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A Stimulating Substance

Mark Pendergrast, author of ‘Uncommon Grounds ’, unravels the tale of the world ’s favorite beverage.

Human beings around the world are addicted to two black energy-promoting liquids. Oil is the most valuable legal traded commodity on earth. Coffee is the second most valuable, and it has become the beverage of choice to jump-start people on the go around the world. In short, coffee is just a berry, encasing a double-sided seed. Yet it has had a profound effect on human history.

On the mountainsides of Ethiopia, the native coffee tree grows to seven to ten meters in the dappled shade of the rainforest canopy. There are many species of the coffee plant, but only two have proven to be commercially viable.

Coffea arabica, the original Ethiopian species considered superior in taste, accounts for 75 per cent of world consumption. It grows best in mild tropical climates between 1,000 to 3,000 meters above sea level. Coffea canephora, also known as robusta, has a more bitter taste, twice the caffeine. It was discovered in the Congo in the late 19th century. Robusta is more disease-resistant, endures higher temperatures, and can be grown in a harsher climate than the arabica. Today coffee grows in a girdle around the earth between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, in over 50 countries, often on volcanic mountainsides.

The journey from tree to cup

Exactly how does your coffee arrive in your morning cup? It’s an amazing odyssey, and the amount of labor and the number of people who contribute to that cup should make you appreciate every sip. Over 25 million people make their living from coffee in one way or another. Coffee is an incredibly labor-intensive crop, with all but a tiny percentage requiring the individual human hand. First the coffee seeds are sowed and nursed under a shade canopy, then transplanted to mountainside ranks, where the coffee-growers prune, fertilize, spray for pests, irrigate, and finally pick the coffee-cherries. The coffeecherries are harvested and lugged from the mountainsides in 200-pound bags.

The complicted process of removing the precious bean from its covering of pulp and mucilage is also by hand. How it is done varies, and depends on the climate. In Brazil, the complete coffee-cherries are often allowed to dry on tarpaulins before the pulp is removed from the beans. In more mountainous countries, the skin is often stripped off and the beans are then allowed to partially ferment for 24 hours or so before being washed, spread to dry for several days, and having the parchment – a tough husk around the bean – removed. The resulting green beans are sorted and graded, and bagged for shipment, roasting, grinding, and brewing around the world.

The roasting process itself is an art form. Most beans are roasted for about twelve minutes at 450 degrees. During the roasting, the coffee beans expand to twice their size, and about 500 subtle chemical compounds form the familiar taste and scent of coffee.

The quest for convenience

Properly brewed coffee requires six ounces of near-boiling water to two tablespoons of grounds, infusing for about four minutes before filtering off the drink one way or the other. You can use a drip method, French press, or perhaps a more esoteric vacuum pot. Of course, both the method, and the amount of coffee differs depending on taste and tradition.

Regardless of the method, however, it is time-consuming and somewhat messy. Given the modern quest for convenience and speed, it is not surprising that there is a relatively long history of attempts to create tasty instant coffee.

In 1906, while living in Guatemala, a Belgian named George Washington – supposedly an indirect descendant of the first American president – conceived the idea of refining coffee crystals from brewed coffee. By 1910, Washington had produced his own brand, called G. Washington’s Refined Coffee. Although it did not possess the aroma, taste, or body of coffee brewed from freshly roasted beans, it tasted something like the real thing, and it provided the same warmth and caffeine content.

There are other claimants for the invention of soluble coffee. In the late 19th century, R. Paterson & Son invented Camp Coffee, a liquid “essence”. In 1900, Tokyo chemist Sartori Kato produced his own version of instant coffee. The First World War prompted the first widespread use of instant coffee by the troops, and in 1938 Nestlé launched Nescafé, an improved powdered instant coffee. Rather than using the “drum” method in which brewed coffee was boiled down to crystals, Nestlé sprayed the liquid into heated towers, where the droplets almost instantly turned to powder. The next year, the company began marketing Nescafé in the United States. The instant coffee industry grew
tremendously in the post-war period. At first, Nescafé dominated sales in the United States through extensive advertising. The Swiss company also introduced its instant brand around the world in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Oceania, and South Africa, but soon instant Maxwell House and other brands challenged Nescafé for leadership.

Helping to develop the world’s favorite beverage

In the 1950s and 1960s, Danish company Niro A/S, which later became part of GEA Group, began to pioneer improved extraction, spray-drying and agglomeration for instant coffee production. Today, the company has developed processes and systems to improve virtually every stage of instant coffee production, helping to ensure that consumers around the world are able to savor the full aromatic delights of the world’s favourite beverage.

GEA Niro, as part of GEA Process Engineering, designs and builds entire production process lines for instant coffee producers all over the world. Every part is designed to achieve the customer’s desired targets for quantity and quality. Though largely unseen by the end-consumers who buy the world’s annual consumption of 950 billion cups of instant coffee, GEA Niro plays a key role in bringing them their favorite drink.

Today, instant coffee comes in three forms; freeze or spray-dried and liquid coffeeextracts. The process of making all three types of instant coffee starts once the beans have been roasted and coarsely ground. The grounds are then mixed with water heated to approximately 200°C in extraction columns, and clarifiers are used to separate out the insoluble components that would otherwise end up as residues in your cup. After concentration, the extract can be dried in either a spray or a freeze dryer. The spray dryer produces coffee powder, while the freeze dryer delivers granules. To form granules, the spray-dried powder is often agglomerated in a second stage drying. To ensure that the instant coffee, whether in powder or granule form, retains the taste and scent of fresh coffee, aroma-recovery systems ensure that aroma released during the concentration process is captured and added back into the finished product.

Creativity and social change

Coffee has proved to be a social beverage over which to form friendships or discover love. It also seems to make people think more clearly, creatively, and independently. Bach and Beethoven composed music with inspiration from coffee, while Balzac wrote furiously under its influence. The French and American Revolutions were both plotted in 18th century coffeehouses. More recently, coffee has stimulated a notable – but entirely peaceful – social revolution in Japan. Since time immemorial, the Japanese have been devoted to drinking tea, developing in the process the famously elaborate tea ceremony. But since the mid-1990s there has been a significant shift in demand towards coffee, and today coffee is more popular than tea in both volume and value terms.

The prime mover in this taste shift has been Starbucks, whose coffee shop concept has been successfully capturing Japanese consumers’ imagination. It appears that Japanese women have taken the Starbucks idea to heart and this has prompted them to emulate the ‘real’ coffee experience at home. Consequently, there has been a substantial rise in demand for fresh ground coffee – which gives a sense of authenticity but does not require consumers to grind their own beans.

Instant coffee still accounts for the bulk of Japan’s coffee sales. Nestlé is the dominant player, with 66 per cent of volume sales in the instant market. The company has now branched into the lucrative RTD (readyto-drink) market – a coffee/milk/sugar mixture sold in a sealed container (either cardboard or a can) which is very popular with Japanese commuters and city workers.

The current target for companies such as Starbucks, Nestle and Kraft is China, where they hope to replicate the Japanese experience of conversion from tea to coffee.

Fresh Or Instant: who drinks what?

Consumption statistics for fresh and instant coffee reveal an extraordinary degree of variation between different markets. Canadians and Americans are devoted to fresh coffee, with over 95 per cent preferring it to the instant variety. In Western Europe, 90 per cent prefer fresh – although the UK reverses the trend with 90 per cent of consumers opting for instant. As you would expect from a major producer, Latin America is a strong market for fresh coffee, with just ten per cent buying instant coffee. In Africa and the Middle East, 86 per cent prefer fresh coffee.

The picture changes in Eastern Europe, where only 65 per cent buy fresh coffee. In Asia-Pacifi c, this fi gure drops to 46 per cent, with 53 per cent preferring instant. Australasia is in a league of its own: 79 per cent buy instant coffee, leaving just 21 per cent who choose fresh coffee. The broad picture from these statistics is that instant coffee holds a strong position in countries where tea has been the long-standing traditional beverage.

Comparative market shares for spray and freeze-dried coffees reveal that, as a general rule, the wealthier, more affluent markets are shifting towards freeze-dried granules, whereas sales of spray-dried powder coffees are growing in developing/emerging economies. This reflects the lower cost base – and hence lower sale price – of spray-dried instant coffee in markets with lower disposable income.

The Health Issues

Since coffee was fi rst consumed, it has been controversial. Some claimed it aided health, digestion, and virility. Others warned that coffee made you irritable and upset your stomach. What’s the truth? Scientists and epidemiologists have brought good news for coffee in the last few years. Most studies have focused on the effects of the caffeine in coffee, although the beverage is a complex mix of chemical compounds, including amino acids, carbohydrates, minerals, and volatile aromatic components.

Food faddists have long warned against the supposed evils of coffee. Back in the early 1980s, various epidemiological studies suggested that coffee might be implicated in various health issues including birth defects, breast lumps, heart disease and pancreatic cancer.

Not Guilty

Coffee has since been exonerated of all these charges. Although coffee raises the heart-rate temporarily, it has not been convincingly implicated in causing heart disease. In fact, because coffee is an important source of antioxidants, it may protect the heart and arteries. Amazingly, coffee also seems to protect against or ameliorate diabetes, gallstones, Parkinson’s disease, asthma, allergies, migraines, and the risk of suicide for women.

Caffeine has a tiny effect on intestinal calcium absorption, so some have been concerned that coffee drinking could cause osteoporosis. But for those who ingest the recommended daily calcium allowance, coffee is no problem. Coffee boosts athletic performance (perhaps by stimulating adrenaline) to the point that the International Olympic Committee has called caffeine a “doping agent.”

Therapeutic potential

Combined with analgesics such as aspirin, caffeine appears to help alleviate pain. It may have therapeutic potential for some cancers, though the evidence is weak. While coffee is often accused of having no nutrition, it provides minute traces of potassium, magnesium, and manganese. Because it raises the metabolic rate, it may help with dieting, though the effect is slight. Caffeine is an addictive drug, and those who are accustomed to drinking coffee can suffer from brief withdrawal symptoms such as headaches or nausea. As addictions go, however, coffee seems relatively harmless.

Coffee through the centuries
10th century: Rhazes, an Arabian physician, first mentioned coffee in print in the 10th century.
16th century: In Arabia, coffeehouses had become popular meeting places.
17th century: Coffee comes to Europe. The Dutch broke the Arab monopoly on coffee, setting up plantations in Java and Ceylon. The French, too, began to grow coffee in the Caribbean, the Spanish in Central America and Colombia, and the Portuguese in Brazil, which became the world’s largest coffee producer.
1688: Edward Lloyd founded his coffeehouse in London, catering primarily to seafarers and merchants. He regularly prepared “ships’ lists” for underwriters who met there to offer insurance. Thus began Lloyd’s of London, the most famous insurance company on earth.
1700: London had more than 2,000 coffeehouses, occupying more premises and paying more rent than any other trade. Each coffeehouse specialized in a different type of clientele, with establishments serving such diverse callings as doctors, writers, merchants, traders, fops, Whigs, Tories, army officers, actors, lawyers, clergy, or wits. Other coffeehouses spawned the Stock Exchange, the Bankers’ Clearing-house, and journals such as The Tatler and The Spectator.
1773: The British government introduced a tax on tea within the American colonies. The furious colonists destroyed tea crates in Boston harbor (The Boston Tea Party), and sparked the American Revolution. It became unpatriotic to drink tea, and Americans turned to coffee.
19th century With the growth of trade inspired by the Industrial Revolution, coffee became an international commodity, and speculation in coffee beans made and lost fortunes.
1880: An oversupply of Brazilian coffee ruined hundreds of speculators. In response to this disaster, a coffee exchange was opened in New York. It provided a way to hedge and bet on coffee futures, but it did nothing to prevent speculation and attempts to corner the market. Today the robusta exchange resides in London, while arabica prices are still determined in New York.
1903: Decaffeinated coffee was developed by German coffee importer Ludwig Roselius, whose staff successfully removed the caffeine without impairing the flavour. The resulting brew was marketed under the name of Sanka (as in ‘sans caffeine’).
1946: Achilles gaggia perfected the modern espresso machine in italy. his breakthrough was achieving a higher pressure than just steam by using a spring-powered lever system.
1953: irish coffee, a combination of coffee, whiskey and cream, is alleged to have been invented in san francisco’s Buena Vista Café. irish sources dispute this version, claiming that café owner Jack Koeppler got the idea on a trip to ireland and simply recreated it in the us.
1971: Starbucks opens its first location in seattle’s Pike Place Market. this eventually triggers a global boom in coffeehouses. By october 2006, starbucks had more than 12,000 coffeehouses.

Adding Value Through Technology

GEA Niro is a leading supplier of process equipment to the world’s coffee producers, helping to convert the raw beans into the aromatic drink that consumers enjoy all round the world. These are the production stages for which GEA Niro's equipment is currently in use:

  • Green bean treatment:
    systems for cleaning, blending and storing harvested beans.
  • Roast bean treatment:
    systems for controlling storage conditions and industrial-scale
  • Grinding extraction:
    fast instant coffee extraction systems, batch percolators and continuous counter-current extractors
  • Extract treatment:
    aroma recovery systems and clarifiers for removing unwanted residue
  • Concentration:
    falling film and plate evaporators, freeze concentrators and membrane filtration systems
  • Drying:
    spray driers, continuous freeze driers and batch freeze driers
  • Agglomeration:
    re-wetting systems for achieving dustless powders and customized granules