Coffee is one of the most popular drink in the world, with over two billion cups consumed each day. It’s safe to say that coffee fuels the world and without it, our lives wouldn’t be the same. But while the drink has come a long way from its humble beginnings, most people enjoying it have little awareness of where coffee actually comes from, and what type of processes it undergoes before reaching our morning brews.
Boiled down (pun intended), coffee is produced from the seeds of the coffee tree. These seeds develop inside fruits known as coffee berries and are usually found in pairs inside each berry. When tomato-red, the fruits are ready to be harvested, the pits collected, dried, and shipped to a grocery store near you.
That, however, is only the short version. Let’s take a look at the coffee plant, its main varieties, and how to spot a good bean for your morning brew.
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Coffee plants (genus Coffea) are small trees or shrubs native to the tropical areas of Africa and Asia, as well as southern Africa. They can grow up to 3–3.5 m (9.8–11.5 ft) in height in the tropics.
Coffee plants grew wild in Ethiopia and were widely used by nomadic tribes for thousands of years, but there are few mentions about it before the 15th century. Some of the earliest notes about coffee are regarding its imports — the Ottoman Empire imported coffee from Ethiopia, and from there on, it spread to Europe in the early 16th century.
When coffee arrived in Europe, it was mostly reserved for the wealthy, doctors (who would administer it to some patients) and religious scholars (who needed it for long nights of study — we’ve all been there).
But coffee caused quite a stir in the Islamic world. Many considered it haram, illegal under religious laws. Muslim countries banned it in the 16th century and it became a taboo. But that didn’t last. Coffee won, and its consumption became more and more common in Europe and Asia. Coffeehouses became very popular in Italy and Austria — the first coffeehouse in Austria opened in Vienna in 1683 after a fierce battle in which the Austrians took spoils of war from the defeated Turks. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses throughout England. By the mid-17th century, coffee had reached India and in the 19th and 20th century, the Americas. Coffee had taken over the world.
How to grow coffee
Coffee is a very picky plant. Coffee plants need to be grown in specific regions with specific soils; they need to receive adequate rainfall and have high humidity and moderate temperatures — and then, if all these align, they can maybe grow.
Coffee plants are grown in specific regions around the world where they receive adequate rainfall, high humidity, and moderate temperatures. There are two primary species of coffee plants: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta. Arabica is considered to be the more flavorful and complex of the two, while Robusta is known for its strong and bitter flavor and higher caffeine content.
Coffee plants are typically grown in shaded nurseries before being transferred to coffee farms, where they are grown for several years until they begin to bear fruit — although in modern times, practices are changing.
Most types of coffee plants grow better at higher altitudes but will be killed by freezing temperatures. A bush of Arabica coffee takes 3-5 years to mature into growing fruits and can keep producing for an average of between 50 to 60 years.
While there are many different types of coffee out there (over 120 known species, here’s a list of some well-known ones), the two most of us have ever tasted are Coffea arabica (commonly known simply as “Arabica”) and Coffea canephora (known as “Robusta”). Arabica plants account for 60-80% of the world’s coffee production, while Robusta accounts for about 20-40%. Arabica is considered to be the more flavorful and complex of the two, while Robusta is known for its strong and bitter flavor and higher caffeine content. Of course, both species have different varieties that give them different characteristics.
Around 5-10% of all coffee fruits bear a single bean rather than a pair of them. The pits from these fruits, known as peaberries, are handled and sold separately from the regular, flat-faced coffee beans we know and love. Common wisdom holds that these peaberries are more flavorful than regular beans as they’re believed to roast more uniformly.
On average, it takes 5-8 pounds of harvested coffee cherries to eventually yield 1 pound of high-quality coffee beans.
Arabica vs Robusta
Between the two varieties, Robusta tends to have a more bitter taste. It’s a bit easier (and thus cheaper) to grow so all in all, it’s considered to be the lower-quality variety. It’s much more disease resistant and has a higher yield than Arabica and is more tolerant of environmental conditions (which gave it its name).
Arabica beans are known for their complex and nuanced flavors, with notes of fruit, sugar, floral, and chocolate, among others. Robusta beans, on the other hand, are known for their strong and bitter flavor, with a noticeable caffeine kick.
Because of its bitter taste, Robusta is generally not used for espresso blends, although some producers do mix it in as it helps better accentuate the product’s taste and aroma. More run-of-the-mill products like regular and instant coffee, however, make heavy use of this variety, which is good news for morning-you: Robusta has a higher caffeine content.
Arabica is more difficult to grow as this variety is more sensitive to location (it needs high-altitude, tropical climates) and soil (ideally, volcanic). Subtropical regions in the 16-24 degree latitude range, and equatorial regions with latitudes less than 10 degrees make for ideal growing spots for Arabica. Arabica grown at higher elevations takes more to grow but produces a more flavorful bean.
In addition to the species and variety of the plant, the flavor of the coffee is also influenced by plenty of different factors, from the growing conditions (humidity, exposure to sunlight, etc), harvesting and processing methods, and roast profile. For example, coffee grown in the high altitudes of Ethiopia will have a different flavor profile than coffee grown in the lowlands of Brazil. Similarly, a light roast will have a brighter and more acidic flavor than a dark roast, which will have a more full-bodied and smoky flavor.
Both types of coffee are acidic — this gives coffee its particular flavor and taste. Different varieties of coffee have different levels of acidity, which is why we differentiate between them commercially. Acidity is mostly impacted by growing altitude and soil: as a rule of thumb, beans produced in Africa tend to have higher acidity and fruity or floral undertones, while coffee from Brazil or Sumatra tends to have a much lower acidity with cocoa and nutty notes.
Higher-quality coffee tends to come from a single crop, which helps preserve its taste and flavor (somewhat like a single malt whiskey), while cheaper options tend to use blends (giving it a more ‘regular’ but balanced taste). Single-origin coffee tends to be more expensive but also more varied in regards to aroma, taste, and caffeine content. Blends are used to make the most of different types of coffee beans and counteract their individual weaknesses: a roaster might blend a coffee with a full body with another coffee that has a striking taste to support each other for example.
Bitterness in coffee is the result of the brewing process. If the beans are ground too finely, or they’re over-brewed, the drink will have a bitter and harsh aroma. This happens because too many flavorful compounds are extracted from the beans thanks to more contact between the water and the grounds (if the particles are too small) or over-brewing.
So, if you wake up to bitter coffee tomorrow, try brewing it less.
Coffee and climate change
Remember when we mentioned that coffee is a particularly picky plant? Well as it turns out, the changing environmental conditions brought by climate change are wreaking havoc on coffee plantations.
Climate change is a growing concern for the coffee industry, and some see it as an existential threat to the industry. Because coffee plants are sensitive to changes in temperature, precipitation, and other environmental factors, growers are forced to move plantations, often to higher altitudes. But higher altitudes have different soils, and at some point, you run out of higher altitudes to go to.
Also, because coffee plants are grown in specific regions with specific climates, this means there’s only so much space you can grow coffee in. Most coffee-growing regions are typically located near the equator in countries such as Colombia, Ethiopia, Brazil, and Vietnam — countries that are disproportionately affected by climate change. Rising temperatures and changing rain patterns are one problem, but the changing conditions are also bringing a new wave of pests to plantations. For instance, the coffee berry borer, a common pest in coffee-growing regions, is thriving in the warmer temperatures caused by climate change. Similarly, coffee rust is exacerbated by climate change, with studies linking climate change to increased infection susceptibility.
Coffee has come a long way, but its future has never been more uncertain. The impact of climate change is making it increasingly difficult for coffee plants to grow and thrive, and there are limited measures farmers can take. Still, sustainable agriculture practices can be deployed and can have a positive impact on coffee-growing — but if temperatures continue to surge, your morning brew could become much more expensive and scarce.
With coffee being so popular and deeply embedded into our culture, it’s unlikely that it will go away anytime soon, although it is facing its most pressing threat yet. As consumers, the one thing we can do is support sustainable growers and companies that favor sustainable practices, and treat coffee for what it is: a delightful drink that should be appreciated and cherished, and not take it for granted.