This most famous drink is consumed around the globe regardless of culture, creed, gender, nationality, or ideology. We are human; we drink coffee.
Contrary to our Starbucks’ vocabulary, coffee is not Italian in origin. We (the people of the world at large) believe coffee was first cultivated in Ethiopia. Its discovery ranks high in the annals of food mythology: Goatherds, noticing their flock was unusually energized (even dancing), decided to investigate what these hoofers were eating as they grazed. Small trees full of red berries, plump and round as cherries (a fruit they would never have known in ninth century Northeastern Africa), were nibbled constantly by the roaming goats. The goatherds, too, began to nibble at the berries. And thusly we are launched into centuries of debating, consuming, admonishing, and perfecting this bitter brew.
Coffee beans are not beans they are seeds. It is important to acknowledge our etymological slip because on a botanic level seeds and beans are entirely different creatures. These tiny “beans” are actually the dual seeds of a coffee cherry. They are pressed flat face to flat face in the center of each red orb and must be removed from that pulpy prison before being put to good use. Coffee seeds are pale green when first harvested and rather horrid tasting. The chemical compounds we associate with coffee’s miraculous aroma are not released until heat is applied. In their raw state, these compounds act as a warning to predators (bugs and beings alike): Do not eat this plant! Our seeds will make you vomit! Much like the sulfuric compounds in the allium family (garlic, onions, etc), these chemical compounds act to keep the plant alive (which is to say, out of the mouths of other animals). Of course, our goats of culinary mythology apparently had no problem digesting these beans. But do not be fooled by their bravery, please don’t eat raw, green, coffee seeds.
More on the nature of a seed: Just like popcorn, this seed is nearly all endosperm. Unlike popcorn, however, the bran covering this tiny seed is paper thin. When roasting at home in an air-popping popcorn machine, you will need a bowl to collect the wispy bran that flies away as the coffee seeds develop their flavor. Those pungent chemicals that lie dormant in the raw bean are activated by heat. These genius compounds are part of a larger family called volatiles. Volatility is a measure of a substance’s tendency to vaporize, and when we look at chemical volatiles we are really investigating flavor compounds that are released into the air as scents.
You are, just now, scratching your head wondering why I would advocate roasting coffee beans in a popcorn machine. Is it really that valuable? Consider this: volatiles often take the form of oils. When heated, the chemical compounds are released and an oily coating dresses the seeds (similar to the oils released from citrus skins when zested or stripped). Is the coffee you purchase dry? These volatiles are not immortal, they will dissipate with time. The dryer your coffee appears to be, the older it is in reality. When I roast coffee at home I am gifted with splendidly shiny beans, a tiny layer of oil coating the beans, perfuming my air, and sending their power into the final brew. Roast at home, once a week, and you will begin to taste the full flavor spectrum of coffee seeds.
This is surely something our ancient African and Middle Eastern coffee drinkers knew. Industrial coffee roasting was not on their minds when the seeds were first discovered. No, in fact they took the seeds straight to the fire, toasting and roasting the green pebbles until fragrant and dark. The coffee was ground and brewed quickly, these beans were not stored roasted on shelves in paper bags for months on end. And the power of this unchecked aroma carried coffee around the world. Sugar and spice trade routes were already well carved into the hills and waters of this planet by the time coffee arrived on the scene and its addictive quality gained berth around the world piggybacking on these other culinary commodities. From Ethiopia we believe coffee skipped the waters to Yemen where it consumed the rest of the Middle East. It was only then, in barrels with dates and sugars, that it arrived in Italy. The Italians took this tiny seed to heart and developed what we know to be coffee culture of the Western World: espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, etc.
But let me strip away that European veneer and suggest you roast a few green beans this weekend and grind them with cardamom seeds. Brew a strong cup of terribly hot, black, coffee, and let the floral scent dress your home in its tendrils. No added sugar, no foamed milk. Just some spice and fresh coffee, precisely as the goatherds would have liked.