"Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love."

-- Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

Coffee's Roots
Coffee is a member of the Rubiaceae family. Despite the popularity of coffee itself, the coffee family is actually not very well known. The Rubiaceae family is the largest woody plant family in the wet tropics. The fruits, nectar and leaves of the plants in this family are a source of food for animals. The plants are characterized by simple, opposite or whorled entire leaves, stipules and an inferior ovary. They make up 450 genera and 6,500 species ( Rubiaceae family plants can be found across the globe with the exception of the Arctic region and are most concentrated within the tropics and sub-tropics. Besides coffee, other plants found within the Rubiaceae family are quinine, yohimbe (aphrodisiac), madder (dye), genipapo (fruit for dye), gambier, uncaria (medicines), lemonwood (timber) and gardenia (perfumes) (

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Where in the world is coffee produced? The regions shown on the map are known collectively as "the coffee belt". r=robusta, a=arabica, and m=both

The most common species among coffee are the Arabica coffee, or Coffea arabica, and the Robusta, or Coffea canephora. Arabica coffee is a higher quality coffee and has a more refined taste than Robusta. It is self-pollinating. The Robusta is a more easily produced coffee, is cheaper to sell but does not have as great of a taste compared to Arabica. Robusta coffee requires cross-pollination in order to grow (Coffee Research Institute 2006).

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Photo taken from

Robusta coffee leaves from Nicaragua. Author's own photo
Arabica coffee plant in Nicaragua. Author's own photo.

A Taste of Coffee History
The story behind your cup of coffee is a long, often debated one. Coffee is dated back to 800A.D. around Ethiopia where it is said that a goat herder named Kaldi discovered the plant because he saw the behavior in his goats change after nibbling on the red berries that contain the coffee beans. After observing Kaldi and his goats, monks were thought to have taken some of the berries and used them to help them get through religious services. From 1000-1600 coffee played a key role in Arabia. The year 1000 marked the first incidence of coffee being brewed. The promulgation of coffee can be attributed in large part to the spread of religion, in particular Islam. It was used to keep worshippers attentive and then trickled down from the religious sect to mainstream society. In order to keep the coffee beans their own special secret, Arabians would sterilize the beans by boiling or parching them. Legend has it that not until the 1600s when a man named Baba Budan escaped from Mecca with some fertile seeds attached to his stomach, did coffee make its way out of Arabia. Coffee crossed into Europe when a Venetian merchant discovered it in Turkey and vowed to bring it back to Italy with him. The Dutch were among the first to try and grow coffee and established a colony in Indonesia which helped spur the consumption of coffee in Europe. The French aristocracy enjoyed coffee very much and Louis XIV even kept a stash of plants in his royal garden. The plant wouldn't have made it out of Europe had it not been for a Martinique naval officer who snuck into Louis XIV's garden and stole some seeds to bring back to the island. From Martinique the plant spread to Latin America, where it would convert from a high commodity to an everyday product. For more information and stories of coffee's history visit:

Coffee and Humans: More Than Just a Morning Pick Me Up

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For centuries, coffee has acted as a stimulant for humans, effecting our nervous system, our respiratory system and our heart rate. It functions as a diuretic and wards off fatigue. As a result of these characteristics, it is the most used drug in the world. The caffeine that it contains is the driving force behind the side effects we feel. Those include: increased heartbeat, alertness, muscle tension and feelings of excitement. Caffeine works very quickly within our system and the effects can be felt within 15 minutes of consumption with the full effect occurring after 45 minutes. The body generally doesn't store up caffeine though it takes us awhile to get it out of our system--we only excrete about half the amount we consume in a 4-6 hour period ( 2013). For all the good things that coffee gives us, the withdrawal effects that can be felt from it are painful. Since the body has been overexposed to caffeine, it develops a great sensitivity to adenosine, a chemical involved in the sleep cycle that decreases blood pressure suddenly. The drop in blood pressure causes excess amounts of blood to go to the brain which spurs headaches ( 2013). Other effects include: fatigue, irritability, restlessness, nervousness and muscle pain.


Aside from the impacts of the caffeine in coffee on the human body, the way in which coffee is cultivated is also paramount to both our health and the environment's. Coffee can be grown with the help of harmful chemicals which are toxic to our bodies and are damaging to the environment. When purchasing coffee be careful to look for how it is grown. Here are some important coffee certification seals that are good to look out for:

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Bird Friendly - Some of the best coffee is shade-grown, meaning that a natural canopy of forest is covering the coffee plants and allows it to develop and flourish into great tasting coffee for consumers. However, due to deforestation trees have been getting cut down. This is not only bad for shade grown coffee but also for all the birds and wildlife that use these trees for habitats. The Bird Friendly certification calls for strict regulations on how much shade is alloted and what kind of forest can be used for growing for the coffee plants. The certification promotes maintaining wildlife, especially birds, and fosters coexistence between coffee farms and natural forest habitats (Axelson 2012). It is one of the most rigorous certifications to get and if obtained, it is also assumed that the coffee is organic as well.

Organic - Organic coffee is produced mostly without the use of fertilizers or artificial chemicals. However, it is important to note that under this certification there is nothing mentioned about shade covered. In general, it's fair to assume that natural means of shade growing are implemented, but in some cases, farmers could employ plants or trees that are not hospitable to birds to shade the coffee (Axelson 2012).

Rainforest Alliance - In terms of the environment, this is one of the most wide spread labels. The certification requires that: alternative forms to chemicals and pesticides be used, there is erosion control, restricted water use and efforts for ecosystem management (Axelson 2012). The regulations do not talk about organic farming nor are they as strict about shade grown coffee. It's important to note that the Rainforest Alliance does still give the certification to coffee blends that only contain a portion of the coffee that meets the Rainforest Alliance standards.

Fair Trade - This certification is at play with the production side of coffee. It ensures that coffee farmers and workers are provided just and fair wages for the work that they do. The Fair Trade certification is meant to protect coffee producers from large companies that purchase coffee (Axelson 2012).

Cultural Uses of Coffee: Coffee Shops
Coffee shops first became popular in England during the Interregnum. During the 1600s, coffee shops became a safe space for patrons where they could discuss ideas and engage in dialogue. They were spots known for "the quality of fellowship, brotherhood and company". The stimulating effects of caffeine felt while sipping coffee made the discussion even richer. Writers, artists and thinkers traded their thoughts and opinions within the coffee shops, often to the dislike of government officials and monarchs who were suspicious of the dealings that took place in them. Some would consider coffee shops to be the birthplace of capitalism (Ellis 2004). As one source argues, capitalism was created through coffee shop exchanges, but later reached its demise because of capitalism: the division between work and pleasure forced people out of coffee shops and they lost popularity during the 1800/1900s. In Europe, coffee shops or bars hold a special significance. They have been centers for many social functions and are a core part of European culture. Enjoying coffee available in different styles, especially the popular espresso, has marked the culture of Europe. Today coffee shops have gone through a bit of a change with the onset of chains, such as Starbucks, who have branded their coffee shops and products and made them into a global franchise. Coffee shops in the US have become popular not only for their coffee, but also for their free wifi access so that people can do work as well as interact with friends.