Specimen of the Day
With five previous years of Advent Botany I was surprised that none of us have so far covered coffee. OK, it’s not a Christmassy spice, or a festive decoration, but by this time in the year I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling more than my usual need for this botanical pick-me-up. As we approach the shortest day of the year a good cup (or several) of coffee is pretty much all that’s keeping me from attempting to hibernate.
Not only that, but as this snippet from the magazine ‘The Hospital’ from January 1889 suggests, there is also coffee’s reputation for counteracting the effects of alcohol. Although, rather than allowing people to deal with the morning after the night before, this article also seems to suggest that if people can get their hands on good coffee, then they won’t bother drinking the alcohol in the first place.
Caffeine is found in several other plants such as tea and kola, but it is coffee that has earnt the reputation as the go-to drink for keeping us alert. In nature, caffeine has a protective function, deterring insect grazing through its bitter taste and toxic properties. It is found in all parts of the coffee plant, including the leaves, and in high concentrations in very young seedlings, but of course it is the roasted beans that we prepare for the drink. Coffee ‘beans’ are seeds which come in pairs in small fruits which turn red as they ripen. Known as cherries, the fruits are described botanically as called drupes. These are thin skinned fleshy berries with a hardcoated seed inside (much like an actual cherry, olives or dates) but coffee is a little uncommon for having two seeds rather than the more usual single seed.
Coffee is in the Rubiaceae, a diverse family including herbaceous plants such as the dye plant madder (Rubia tinctorial) and the quinine-producing Cinchona trees used for flavouring tonic water. The genus Coffea contains over 120 species of shrubs and small trees with opposite pairs of glossy dark green leaves and jasmine-scented flowers. Despite this, there are few species which are used commercially. Coffea arabica and C. canephora account for almost all the world’s coffee production with C. liberica coming a very distant third.
C. arabica originates in Ethiopia and was the first coffee to be cultivated. Now it is considered the gold-standard of coffee, less bitter and less acidic than other species. It is the most widely grown, accounting for the majority of worldwide coffee production and Brazil is the biggest single exporter. However, C. canephora (known as robusta) is easier to grow and higher yielding. Vietnam is the world’s largest producer of robusta, after the French smuggled the plant in to the country in the 19th century. The beans contain twice as much caffeine as arabica and produce a more bitter, earthier-tasting coffee. Robusta is particularly used for the production of instant coffees, and is also added into coffee blends (such as Italian expresso) as it is said to produce a better crema on top.
Well, looking out all these objects from the herbarium has given me a bit of a thirst, so I think it’s probably high time I stopped for a coffee break and sampled the blends at our new Museum cafe (perhaps with a little mince pie on the side). Anyone ready to join me?
It’s rather strange to think about it, but I suppose I have been living through something of a revolution in hot drinks in the UK. Traditionally, we are considered to be a nation of tea drinkers, but now on my way to work, I suspect that the majority of travel mugs clutched by my fellow commuters contain a more stimulating coffee instead. In 2008, the UK started to import more tonnes of coffee (green and roasted) than tea. Of course, you get more cups out of a kilo of tea than you do out of a kilo of coffee, but the upward trend for coffee importation continues (FAOSTAT).
It used to be that the nearest my coffee drinking came to any kind of ceremony was if I happened to be the lucky person who got to pop the seal on a new jar of instant. Now, however, even if there isn’t a gadget in the kitchen, then there’s ususally a coffee shop nearby to provide you with your morning ritual and your perfect brew. In 17th and 18th century London and Oxford, coffeehouses were also the place for men to go and read the news, make financial deals, reason about academic subjects and perhaps even discuss something a little seditious. By the end of the 18th century, these coffeehouses had all but disappeared. Many factors have been suggested for their decline, including that printed news was easier to come by, and the development of gentleman’s clubs. Tea drinking was on on the rise as it became fashionable at court, as women could participate in a way that they couldn’t in coffeehouses, and of course, through the promotional of the British East India Company’s trading interests in tea from China and particularly from India. Names such as Assam, Darjeeling, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kangra and Niligri became familiar in the UK through the tea gardens established there by the British in the 19th century.
Easier to prepare, tea remained the hot drink of choice in the UK for about two centuries providing warmth, comfort and calories (with milk and sugar) with every cup. Many countries favour either tea or coffee at the expense of the other, and in the UK a 2012 YouGov poll still showed more people still rate a cuppa as their favourite hot drink (52% tea/ 35% coffee). The coffee shop sector is one of the strongest businesses in the UK economy, turning over £9.6 billion in 2017. So when you next get to the counter of a coffee shop, what will it be – coffee or tea?
David Grigg (2002). The Worlds of Tea and Coffee: Patterns of consumption. GeoJournal 57; 283-294
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