3/8/2006 Houston-- Consumers in the U.S. drink more coffee than those in any other country. According to research group Packaged Facts, it is the second largest U.S. import behind oil. Most expertscoffee beans agree that the proliferation of gourmet coffees coincided with Starbuck's expansion. Starbucks sold more than 400 billion cups of coffee at over 10,800 worldwide stores.

In Houston, there are more than 200 coffee outlets including Diedrich Coffee and Starbucks. About half are parts of chain stores but independent stores are holding there own. Greenberry's Coffee & Tea, Onion Creek Coffee House, Brasil and Harvest Coffee are all working hard to build a loyal customer base and unique brand. "Independents offer the personal touch," says Harvest Coffee owner Henry Elizalde. Independent coffeehouses also come up with unique flavored drinks like the Monica Special, invented by a Harvest Coffee regular. It is basically a flavored coffee with a shot of espresso and just a dash of frothy milk on top, Elizalde says. "As an independent coffeehouse, I have more flexibility. I can customize my coffee drinks to accommodate individual tastes because these days people want more than just good enough."

Roasters use the term "specialty coffee" to refer to top-grade arabica beans, as opposed to the lower-grade robusta beans. Arabica beans have richer flavor and are more aromatic. Robusta beans have twice the caffeine and a stronger, more harsh flavor. To keep costs down, supermarket brands such as Folgers, Nescafe, and Maxwell House blend arabica and robusta.Coffee was discovered back in the ninth century by a goatherd

Historians believe coffee originated in Ethiopia. Folklore passed from one generation to the next tells the story of a ninth-century goatherd, Kaldi, who found his bucks prancing energetically in the fields after ingesting marble-size red berries from a nearby plant. Kaldi reported this to monks who discovered that boiling the cherry-like fruit resulted in a stout brew that kept them alert during prayer vigils.

The first coffee house was established in 1450 in Istanbul, followed by others in England, Italy, Paris, and Austria. Virginia founder Capt. John Smith is credited with introducing coffee to the United States. There are almost 20,000 coffeehouses nationwide.

Flavored brews and blended drinks dominated the java culture in the 80's and 90's. The trend is toward better, more exotic coffee says Mike Mulloy of House of Coffee Beans in Houston. "Tasting coffee is just as easy and fun as wine tasting," says the Houston native. Learning the different flavor profiles--Kenyan beans versus Yemeni, for example-- allows you to venture beyond light, medium, and dark roast. It adds another dimension to coffee drinking. "New Guinea coffee has a winey sweetness, whereas the Costa Rican smells nutty," says Carol White of Greenberry's Coffee and Teas Shop in Houston. "The Columbian has a light body, although it is actually heavier than a Costa Rican or Guatemalan." She sees a bright future for gourmet coffee.

Contributed by Dai Huynh.