They get you up in the morning, and they keep you running till late evening — but how is coffee grown?
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.
Types of coffee
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 at the tropics.
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%.
Most types of coffee plants grow better at higher altitude 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.
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.
Types of coffees
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).
Because of its more 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.
Coffee is acidic — this gives it 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.