Asking where coffee comes from can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. But no matter how in-depth you go, just know that the wonderful tasting coffee you have each day has been on a long journey to get to you.
At the base level, coffee beans are the seed of a fruit grown on tropical trees. Job done, we can all go home. But that’s a bit vague and doesn’t really answer the big questions.
Questions like, what is a coffee bean, and where do coffee beans come from?
So, read on to explore more about the plant that coffee beans grow on, where it grows, and how coffee beans travel from the farm to your cup.
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As the birthplace of coffee, a cup of Ethiopian coffee is a little taste of history. It is also one of the few places to still harvest coffee cherries in the wild.
Although, when it comes to drinking coffee (as opposed to the first coffee plant), Yemen also like to stake their claim.
The story goes that in the 9th century, an Ethiopian goat herder – Kaldi – noticed his goats eating the fruit from a particular tree. Whenever they did, the goats became energized and started “dancing”.
Not wanting to be left out, he decided to try the fruit too. And he also became very energetic.
Excited by the discovery of a seemingly energy-producing fruit, and what would be the first coffee trees, he took the berries to a monk. But the monk disliked the bitter taste of the fruit and threw the rest into the fire.
The smell of coffee beans roasting on the fire drew the interest of the other monks and they decided to recover the beans from the embers. Once retrieved, they ground them up and mixed them with hot water, creating the first coffee.
It’s a nice story. However, the first recording of this story was 800 years after the event was supposed to have taken place. So, it is probably apocryphal.
Globally, there are around 120 identified species of coffee trees. But, at the risk of turning this into an encyclopedic read, we will focus on the 2 main species for coffee production: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (also known as Coffea Robusta).
The coffee beans themselves are actually the seeds of the coffee cherry, a fruit that grows on trees.
Each coffee cherry produces two seeds, harvested at the level of ripeness for maximum flavor. The cherries are then processed to remove the seeds and eventually roasted, becoming the coffee beans we put in our grinders.
Still struggling to picture coffee in tree form rather than a bag? Think of a berry bush or grapevine, then go bigger. Many coffee plants grow into large coffee trees, anywhere from 30 to 40 feet. So, whilst it starts its life as a little coffee plant, it soon grows up and meets the criteria for a tree.
Most coffee plants have waxy, dark green leaves although it is possible to see more of a purple or yellow hue. Starting off green, ripe coffee cherries are ready to harvest when they turn red.
If you want to know more about the ideal conditions for growing a coffee tree then check out our article on the best soil for coffee plants.
ROBUSTA COFFEE PLANTS
Robusta makes up around 40% of the world’s total coffee production today. However, most of it is destined for instant coffee *shudder*.
The Robusta coffee plant was first discovered in the late 19th century, originating in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It benefits from growing at lower altitudes, in higher temperatures, and has a greater disease resistance. Plus, it grows considerably more coffee cherries than Arabica. This is why Robusta beans have been used for bulk growing coffee basically since its discovery.
Genetically, it appears that Robusta is a parent plant of Arabica. It is thought that Robusta cross-bred with Coffea Euginoides to create Coffea Arabica, probably somewhere in South Sudan. This new plant spread to Ethiopia, where it flourished.
In terms of flavor, Robusta coffee beans are known for their earthy notes. You can expect a bitter, bold taste balanced out with a smooth nuttiness. The harsh flavors are why they are a cheaper coffee bean variety, often used in coffee blends rather than on its own.
ARABICA COFFEE PLANTS
By far the more popular and famous coffee beans are those from the Arabica coffee tree.
Arabica coffee trees are tall, have a thin trunk, and numerous branches bear fruit.
Around the world, you will find many varieties of Coffea Arabica. Each has different properties including the flavor profile, amount of fruit, leaf density, and resistance to disease. So, choosing the right variety that matches a region’s growing conditions is crucial not just for flavor but also for the financial viability of the farm.
As we go through the coffee processing stages, we will mainly focus on Arabica beans. Why? It is the most widely cultivated species of the coffee tree and is used to make all the delicious single-origin coffees that we love so much.
There are over 70 coffee-growing countries in the world, all of which are located in the Coffee Bean Belt (often just Coffee Belt or the Bean Belt). This “belt” spans the globe, covering the countries between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer – 23.5 degrees north and south of the Equator.
In this belt, you will find most of Central and South America and parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. But when you think of all the countries you see on your coffee bag labels, this isn’t much of a surprise.
Each year, most coffee trees will have one harvest. However, some regions will get a second harvest which usually yields smaller and lower quality beans. A prolonged period of rainfall triggers the cycle. At this time, the coffee trees produce white flowers which are heavily scented, smelling a lot like jasmine.
Bees and other insects pollinate the plants. Although, the Arabica coffee plant is also self-pollinating. So, unless the flowers are knocked off the tree, they will always yield fruit.
Around 9 months after flowering, the fruit is ready to be harvested.
Coffee cherries don’t ripen uniformly which creates a dilemma for the coffee farmers. Do they harvest entire trees, ending up with under and overripe fruit in with the good stuff? Or do they pay workers to harvest coffee cherries multiple times by hand, only picking the ripe good coffee cherries?
The harvested fruit of the coffee tree is around the size of a grape. But, unlike a grape, it is mostly made up of 2 seeds with quite a thin layer of flesh around them.
Coffee cherries start out green and tend to be a deep red color when ripe, although there are varieties that have yellow and orange fruit. The color change makes picking at the ideal level of ripeness easier.
Ripeness is directly linked to the amount of sugar in the coffee cherry. Generally, as fruit ripens, the sugar content goes up and acidity goes down. So, the majority of farmers look for the most sugar possible, before the cherries are overripe. However, some farmers like a mix of ripeness as they believe it adds to the coffee’s complexity.
Depending on location and the available resources, there are 3 main methods of coffee processing: dry (natural), wet (washed), or honey processing.
Each process provides different characteristics to the final beans. And they each come with their own benefits and drawbacks. If wet washed, the coffee then needs to go through a drying stage to remove the moisture – around 11% should be left.
If decaf coffee beans are on the agenda, an additional processing stage needs to be carried out to remove the naturally occurring caffeine.
Once processed down to the coffee seed (the hard pips inside the cherry), there are still a few layers surrounding it. There is an outer layer called the “parchment” protecting the precious coffee bean inside. Then, there is a thinner “silverskin”. These are left on at the processing and drying stages creating parchment coffee which is bagged up until ready for export.
When the coffee is ready for export, it undergoes milling to leave behind the dry green coffee beans Hulling machinery removes the parchment layer. Plus, the coffee can also be polished to remove the silverskin.
Whilst most coffee cherries contain 2 seeds that face each and look like typical coffee beans, sometimes there is only 1. These are known as peaberries and usually account for around 5% of the coffee crop. This is why sorting is very important, to remove the peaberries from the rest of the coffee seeds.
Many people think peaberries have particularly desirable qualities and that they roast differently from regular coffee beans. So, if you see a “peaberry” coffee, it is made from these single seeds.
Read Next: Coffee Processing 101: Washed, Natural, or Honey | 11 Best Decaf Coffee Beans
Most often, green coffee beans are exported and then roasted in the consumer’s country. However, it is possible to roast at source and export the roasted coffee beans as a final product.
Fresh green coffee beans have very little flavor, other than a fairly unpleasant vegetal taste. But, after roasting, you get the delicious brown coffee beans bursting with delicious fruit, floral and sweet flavors.
Roasting is a very complex process but you’ll generally see coffee beans advertised as either light, medium, or dark roast. As the roast gets darker, the flavor becomes richer showing off more chocolate, nut, and dried fruit flavors.
Lightly roasted coffee beans are citrusy and acidic. Whereas dark roasted coffee beans are punchy with more dried fruit and caramel notes. One is not better than the other, although some people argue that only light roasts really show off the characteristics of the individual beans. But it all depends on your preference for flavor and brewing method.
First, you need to grind the coffee beans – either by selecting the right size of pre-ground coffee or grinding them yourself. The latter will always yield better results.
The whole point of grinding is to get the most flavor from the beans into your cup. And the best way to do this all depends on your brewing method.
The length of time that the coffee grounds are in contact with the water determines the best grind size. Generally, if the coffee will be in contact with the water for a long time (like French press), you need a coarser grind. And vice versa.
Once ground, you can get to brewing your coffee. And, most importantly, enjoying it!
Everything from the farm location and farmer down to the roaster and then barista influences how your coffee ultimately tastes.
Understanding where do coffee beans come from is important. Not just from a flavor and environmental standpoint but also for appreciating the amount of work predominantly poorly paid people put into our much-needed caffeine hit.
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