Coffee: a brief history, how it gets to your cup (and what do those labels mean?

Ever wonder how your cup of morning deliciousness was born? Me too. In fact, the idea of this month’s Intellectual Grownup came in the morning as I was begging my coffee to wake me up out of my stupor. I was staring in wonder at how much I love it, thinking about the millions around the world in agreement with me.

So for today’s post to stretch your brain, I thought we’d explore the wonders of coffee — how it originated, how it’s produced, and what the different labels on our bags mean. That’s enough content right there to fill books, so consider this your basic 101 on how this drink makes it to your mug.

(And if you’re not a coffee fan, surely you know of one — it’s pretty impossible to be somewhere in the world without a cafe nearby. And we discuss tea in a separate post later, if you want.)

A brief history

Coffee was birthed in the Ethiopian highlands. The legend goes that 9th century goatherder Kaldi noticed how “spirited” his goats became after eating berries from a certain tree, so he ran to the local monastery to let those guys know. A monk created a brew from the berries and was able to stay up much later praying.

Eventually news of this new brew spread into Egypt and into the Arabian peninsula, where coffee traveled east and west, finally landing in southeast Asia and the Americas. And it’s been popular ever since.

How it’s made

Coffee trees blossom with white flowers in the spring, which give way to small green beans (technically they’re seeds). They ripen in to a full-blown “cherry” by fall, where they are then picked by hand.

Photo from Gloria Jean’s

Coffee beans ripen at different rates, so one tree could have a mix of green (not yet ripe) and red (ripe) beans, which calls for experienced pickers to ultimately provide a less bitter drink. Often, cheaper coffee comes from a mix of green beans and red cherries, strip-picked at once mechanically.

Photo from United Nations

Next, the age-old method is to dry the cherries in the sun until their moisture content is no more than 10 percent. They’re spread out on tables and raked frequently to prevent spoilage, and overall, this process could take up to several weeks. It’s still done in many places around the world.

A more modern-day method is to remove the cherry’s pulp mechanically and then dry it with only parchment skin on. This involves several days of work involving fermentation tanks and rotating drums.

Photo from National Geographic Stock

Next, the cherries are hulled mechanically, which means the outer husk is fully removed, leaving a green bean waiting to be roasted. They are washed and then sorted by size, and often the process stops here, leaving others to roast their coffee.

Photo from Eleven Roasters

Many of your local coffee shops order green beans and then roast them there, and some people even roast their own at home. There are several methods to do this, such as with a popcorn popper. Let’s just say that roasting is an art unto itself, and aficionados taste the difference between the levels of roasting.

Roasting turns the green bean in to the dark coffee we know, and can be light, medium, dark, or somewhere in between, depending on taste. The resulting final flavor can be anywhere from smoky to spicy to smooth to fruity, depending on where the beans were grown and its chosen roasting process.

Into the stores and in your cup

Photo from Joyride Coffee

The final product is a bag of beans put in your shopping cart or used to make a drink at your local cafe. The differences in flavor have to do with where it’s grown and how it’s produced, and choice has more to do with personal preferences than anything. Coffee beans come from areas diverse as Hawaii, South America, the Arabian peninsula, African highlands, and southeast Asian plains, with other places in between. Almost all of these are available in most western markets today.

Fair Trade

You’ll often see “Fair Trade” on a bag, and you may wonder what this means. The simplified answer is that it depends on where you’re buying it, because it’s the location of where you’re buying it and not the location of the coffee’s origin that determines the definition of this somewhat controversial term.

In most countries, this label means that the coffee meets standards, like that it’s produced by farmers who are members of a democratically-run cooperative, that it is produced without child labor, that there are restrictions on the use of herbicides and pesticides, and that the final exporter is paid a minimum price and a price premium.

But like the label “organic,” growers have to pay a fee to use this label, so just because the bag doesn’t say “Fair Trade” doesn’t mean it was unethically produced. (However — you can pretty safely assume that if a well-known coffee brand does not have “Fair Trade” on its bag, then that coffee wasn’t held to the basic fair trade criteria.)


When you see “Shade-Grown” on a bag, this means the coffee was grown under a canopy of trees, which cultivates the principles of natural ecology to promote organic ecological relationships. It benefits species diversity and natural habitats, a richer coffee tree, better soil conditions, better water stewardship, and natural pest control.

Photo from John Mitchell

There are variations of shade, from “rustic” (where the coffee is grown in the forest with little alternation of the natural surroundings), to “shade monoculture” (where a pruned canopy of local trees provides shade on a farm).

If your bag doesn’t say “Shade-Grown,” you can assume it was grown unshaded, which means trees exposed to full sunlight, and therefore requires things like fertilizers (sometimes organic), pesticides, and a more intensive yearly work force.

These labels can be controversial, but it does provide some direction when you’re otherwise unsure of what to buy. I’ve written in my upcoming book about the topic of where I like to spend money on things like food, clothing, chocolate, and coffee (I’ll share more later!). Buying to support ethical practices does cost a family more. But once you know, it’s sorta hard to turn a blind eye.

I’d love to know what you think about coffee — do you drink it? If so, what’s your favorite kind? Do you have a preferred distributor?

(Also, I’m happy to allow a discussion on the Fair Trade or Shade-Grown labels, but only if it’s done nicely. Mean comments will be deleted.)




Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store