Coffee 101: Coffee plants

Most people who drink coffee don't know much about where it comes from. But that doesn't give you the right to remain an ignoramus!

Coffee plants are actually trees, believe it or not. Most farmers keep the trees rather short to make harvesting easier. The best of these trees are grown in the shade of the South American rainforest. Almost all the world's coffee is produced near the equator as coffee does best in tropical environments. Coffee trees need quite a bit of water, shade, and sun, but don't require good soil. They do produce more coffee with fertilizer, which presents some environmental problems.

Coffee berries

Diagram of a coffee bean

Coffee beans are actually the seeds of a small berry (sometimes called a cherry.) Each berry contains two green coffee beans, although mutations are not uncommon (kind of like with peanuts.)

Types of plants

There are only two types of coffee trees that are grown today on commercial coffee plantations. Let's compare the two, shall we?

Arabica (coffea arabica) is the better of the two. It's cultivated in the Americas as well as parts of Africa and Asia, but can only grow at relatively high altitudes. Around 75% of all coffee grown today is arabica.

Robusta (coffea Canephora) contains more caffeine than arabica and has a bitter taste. Robusta is primarily cultivated in Africa. Since instant coffee tastes awful no matter what you do to it, the majority of instant coffee is made with Robusta. It's a more robust plant (see where the name comes from?) than arabica so it's easier — and cheaper — to grow.

Harvesting and processing

Coffee berries turn red when ripe; that's when they should be harvested since the berries can't ripen when removed from the plant. In spite of this, some coffee farms pick all the berries at once (known as "strip picking.") This reduces the labor but not all of the beans will be ripe, so the quality of the coffee suffers.

On the other hand, traditional harvesting is extremely labor intensive — it can take up to a week for a single farmer to hand-pick enough coffee to fill a 100 pound bag with beans. Considering seven million tons of coffee are produced each year, it takes a large number of workers to pick enough fruit to keep up with demand.

Native origin of coffee

Coffee is believed to have originated in the Ethiopian rainforest. If geography isn't your best subject — and it was never mine despite a cow-crazed seventh grade teacher's torturous tests — Ethiopia is a landlocked country in eastern Africa, south of the Red Sea and north of the Indian Ocean. Don't you feel smarter now?

Weird fact to tell your friends

Some people grow coffee plants indoors. These are usually grown for their looks (tall, shiny green leaves) and sweet smelling flowers, and because of this they often won't produce much — if any — coffee. It takes four years before a coffee plant bears fruit, and people tend not to keep their indoor plants that long anyhow. Weird eh?