have turned over to coca for cocaine.


A fine coffee similar to Kenya – rich in flavour and aromatic but pro- ducing a thinner liquor and not as acid. Most exquisite is Kibo Chagga, cultivated by the Chagga tribe in forest clearings on the cool and misty upper slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.


High grown Bugisu is the only quality coffee produced in Uganda (the rest is robusta) near the Kenya border. It is full-bodied and acid, like Kenya. Some of it is smuggled over the border and sold as Kenya.


Venezuelan coffee is very complete and original and different from other American coffees – mild and mellow, slightly acid, sweet and deli- cate with an enticing aroma. Much prized are Meridas, the best of the Maracaibos, which have a pecuUar delicate flavour. Caracas has a light body and distinctive, attractive flavour and is especially popular in France and Spain.

Production went right down after the seventies when the oil boom made coffee irrelevant to the Venezuelan economy but it is now being revived. Quality varies greatly depending on the plantations.


Yemen coffee is called Mocha, named after the Yemen city of Muka from which it was first exported, and which supplied all of the world’s coffee trade until the close of the seventeenth century.

The dry Arabian soil and the lack of moisture in the air produce a bean which is extra-hard and small. Mocha has been recognized since the beginning of coffee drinking as the best available, with a clear, dis- tinctive, winey, deliciously piquant, gamey flavour, a unique acid char- acter that some consider aggressive, and a very heavy body. It is valued as after dinner coffee, for a time of day when delicate flavours would go unnoticed. It blends well with most Milds, especially with Mysore and Indonesian growths (Java and Sumatra), and is a favourite for Turkish coffee blends often partnered with Mysore.

The crude and primitive cultivation has seen little improvement over the centuries. Trees are mostly grown in small gardens carved into the steep hillside of almost inaccessible mountain regions. An ingenious system of irrigation fed by mountain springs carries water to trees ter- raced with soil and small walls. All the work is done by hand. Beans are dried in the sun on housetops or on beaten earth.

Curiously, the drink is little appreciated in the area where coffee was first cultivated. A weak decoction is generally made of the hulls. Small farmers are sadly neglecting coffee trees in favour of the drug ‘qat’ which is much in vogue for chewing. Production has also remained restricted because of political disturbances and uneconomical cultivation.


Some good coffees are grown in the districts of Kivu and Ituri with a high acidity and pleasant flavour. They can be used to add sharpness to a neutral blend.


Pleasantly acid, it is similar to Kenya but not as richly flavoured or full- bodied.

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