A great cup of gourmet coffee starts with the best coffee beans. There are over 35 countries and origins that produce a wide variety of coffee beans. Understanding more about the many varieties, how coffee is grown, where the best beans come from, and which beans possess the special characteristics that you prefer will open up a whole new dimension to your enjoyment of coffee.
Experiencing the full range that coffee has to offer is similar in many ways to appreciating fine wine. While you may start off with a more limited perspective on which wines you prefer to drink, you naturally broaden your preferences and tastes as you expand your curiosity, understanding and experience.
The Coffee Plant
Coffee beans actually come from the seed of a berry, the fruit produced by the coffee plant. Coffee is a tropical plant that grows primarily in a tropical band around the globe between the tropic of cancer (23 deg north latitude) and the tropic of Capricorn (23 deg south latitude). There are about 35 countries in this band or zone around the equator that are regarded as the primary coffee producing nations.
Angola Bali Bolivia Brazil Burundi Camero Columbia Congo Costa Rica Dominican Republic Ecuador El Salvador Ethiopia Guatemala Haiti Hawaii Honduras India Indonesia (Bali, Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Timor) Jamaica Java Kenya Mexico Nicaragua Panama Papua New Guinea Peru Puerto Rico Rwanda Sulawesi Sumatra Tanzania Timor Uganda Venezuela Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe
Species of Coffee – Arabica and Robusta
There are many species of coffee plants, but the two predominant species that make up most of the coffee produced each year are Arabica (Coffea Arabica) and Robusta (Coffea Canephora). Other less popular species include Coffea Fadenii, Coffea Liberica, Coffea Mongensis.
Arabica – this is the most widely cultivated species and constitutes over 85% of the commercial coffees produced. The Arabica species thrives best on steep mountain slopes, and requires heavy rainfall. The plant does not do as well under direct sunlight and often is grown under the protection of larger shade trees to aid its growth. In other areas, such as Hawaii, persistent cloud cover offers this natural protection from the direct sunlight.
Arabica coffee beans are harder than other types, but have a superior flavor which is richer and more aromatic. The plant grows best in higher altitudes but cannot survive frost or temperatures below 32F for any length of time. The optimum temperature range for growing is between 65F and 85F. Temperatures above 85F and below 65F will suppress flowering. Arabica is autogamous which means it is capable of pollinating itself.
Robusta – this species is a particular hardy plant and can be cultivated at lower altitudes than Arabica coffee, in some areas below 3000 feet. Robusta can survive with less rainfall than other species and is more resistant to the various diseases and rust that plague coffee plants. Robusta is inferior in flavor to Arabica, and having less flavor, commands a lower price in the commercial market. Generally, the cheaper coffee available through retail is often a blend with more than 50% Robusta, and some of the cheapest coffees are 100% Robusta.
Robusta coffee is primarily grown in West and Central Africa, East Africa and Asia. The Robusta species is allogamous which means it depends the proximity of other Robusta plants nearby for pollination.
The modern cultivation of coffee trees usually begins in a green house or nursery for the first 9 to 18 months until the plant reaches a height of 18 to 20 inches. The young plants are then transplanted to permanent groves. It takes five or six years before the plant reaches maturity and the fruit can be harvested.
Coffee plants bear fruit in clusters along the branches. When the fruit turns red like a cherry it is time to be harvested. A mature coffee plant can reach a height of 15 to 20 feet, but are usually pruned to 6 feet to facilitate picking the crop by hand.
The coffee plant thrives best in volcanic soil rich in decomposed organic material. The average life expectancy for a healthy tree is 50 to 70 years. Some coffee plants have been known to live for 100 years and still bear fruit. The prime years for a coffee plant are between 10 and 15 years old.
A good coffee tree can yield about 12 pounds of berries per year, which is equivalent to about 4 to 5 pounds of green coffee beans (un-roasted green beans weigh considerably more than roasted coffee beans which have had most of their water content removed). As you can imagine, it takes a lot of coffee plants to produce the quantities of coffee consumed around the world each year. A large plantation may manage more than 300,000 coffee trees.
The coffee plant is able to produce ripe and unripe fruit and flowers simultaneously multiple times throughout the year. The white flower has a sweet scent that resembles that of jasmine. The flowers last only about 2 to 3 days, and then the clusters of berries appear after about two months. Starting out green, then becoming successively yellow, red and finally almost black, the full ripening of the berries take about 8 months. Each berry contains an outer layer of pulp that protects a sturdier inner parchment like skin. Inside this inner parchment skin, two flat-sided beans are contained within surrounded by a gummy substance.
Dry and Wet Processing Method
Once harvested, the coffee beans are removed from the berries and prepared for market by one of two processing methods.
The Dry method is the older and more natural method. The berries are spread in a thin layer over open ground to dry. While drying, the berries are turned several times per day under the sun. After three weeks, the outer husks are removed and the coffee beans are sorted and graded. Modern plantations have begun to use mechanical dryers, but the process is similar to sun drying.
The Wet method is the more modern and widely practiced processing method today. After an initial washing, the berries are placed in a machine to remove the outer pulp. The berries are then soaked in tanks of water to loosen the parchment covering and are left to ferment for 12 to 24 hours. The berries are rinsed with fresh water to remove the sticky protective coating and then dried in the sun or more quickly in drying machines. In the final step, a huller machine removes the parchment and protective skin exposing the two beans inside.