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Coffee 101: Part One - What Is Coffee?

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

A Beginner's Guide to Coffee

It is estimated that nearly one-and-a-half billion cups of coffee are brewed around the globe each day. This staggering statistic not only evidences the popularity of coffee but also demonstrates the significant role it plays in the daily lives of millions of people. So what is this remarkable beverage, and where does it come from?

In this blog series, we explore the world of coffee and answer basic questions like:

  • What is coffee?

  • Where does coffee come from?

  • How is coffee grown?

  • How do they produce coffee?

  • What makes coffee so unique?

By following the long and arduous journey that coffee beans must travel from the moment they are planted until they reach the drinker's cup, you can gain insight into what makes coffee so special, and along with that, a deeper appreciation for its wonderful qualities and characteristics.

We hope you join us as we begin this Coffee 101 blog series with our first installment, Part One - What Is Coffee? Pull up a chair, pour yourself a cup of your favorite brew, and read on to learn more about what many consider to be a truly magical elixir.

What Is Coffee?

Coffee is a ubiquitous beverage, ranking right up there with water and tea in terms of global reach and popularity. No matter what part of the world you may find yourself in, chances are good that they drink coffee there.

But in its most basic form, coffee is a plant. Coffee beans, as we know them, are actually the seeds contained within the fruit (known as cherries) that grow on coffee plants. When ripe, coffee cherries have a reddish appearance and they commonly grow in dense bunches along the coffee plant's branches.

Before it can be poured into a cup, coffee must be planted, grown, harvested, and processed. (It must also be roasted and brewed but those are blog series topics for another day.)

Coffee plant with ripe cherries

Coffee is an agricultural product and ranks as one of the most widely traded commodities in the world, and is second only to oil in terms of trading volume.

Types of Coffee Plants

The botanical name of the genus that coffee belongs to is known as Coffea. There are many varieties and species of coffee plants growing around the world. In its most common forms, coffee plants range from small, scraggly shrubs with small leaves measuring an inch long, to towering trees with massive leaves over a foot in length.

But as far as coffee that is consumed by the majority of drinkers, there are two primary species of note: arabica and robusta.

Arabica Coffee

The most widely grown species of coffee is Coffea Arabica, commonly referred to simply as arabica coffee. Arabica beans are widely associated with higher-quality coffee and typically produce more desirable characteristics and flavorful brews.

Arabica beans represent approximately 70% of the world's total coffee production and generally command higher prices because of their superior quality.

They are also more challenging to grow because they:

  • Grow at higher elevations

  • Require more attention as developing seedlings

  • Are less hardy and more susceptible to disease

  • Need more annual precipitation

As far as appearance, arabica beans have a large, flat, and uniformly oval appearance. They are typically bigger than their robusta counterparts.

Arabica coffee beans
Arabica beans (left) compared to robusta (right).

Robusta Coffee

The other commercially grown species of coffee is Coffea Canephora, more commonly known as robusta coffee. Where arabica beans are considered higher quality, robusta beans occupy the lower end of the quality scale.

Because they are easier to grow and less costly to maintain, robusta beans are cheaper than arabica.

Commercially, robusta coffee is typically used in the production of low-end and instant coffees and as filler when blended together with arabica beans.

Robusta coffee beans have a distinct grainy, nutty taste with little to no acidity. Robustas purportedly have a higher caffeine content than arabica beans.

Final Thoughts

For many coffee enthusiasts, the flavor and character of coffee are so wonderfully unique that it is easy to forget what it is and where it comes from. Throughout its journey, coffee is many things. It is a plant. A seed. A bean. And in the end, it is a beverage that satisfies like no other.

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