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Coffee and Chocolate - Beyond the Bean Part 1

Coffee and there anything else in the world so beloved? In this series we’re going to take an in-depth look at the incredible parallels between the worlds of coffee and chocolate. Coffee and chocolate have been consumed everywhere humans venture - Yuri Gagarin, the first man to orbit the earth had a tube of chocolate sauce as part of his rations, and thanks to some inventive people in Italy, astronauts can now enjoy an “authentic Itallian espresso” at the International Space Station. Widespread cultivation of coffee throughout the Americas, Africa, and Asia, aided by extremely cheap (or slave) labor enabled a cup of coffee to be within the means of almost everyone in the Western World by the 1700s. The application of Industrial Age machinery in the early 1800s brought chocolate to the masses at an affordable price that allowed even the poorest to consume the delectable treat somewhat regularly. Now, travel just about anywhere in the world and you’ll be sure to encounter coffee or chocolate.

We’ll take a look into the origin, history, chemical constituents, cultivation, harvesting, processing, consumption and the future of both coffee and chocolate. We all know how popular these two stimulating substances are, but do we know what else they have in common?


Let's start with their origin. Both coffee and chocolate (cacao) plants are fruit trees, and they are native to tropical jungles. They both developed in the shaded "understory" of their respective rainforest - which means they grew below the massive trees that comprise the jungle canopy and absorb the vast majority of sunlight. The few rays of sun that pass through the leaves of the large upper canopy trees are happily absorbed by the leaves of shorter trees and bushes that compete for the remaining sunlight and soil nutrients. Cacao (chocolate) trees, or theobroma cacao as they are scientifically known, developed in the understory of the Amazon Jungle in the Orinoco and Amazon river basins in modern day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. Coffee trees, or coffea arabica are native to the Ethiopian Highland rainforest in East Africa. They too developed in the heavily shaded area below the rainforest canopy.

Interestingly enough, there are many other species of plants within both the Theobroma and Coffea genus. The other most common Coffea species Coffea Canephora, better known as Robusta coffee, is heavily cultivated throughout Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and India among other countries. Theobroma Bicolor, a species in the same genus as it’s closely related cousin Theobroma Cacao is cultivated across swaths of Central and South America. Within the coffea arabica and theobroma cacao species, there are many sub-species, known as varieties or cultivars that developed in various ways. There are hundreds of distinct heirloom coffee varietals that developed in Ethiopia and are still harvested to this day. Research into the genetics of cacao continues to this day and scientists are still finding wild varieties of cacao in the Amazon jungle of South America. National agricultural organizations have also led the effort to develop new hybrid versions of both coffee and cacao by cross-pollinating two species with the aims of developing offspring with the desirable characteristics of both parent plants (i.e. size, flavor, aroma of beans, disease resistance...). The names of these hybrid cultivars also share the similar regimented scientific naming such as Kenya SL-28 and CCN-51. Additionally, both coffee and cacao have “mutated” in the wild and crossed naturally in lands other than their native habitat to create distinctive new offspring such as trinitario cacao and maragogype coffee - both are named after the lands in which they were discovered to have developed in the wild.

Coffee and cacao - both fruit trees with many distinct varietals that developed in the shaded understory of their respective rainforests.

Initial Cultivation

The native homeland of coffee and cacao, East Africa and South America respectively, are not believed to be the initial site of their cultivation. Evidence of the first site of intentional coffee cultivation points to the highlands of Yemen, on the south-west Arabian peninsula, just across the Red Sea from its aforementioned homeland of Ethiopia. Similarly, evidence of the first intentional cultivation of cacao shows up throughout tropical Central America, across the Caribbean sea and isthmus of Panama from its native homeland in the Amazon Jungle. Before human cultivation, coffee and cacao trees were simply wild-harvested instead of being purposely planted in an organized agricultural setting. Both plants evolved widely and naturally in their jungle “niche” and were only later intentionally planted by humans.

Tracing coffee from Ethiopia and Yemen to South East Asia and the Americas.

Coffee and Cacao - Humans first intentionally cultivated these two fruit trees in locations altogether different from where they developed evolutionarily over the millennia.

Tropical Fruits

Coffee and cacao beans are not actually beans, they are indeed the seeds of tropical fruits. The fruit of the cacao tree is a football shaped hard pod which contains dozens of cacao "beans" (really seeds), surrounded by sweet, juicy white fleshy pulp. The coffee plant produces many fruits each containing (usually) two coffee “beans” (really seeds) surrounded by a sweet pulp and an outer layer of skin. Both cacao and coffee fruits display brilliant colors such as red, orange, yellow, and purple. Both fruits attract animals with their bright colors and sweet tastes in order to spread naturally in the wild. The sweet pulp surrounding the cacao seeds becomes a delectable treat for any animal that happens upon the colorful pods. Cacao employs a strongly bitter and astringent seed which is discarded by whichever animal (monkeys, birds, rodents) happens upon the fruit. Similarly the coffee fruit, known as “coffee cherries”, are consumed by various animals looking for a sweet treat. Coffee seeds are extremely tough and can pass through the digestion of birds, primates, wild animals and cats unharmed and ready to germinate on the moist forest floor.

Freshly harvested ripe cacao pods in Peru.

Both plants defense mechanisms are part of the reason they are so widely consumed today. The coffee plant’s natural pesticide is a chemical alkaloid we all know of as caffeine which is present in the leaves, fruit, and seeds of the plant. It is used to paralyze and kill predatory insects that feed on the plant. The other widely cultivated coffee species, coffea canephora (known as Robusta) has up to 50% more caffeine content which allows it to grow at lower altitudes and in harsher conditions than its cousin coffea arabica. The dominant alkaloid in cacao, theobromine, is chemically very similar to caffeine. This alkaloid produces a powerfully bitter taste which encourages animals to dispose of the seeds after they consume the surrounding sweet pulp. If animals do consume the bitter seeds, their slow metabolization of theobromine may result in toxicity and even death from theobromine poisoning. This is the reason some dogs may die from the ingestion of relatively small amounts of chocolate. It’s worth noting that both coffee and cacao beans are tremendously complex seeds that have hundreds of chemical and alkaloidal constituents many of which have yet to be studied.

Coffee and cacao - Not actually beans, but chemically complex seeds of bright colored tropical fruits which employ similar defense mechanisms and naturally spread in the wild by attracting animals with their sweet tastes and brilliant colors.

Part 2 will cover the Harvest and Consumption of Coffee and Chocolate

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