Coffee, that ancient, aromatic morning jolt, is one of the world's most popular drinks, and a major industry in Brazil, the largest producer, and other countries of Central and South America, Africa and Asia. In the United States, which is the No. 1 importer and buys 25% of the world's annual crop, coffee companies have been given a boost in recent years by the boom in retail outlets such as Starbucks and their specialty brews.
But these are not the best of times for growers of the humble bean. Attempts to maintain prices with market cartels have not been successful. And unseasonal freezes and other production problems have created instability in the market. In the United States, consumption peaked more than three decades ago, in 1962, when three out of four Americans age 10 and over drank an average of three cups a day; that number is now less than two.
But in China, a nation of 1 billion tea drinkers, coffee is said to be hot in more ways than one. The smart set in Shanghai considers it a symbol of Western life.
A BRIEF HISTORY
One legend says coffee was discovered when a sheep herder in Ethiopia noticed his flock nipping coffee berries and behaving in an unusually frisky manner. Intrigued, he too tried the berries. In fact, scholars disagree on whether coffee originated in Ethiopia and was then transferred to Arabia, or vice versa. At any rate, it was traded in Arabia in the 13th Century and spread to Turkey in 1554, Italy in 1615 and France in 1644.
Coffee was introduced to the Americas in 1723 by Gabrriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French army officer assigned to Martinique. On a leave, he stole a coffee plant from a public garden in Paris and tended it on the voyage back to Martinique--despite pirate attacks, storms and a severe shortage of fresh water. The plant grew successfully and eventually reached South America.
"Look here Steward, if this is coffee, I want tea; but if this is tea, then I wish for coffee."
--from Punch, an English humor magazine.
"Coffee is the milk of thinkers, and of chess players."
--Arabic saying, circa 1500
"Thank God, in the next world there will be no coffee. For there is nothing more hellish than waiting for coffee when it hasn't yet arrived.'
--Immanuel Kant, philosopher
Upscale specialty coffees are growing more popular in the United States. Such coffees are made from specially selected, often hand-sorted, beans. The result is richer flavor and higher prices than commercial blends.
COFFEE HABITS AROUND THE WORLD
United States: By one survey, 51% of Americans drink coffee at breakfast, 35% between meals and 14% with meals. Men are more likely than women to drink caffeinated coffee.
Belgium: Known as "cafe au lait dans un grand bol," the brew is served with lumps of sugar in big plain bowls. Buttered bread is used for dunking.
Brazil: In the morning, cafe com liete (half coffee, half milk and ample sugar) is the drink of choice. Afternoons are reserved for cafe zinho : brown sugar with coffee poured over it.
El Salvador: Strong coffee is brewed with spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom and then poured through a sieve and chilled. Cream and sugar may be added.
Finland: In more traditional regions such as Karelia (near the Russian border), a piece of fish skin is thrown in with brewing coffee to to settle the brew. The skin is removed when the coffee is served.
Greenland: During celebrations, Eskimos serve coffee mixed with frothed seagull eggs and sugar.
Italy: Espresso is the preferred form of caffeine in Italy. An espresso-making machine forces hot water through fine grounds of coffee at high pressure, producing an intense brew.
Libya: Traditionally, coffee is brewed on a fire and poured into tiny cups with no handles. It is served after dates and lebin , or goat's curd.
Thailand: O ilang is a dense coffee with sugar served in glasses. Boiling water is poured over coffee grounds in a cloth bag to make the brew. Heavy cream is often added to take the "bite" out.
Source: The Complete Book of Coffee; a 1993 survey of 3,318 Americans by the National Coffee Assn.
Annual kilograms of coffee consumed per capita (1993) Based on population estimates by the U.S. Department of Commerce
United States: 4.28
Note: U.S. ranks 13th overall
Source: International Coffee Organization.
* Top five producing nations
For 1993-'94 in millions of 60-kilogram bags
Source: Production Estimates and Crop Assessment Division, FAS/USDA * Top five consuming nations
1993 imports of green coffee, in millions of 60-kilogram bags
Source: International Coffee Organization
ROBUSTA--The stuff of most common coffee, from instant to commercial blends found in the grocery store. It is fairly disease-resistant and is able to grow below 3,000 feet, unlike arabica, which thrives only above 3,000 feet. Robusta pollination is performed by wind or insects.
ARABICA--Yields richly flavored beans that generally sell for higher prices. Most frequently used for specialty coffee. While arabica plants are self-pollinating, they require special care in order to thrive. Either frost or extreme heat can kill them. Arabica, which has a lower moisture content than other coffees, needs two hours of sunlight a day and well-drained volcanic soil.
HOW COFFEE IS PROCESSED
Coffee beans are seeds of red fruits known as "cherries"--not the kind we put in pies but the kind that is found on coffee plants. Generally, each fruit holds two beans, protected by several layers of skin and pulpy material. The crop may be processed by the wet method and or by the dry or unwashed method .
* The wet method
1. The outer pulp of the coffee cherry is mechanically removed and the bean is soaked in water to remove any remaining pulpy material.
2. After fermentation, which gives wet processed coffees a clearer flavor, the beans are rinsed in fresh water, drained and dried by the sun or a low-temperature dryer.
3. The protective layers of the beans--the parchment and silver skin--are removed using a machine.
4. The coffee beans are sorted and graded for quality levels.
* The dry method
1. Coffee cherries are placed in the sun to dry for two weeks or more.
2. The coffee bean is separated from the outer skin, pulp and parchment using a hulling machine.
3. Beans are sorted and graded.
Compiled by Times researchers LAURA A. GALLOWAY and JANET LUNDBLAD