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Coffee Basics

Coffee is a beverage, served hot or with ice, prepared from the roasted seeds of the coffee plant. These seeds are almost always called coffee beans. Coffee is the second most commonly traded commodity in the world (measured by monetary volume), trailing only petroleum, and the most consumed beverage. In total, 6.7 million tons of coffee were produced annually in 1998-2000, forecast to rise to 7 million tons annually by 2010. Coffee is a chief source of caffeine, a stimulant.

The History of Coffee

Coffee has its history back as far as the 9th century, apparently noted by an Ethiopian goat herder who noticed his goats becoming very active and not sleeping at night after eating berries from the plant. Originating from the ancient coffee forests of Ethiopia, coffee plantations spread to the rest of the world via Egypt and Europe. Over the centuries, coffee has played a crucial role in medicine, academia, economies and social communities, thus being met by both acceptance and resistance in different cultures around the globe.

Coffee Bean Plants

There are two main species of the coffee plant, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (robusta).

  • Thought to be indigenous to Ethiopia, Arabica coffee is the older one and was first cultivated on the Arabian Peninsula. While more susceptible to disease, it is considered by most to taste better than the second species, Coffea canephora (robusta).
  • Robusta coffee, which contains about 40-50% more caffeine, can be cultivated in environments where arabica will not thrive. This has led to its use as an inexpensive substitute for arabica in many commercial coffee blends.

Arabica coffees were traditionally named by the port they were exported from, the two oldest being Mocha (from Yemen) and Java (from Indonesia). The modern coffee trade is much more specific about origin, labeling coffees by country, region, and sometimes even the producing estate. Coffee aficionados may even distinguish auctioned coffees by lot number.

Compared to arabica, Robusta coffees tend to be bitter and have less flavor, with a telltale "burnt rubber" or "wet cardboard" aroma and flavor. Good quality robustas are used as ingredients in some espresso blends to provide a better "crema" (foamy head) and to lower the ingredient cost. In Italy, many espresso blends are based on dark-roasted robusta.

Types of Coffee Beans

Coffee beans from two different places, or coffee varietals, usually have distinctive characteristics such as flavor caffeine content, body or mouth-feel, and acidity (black coffee has a pH of around 5). Flavor criteria include terms such as citrus-like or earthy. The beans’ characteristics are dependent on the local environment where the coffee plants are grown, their method of process, and the genetic subspecies or varietal. See Guide to Coffee Attributes.

The fruit of the coffee plant is a "coffee cherry,” which contains two coffee bean halves. When a single bean develops inside the coffee cherry, it is called a Caracoli. Because the flavor of these beans is more concentrated, Caracoli beans are more highly prized, especially the Arabica varieties. Caracoli beans occur in all regions of the world and on all types of coffee bush (approximately 4% of all beans).

Another rare type of coffee is the Kona bean, produced in Hawaii. Of all coffee varieties, it has the highest level of caffeine. Because its rich aroma and flavor are best savored in its purest form, Kona coffees are seldom blended with other types of coffee beans.

Economics of Coffee

Coffee is one of the world's most important primary commodities, due to it being one of the world's most popular beverages. Coffee also has several types of classifications used to determine environmental and labor standards.

In 1997, the "c" price of coffee in New York broke US$3.00/lb, but by late 2001, it had fallen to US$0.43/lb. Brazil remains the largest coffee-exporting nation, but in recent years, the green coffee market has been flooded by large quantities of robusta beans from Vietnam.

A giant influx of cheap green coffee occurred after the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement of 1975-1989 due to Cold War pressures. Many experts believe this caused the prolonged pricing crisis that occurred between 2001 and 2004. Robusta coffees (traded in London at much lower prices than New York's Arabica) are preferred by large industrial clients (multinational roasters, instant coffee producers, etc.) because of their lower cost.

Processing and Roasting

The processing of coffee typically refers to the agricultural and industrial processes needed to deliver whole roasted coffee beans to the consumer. There is much human labor and processing required before the beans are roasted and sold to consumers.

Processing Consumption
Coffee Berries
  • Coffee berries are picked
  • Defruited (which yields the coffee beans)
Coffee Beans
  • Dried
  • Sorted
  • Aged (optional)
  • Roast
  • Ground
  • Brewed

Roasted Coffee Beans

All coffee is roasted before being consumed, so it is usually sold roasted, making it more convenient for customers. Instead of being roasted by the supplier, coffee beans can be roasted at home. Learn more about home roasting

Coffee Buying

It takes years of experience to perfect the art of selecting, cupping, roasting and blending premium coffees. In addition to roasting the regular varietals and blends offered to the public, Fox River Coffee receives many samples of green coffee from other regions around the world. Once received, the coffee is visually inspected, roasted, cupped and graded. If the sample meets Fox River’s standard, more roasting and cupping is done to find the right roast. Fox River Coffee then integrates the coffee into a special monthly offering.

What’s "cupping”? Learn more about cupping and other coffee terms.

Coffee Roasting

The roasting process has a great degree of influence on the taste of the final product.

Small batch roasting is what makes Fox River’s Coffee stand out in the world of specialty coffee. Our roasters use their senses to carefully develop each batch to the peak of each coffee known at the sweet spot - the ultimate balance of flavor, body, aroma and brightness. Small Batch roasting method and roasting to order ensures every coffee is truly fresh and at peak flavor. If you are interested in home roasting your own beans, Fox River Coffee sells green coffee beans to our customers, in a variety of batch sizes.

Other Uses

Because of their high nitrogen content, spent coffee grounds are a good fertilizer in gardens. While they tend to be only slightly acidic, they also tend to improve the acidity of garden soil through the same chemical processes which cause sawdust to do the same thing. Coffee grounds raise soil acidity more immediately if they are added fresh, instead of after brewing. Likewise, coffee diluted with four times its volume of water can be used to amend soil acidity, especially useful for tomatoes, chili peppers, blueberries, and other plants which like high soil acidity.

The grounds are also used as bait in "Vegas roach traps".

Some use coffee to create art. Latte art involves designs in the foam of espresso-based drinks. Arfé is the use of coffee as a coloring for painting or other visual effects.