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coffee

Introduction

coffee, a tree, its seeds, and the beverage made from them. The coffee tree, a small evergreen of the genus Coffea, has smooth, ovate leaves and clusters of fragrant white flowers that mature into deep red fruits about 1/2 in. (1.27 cm) long. The fruit usually contains two seeds, the coffee beans. C. arabica yields the highest-quality beans and provides the bulk of the world's coffee, including c.80% of the coffee imported into the United States. The species is thought to be native to Ethiopia, where it was known before A.D. 1000.

Coffee's earliest human use may have been as a food; a ball of the crushed fruit molded with fat was a day's ration for certain African nomads. Later, wine was made from the fermented husks and pulps. Coffee was known in 15th-century Arabia; from there it spread to Egypt and Turkey, overcoming religious and political opposition to become popular among Arabs. At first proscribed by Italian churchmen as a heathen's drink, it was approved by Pope Clement VIII, and by the mid-17th cent. coffee had reached most of Europe. Introduced in North America c.1668, coffee became a favorite American beverage after the Boston Tea Party made tea unfashionable.

Coffee owes its popularity in part to the stimulative effect of its caffeine constituent. Caffeine, a bitter alkaloid, can also contribute to irritability, depression, diarrhea, insomnia, and other disorders. Decaffeinated coffees, developed in the early 1900s, account for c.18% of the U.S. market. For those without the time or the inclination to brew their own, there are instant or soluble coffees, introduced in 1867, which account for c.17% of U.S. coffee sales.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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