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Great Coffee

At wine appreciation classes it's customary to swirl and spit so you don't get tipsy says Lisa Martin. Perhaps the same measure should apply to coffee tasting school. After an early morning coffee appreciation class I'm not just wired - I'm trying to refrain from an overwhelming urge to do cartwheels.

But let's backtrack.

I arrive at Merlo's roasting factory in Brisbane at 7.30am, slightly brain-fogged because I haven't had my usual morning brew.

Along with a group of fellow bean-addicts, I'm seated at the on-site cafe around a breakfast table covered in platters of fresh blueberry muffins, fruit, Italian styled savoury ricotta tarts and bruschetta.

The coffee and conversation is flowing.

We're waiting to be converted from humble drinkers to coffee connoisseurs by Brisbane's coffee king Dean Merlo and his assistant Alyce Musk.

But first, a primer.

Coffee berries grow on two types of trees - robusta and arabica, Musk says. The coffee plants take three to five years to mature.

"Once they reach maturity they grow white flowers which produce coffee cherries," she says.

She says the best coffee comes from plantations where coffee cherries are individually hand-picked from the trees rather than stripped off by machine.

Once the cherries are picked the pulp is removed, leaving the raw green coffee beans. The dried-out beans are shipped off across the world.

Coffee is one of the world's largest trading commodities second only to oil and worth over $US12 billion ($A13.99 billion) in trade each year.

Merlo also takes us on a tour of the factory while talking about the art of roasting coffee beans, which his family has been doing since 1958.

He shows us a great wall of coffee - sacks of raw beans imported from Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Kenya, Brazil and New Guinea.

To begin with, the beans are put through sorting machines which grade size and density and remove any sticks or debris.

During roasting, which gives the beans their magic, they expand and change colour and the flavours develop, Merlo says.

"We roast our coffee for 20 minutes because we like that slower profile, it tastes better," he says. The roasted beans are then rested for a day or two to allow the oils to come out and lock in the flavour. "It's like they go into shock," Merlo says. "Coffee should be kept in the fridge to preserve its flavours."

The story of coffee began in Ethiopia around 300AD and spread to the Middle East, Turkey, Italy and the rest of Europe.

"Some people tried to get coffee banned as the devil's brew because it made a few people jittery," Merlo says. "But by that stage the Pope was a confirmed coffee drinker."

Post-tour the taste test begins. We sample coffee from Costa Rican, Kenyan and Nicaraguan beans. We taste each blend twice - with milk and without - and learn about body, bouquet, acidity and aftertaste.

"The similarities between coffee and wine are incredible," Merlo says.

Costa Rican coffee, for example, has a bright taste, high acidity with a medium body.

"A complex flavour that includes hints of dark chocolate, smokiness and a tasty richness comparable to a good burgundy wine," Merlo says.

In comparison the Kenyan brew has a "sweet and nutty" flavour with a spirited aftertaste.


The story of coffee is believed to have started in third century Ethiopia when a goat keeper noticed his herd became hyperactive after eating red coffee berries.

The goat keeper told the head monk at nearby monastery, who poured boiling water onto the berries and made a drink which allowed him to stay awake for all night prayer sessions.

Around 100 AD Arab traders brought coffee to their homelands and cultivated the plant for the first time on plantations.

They boiled the beans, creating a drink they call "qahwa" ("substance that prevents sleep").

The Turks were the first to adopt coffee as a widely consumed drink, often adding spices such as clove, cinnamon, cardamom and anise to the brew.

Constantinople (formerly Istanbul) acquired such a thirst for coffee that Turkish law permitted a wife to divorce her husband for failing to keep the family ibrik, or pot, filled.

By 1600 AD coffee had been introduced to the west by Italian traders.

In Italy, Pope Clement VIII was urged by his advisers to consider the favourite drink of the Ottoman Empire the "devils drink".

However, he decides to baptise it instead, making it an acceptable Christian beverage.

By the late 1600s the Dutch were growing coffee in India and Java. Within a few years the Dutch colonies had become the main suppliers of coffee to Europe. The Dutch also the spread the bean to Central and South America.


1645: First coffeehouse opens in Italy.

1680: French doctor recommends the use of cafe au lait for medicinal purposes.

1773: The Boston Tea Party makes drinking coffee a patriotic duty in America.

1822: A prototype for the first espresso machine is invented in France.

1880: Australia begins to grow coffee - a plantation of 200 hectares is developed in northern New South Wales.

Early 1900's: In Germany, afternoon coffee becomes a standard occasion. The derogatory term "Kaffee Klatsch" is coined to describe women's gossip at these affairs. It has since broadened to mean relaxed conversation in general.

1901: Instant coffee is invented by Japanese-American chemist Satori Kato of Chicago.

1946: In Italy, Achilles Gaggia perfects his espresso machine. Cappuccino is named for the resemblance of its colour to the robes of the monks of the Capuchin order.

1971: Starbucks opens its first store in Seattle.


*Per capita Finland drinks the most coffee - the average Finn consumes around 1400 cups each year.

*In Australia, average consumption is 463 cups per person per year, making Australians the 17th biggest consumers of coffee.

*The word "coffee" entered English from the Dutch word koffie. One possible origin of the name is the Kingdom of Kaffa in Ethiopia, where the coffee plant originated.

*There are four times the amount of anti oxidants in coffee than in green tea.

*The world's most expensive coffee at $75-$175 per kilo is called Kopi Luwak. It's made from the droppings of a cat-like marsupial which only eats the best coffee beans.

*French philosopher Voltaire reportedly drunk up to 40 cups of coffee a day.

*Bach loved coffee so much he penned a coffee cantina to honour his favourite bean.

*Brazil is the largest coffee producer. The coffee trade there employs five million people.

*It takes 120 beans to make one espresso coffee.


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