On average, Americans consume 280.5 million cups of coffee each and every day. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those who indulge. But how much do you know about how this wonderful elixir in your cup? If you’re not familiar with its colorful history, here are 12 strange coffee facts sure to make you sound like a coffee trivia genius next time you’re talking over coffee.
1. Dancing Goats
Legend has it that coffee was first discovered by an Ethiopian goatherd, Kaldi, in the 9th century. After noticing how active his goats became after eating the berries of the coffee bush, he ate some of the berries himself. Excited by his exhilarating discovery, Kaldi took some of the plant to an Islamic monk to share his findings.
The monk disapproved of the energizing properties of the plant, however, and tossed the berries in the fire. The legend concludes that the alluring aroma of the roasting beans attracted all the other monks who were curious about what they were smelling. They pulled the roasted beans from the fire, ground them up, and boiled themselves the first ever pot of coffee.
Although this story is considered more fiction than fact, it explains why the names Kaldi and Dancing (or Wandering) Goat are so frequently associated with coffee shops and coffee products.
2. Smuggling and Seduction
A look at coffee’s history shows that those who possessed the valuable coffee plants and seeds were not overly eager to share them. The wide distribution of coffee we enjoy today might have been far more restricted if not for the shenanigans of a few ancient rebels.
From Yemen to India
In the 16th century, Yemen kept a tight fist on the world’s coffee market. By restricting export of its natively-grown prized plant to roasted and ground coffee only, Yemen ensured no one else could grow coffee plants. If one wanted to enjoy coffee, one had to buy it from a Yemeni.
A Sufi Indian smuggler by the name of Baba Budan changed all that. Legend has it that Baba Budan tasted coffee while on pilgrimage in Mecca and was so enamored with it, he wanted to grow it at home. Since exporting raw coffee beans — which are actually the seeds of the coffee plant — was prohibited, Baba Budan resorted to smuggling. Since seven is a sacred number in Islam, that’s how many precious coffee seeds he took back to India with him.
Some stories say he strapped the coffee seeds to his chest. Others recount that he hid the seeds in his long beard, which surely makes for more interesting imagery! Either way, those seven lucky seeds that made their way back to India with him helped expand the world’s coffee market. And the area in India where those first coffee seeds were sown still bears his name today: the Baba Budan Hills.
From French Guiana to Brazil
Brazil has been the largest producer of coffee for over 150 years, providing the world with about one third of its coffee. Which is an interesting fact in and of itself, because the coffee plant is not native to the Americas. The story of how the first coffee plants made it to Brazil in particular is as steamy as a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning.
In 1727, when Brazil was under Portuguese rule, the King of Portugal sent Francisco de Melo Palheta, a ranking official in the Brazilian army, to neighboring French Guiana. His mission was to help French Guiana stabilize a border dispute and, in the process, obtain some precious coffee seeds. Coffee was a growing commodity that French Guiana already possessed, and Portugal wanted a piece of the action.
The French, however, were not overly eager to accommodate the Brazilian’s request for seeds. Thankfully for the world, however, it is reputed that Francisco beguiled the French Guiana governor’s wife, Marie, with his roguish good looks and charm. As a token of her affection, Marie bestowed upon Francisco the gift of a bouquet in which she had secretly tucked the prohibited coffee beans and shoots.
Undoubtedly Marie had no idea that the small gift to her lover would grow into the Brazilian coffee empire that caffeinates the world!
3. Wine Before Coffee
Before coffee beans were used to make coffee, the coffee plant’s fruit was used to make wine. Or at least that’s what some surmise from the original ancient Arabic name qahwah, which was a romanticized reference to wine. It stands to reason, though, that since the fruit of the coffee plant is edible, it would have been used as a food and fermentation source like any other fruit.
Discovering the unique properties and uses of the coffee beans inside the fruit probably took a little more time. Especially since, you know, there was no coffee at that point.
4. Coffee has been Banned Throughout History
Hard to believe with its popularity today, but it’s true!
The first prohibition of coffee occurred in the early 1500s in Mecca. Some stories claim it was conservative religious leaders who forbade the drink because of its stimulating properties. Other stories pin the blame on a young Meccan governor who feared he would be plotted against by the increasing number of men gathering in coffee houses. Either way, the ban, thankfully, did not last long.
As the popularity of coffee spread throughout the world, however, so did its critics. Whether for religious or secular reasons, coffee has, at one time or another, been banned in Italy, England, Constantinople, Sweden, and Prussia.
Well, to be clear, it wasn’t really banned in Prussia. Frederick the Great merely issued a manifesto in 1777 stating that beer was the superior beverage in Prussia. That’s because beer was his preferred morning drink. Thank goodness for us the truly superior morning brew, coffee, ultimately won out. One shudders to think what modern morning commutes might look like had it not.
5. Coffee has been Blessed by the Pope
As coffee gained popularity in Italy in the late 1500s, the advisers to Pope Clement VIII pressured him to denounce the beverage. The advisers’ claimed that coffee was the devil’s drink because of its popularity with Muslims. Once Pope Clement tasted coffee, however, he declared it delicious rather than devilish. Stating that it would be a shame if only infidels were to be allowed to enjoy coffee, he bestowed an official Papal blessing upon the humble coffee bean, rendering it safe for all good Catholics to consume.
6. A Tea Party Turned Americans into Coffee Drinkers
In 1773 there was this little event called The Boston Tea Party. American colonists, protesting the Tea Act imposed by the British government earlier the same year, dumped 342 chests of British East India tea into Boston Harbor.
Entire books have been written about the complex political issues that led to the Boston Tea Party, but suffice it to say that, after the tea tossing, tea drinking suddenly became highly unpatriotic. Colonists quickly turned to coffee for their morning caffeine.
The popularity of coffee continued to grow as the issues that provoked the Boston Tea Party spiraled into war. When soldiers of the Revolutionary Army came to rely on coffee’s stimulating properties to get them through the ordeals of the battlefields, and revolutionary activists planned and plotted against the British monarchy at the local coffee house, the beverage became even more firmly rooted in the country’s psyche.
It’s no wonder that, today, coffee is considered the most popular beverage in America. The country’s very independence was solidly supported by the humble coffee bean.
7. Coffee was the First Freeze-Dried Food Item
Freeze-drying is exactly what its name suggestions: dehydration rendered from a frozen state. The freezing maintains the integrity of the original substance while moisture is removed so that color, flavor, aroma, and nutritional content all remain intact. Only the water content disappears.
Today freeze-drying is used in a number of industries, most notably biotechnology and pharmaceutical. But back in 1938, Brazil, the top coffee-producing country in the world, had a problem. It had a surplus of coffee it didn’t know what to do with. The Nestle company stepped in to help, and the first freeze-dried, instant coffee — Nescafe — was the result.
8. Peaberry Coffee
Coffee cherries — the fruit of the coffee plant — normally contain two green seeds. These are the “beans” that are roasted, ground, and turned into that liquid gold we call coffee. Some coffee cherries, however, only produce one seed. This one-bean fruit is called peaberry.
Peaberries are limited in quantity but are not an anomaly. They turn up in every strain of coffee plant in every coffee-growing region around the globe. Peaberries make up 5-10% of all coffee cherries harvested. And, as you might have guessed, peaberry coffee produced from these single beans.
Clever marketing makes peaberry coffee sound like a rich and unique coffee experience. And the price reflects the claim. But the coffee itself may or may not live up to the hype.
The higher cost of peaberry coffee has more to do with production than quality. Peaberries have to be separated from the two-bean coffee cherries during production in order to produce this specialty coffee. The separating must be done by hand, which is a slower, more labor-intensive process. The overall quality of peaberry coffee will typically be consistent with that of the coffee crop within which it is found.
Peaberry coffee does have a distinctively different taste than two-bean coffee. And that distinct taste seems to affect people the same way as broccoli or cilantro: they either love it or they hate it. Ultimately each coffee drinker has to decide for him or herself whether paying more for the roasted peaberry is worth it or not.
If you’ve tried peaberry coffee, please let us know what you thought of it in the comments below. Those of us who haven’t tried it would love to know!
9. Light vs. Dark Roast: Weighing In on Caffeine Levels
Some coffee drinkers believe that the darker the bean and the bolder the flavor, the more caffeine a cup of coffee possesses.
Others believe that caffeine is “burned off” in the roasting process, so lighter blends provide the bigger jolt.
Both assumptions are wrong.
It turns out that caffeine levels remain quite stable during the roasting process. So the darker bean doesn’t lose more caffeine. But it does lose something: volume. The longer a bean is roasted, the dryer it gets. Less water in the bean means darker roast beans weigh less. It may take 12 or 13 dark-roast beans to equal the weight of 10 lightly-roasted beans.
Which means the difference in the caffeine level in your cup between a light and dark roast comes down to how you measure it.
Measured by the scoop, a lighter roast coffee will put more caffeine in your brewer because the blend is heavier and more dense. If you use a kitchen scale to weigh your coffee for brewing, however, the darker roast will give you more of a boost because it will take more of the dark roast to tip the scale.
Which, honestly, all seems a little confusing. That’s why the best news here is that most of us will never be able to tell the difference in the caffeine levels between a light and dark roast no matter how we measure it. Whew!
10. Coffee Sauna
For those who truly want to immerse themselves in coffee — literally — there is a resort in Japan where you can soak in a hot tub of hot java. The Yunessun Spa Resort in Hakone offers guests some kitschy attractions among its traditional spa offerings, one of which is the coffee spa. Sounds like a Bucket List item for anyone who wants to be caffeinated through their very pores and doesn’t mind smelling like a coffee shop for a day or two.
11. The World’s Most Expensive Coffee — Holy Sh**!
If you are a die-hard coffee lover who just happens to have an extra $600 lying around, you might consider trying a pound of Kopi Luwak. Coming in at $35 – $100 per cup, it’s considered the world’s most expensive caffeine fix. So what is it that makes this elixir so costly?
The palm civet.
A palm civet is a small, nocturnal, weasel-like mammal that likes to dine on ripe coffee cherries. The civet’s digestive juices ferment the fruit as it passes through the animal’s system, but they do not break down the coffee beans. The coffee beans are excreted, after a day or two of digestion, in the civet’s feces.
Coffee farmers collect the bean-laden civet feces. They then separate and process these beans, and Kopi Luwak is the result. Which explains why this coffee is sometimes referred to as “weasel poop” coffee. But it doesn’t explain what the fuss is about.
The superiority of flavor of Kopi Luwak, often described as “buttery with chocolate overtones,” is attributed to both selection and digestion. Since wild civets prefer to eat the ripest, most perfect coffee cherries, they start the process with the best coffee fruit available. Then the civet’s digestive juices expose the beans to a unique fermentation process that alters the beans’ chemical make-up. This results in a very different tasting cup of coffee that is claimed to be superior to all others.
Buyer beware! Should you ever wish to try Kopi Luwak coffee for yourself, be sure to seek out a reputable source. Fake Kopi Luwak is far more abundant than the real thing. It’s virtually impossible to tell the difference until you’ve tasted it, and, by then, your money is long gone.
You’ll also want to make sure you only purchase Kopi Luwak produced by wild civets. Unfortunately the demand for this rare beverage has led to the creation of civet farms. Farmed civets are fed inferior-grade coffee cherries, and usually little else, resulting in deplorable conditions for the animal and an inferior product for the consumer. Please only purchase wild-sourced Kopi Luwak.
12. Coffee can Restore Your Faith in Humanity
There’s something about coffee that seems to bring out the best in people.
In Naples, Italy over a century ago, the caffee sospeso or “suspended/pending coffee” tradition was started. A patron who could afford to do so would pay for two coffees but only drink one. The second coffee was held for someone who was down on their luck and unable to afford a cup of coffee for themselves.
There are also many non-profit organizations dedicated to the welfare of coffee farmers and the sustainability of their crops. You can visit the National Coffee Association USA or the European Coffee Federation to learn more about offering support on a more global scale.
Or you could simply pay for the coffee of the person in line behind you next time you visit your favorite coffee shop.
Because coffee makes it pretty easy to make someone else’s day.
So drink good coffee, do good deeds, and amaze your friends with the strange coffee facts you’ve just learned.
And please say Hello! in the comment section below, because I sure would love to hear from you!