It is estimated that 1.4 billion cups of coffee are brewed per day around the globe, with the United States alone responsible for roughly 45% of that amount. According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), in 2019 approximately 169,337,000 sacks, each weighing 60-kilograms were consumed around the world. This equates to an incredible 22,352,484,000 pounds of coffee.
We welcome you to Part One of Coffee 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Coffee. In this article, we provide a broad overview of coffee, starting with what it is, where it originated, and where it is grown. We also examine the plant itself and hopefully gain some valuable insight into the ongoing challenges facing coffee growers and producers around the globe.
(Part Two of this series will study how coffee is cultivated and harvested, and the various ways that it is processed for export. Part Three of Coffee 101 will examine how coffee is transformed from raw green bean form into its more familiar form for brewing through roasting. We also study how coffee is brewed.)
Coffee is widely considered to be the most popular beverage on earth (aside from water). From North and South America to Europe, from Asia and Australia to the African continent, coffee is enjoyed by people from all walks of life, from farmhands to astrophysicists. Our objective here is to provide an informative crash course in coffee, painted with broad strokes. Sit back, grab a mug of your favorite brew, and read on to learn more about what many consider to be a magical elixir.
What is Coffee?
Coffee is an agricultural product, and it is the second most traded commodity behind oil. From a botanical perspective, the various species of coffee can range from small shrubs with small, one-inch leaves to tall trees with leaves as large as 16 inches long. Coffee beans as we know them are actually the seeds of coffee cherries. These seeds are typically flat on one side with a groove that runs lengthwise and rounded on the opposite side.
The scientific name for the genus that coffee belongs to is Coffea, and there are two main species of Coffea that are grown around the world, Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora.
If you stroll down the coffee aisle at your local grocery store and stop to examine the packaging used by the countless brands sitting on the shelves, you may notice catchphrases and marketing slogans such as “100% Arabica” or “[Name of Country] Arabica Beans”. What these coffee manufacturers are referring to is the particular coffee species Coffea Arabica also referred to as C. Arabica.
Coffea Arabica, aka arabica coffee, is widely considered the primary coffee species from which the higher qualities of coffee are produced. C. Arabica typically produces a finer, more flavorful brew and represents roughly 70% of the world’s total coffee production. As far as physical appearance, Arabica beans tend to be larger, flatter, and longer than their Robusta counterparts.
Arabica coffee is more challenging to grow and cultivate than Robusta, as it typically grows at higher elevations (which makes cultivation and harvesting more labor-intensive and therefore more costly), requires more annual precipitation, and is considerably less hardy than Robusta, thus requiring greater care and attention from seedling through maturity phases.
Varieties of Coffea Arabica
There are dozens of varieties within the C. Arabica species that are grown, cultivated, and harvested around the world. Some are of little consequence as far as the global coffee market, while others are produced in substantial quantities. Certain varieties of Arabica coffee are the result of human intervention (i.e. cross-breeding or cross-pollination) and others are descended from naturally occurring trees.
Before we look deeper into the varieties of Coffea Arabica it is important to understand the distinction between a variety and a cultivar as these two terms are mistakenly used interchangeably despite referring to significantly different aspects of coffee botany.
· A variety is a coffee shrub or tree as it naturally occurs in the wild. There is no human intervention in the way that it grows from seedling, nor in the manner that it propagates (breeds itself). A variety will always have the same characteristics and attributes as its parent.
· A cultivar is not naturally occurring. In fact, quite the opposite - a cultivar the product of direct human intervention and manipulation whether by way of breeding, cutting, or grafting. Coffee plants that are the result of selective breeding or the creation of hybrids are examples of cultivars.
The summary below breaks down these Arabica coffee varieties along with mutants or sub-varieties within their genetic trees, and the corresponding countries or regions where they are predominantly found.
· TYPICA – For several centuries the only sustainable variety of C. Arabica found outside of Yemen was Typica. From Yemen, it was taken to India in the mid-1500s and from there the Dutch took Typica plants to Java and it then spread throughout Indonesia where it thrived. It is believed that the French introduced the Typica variety to the western hemisphere, where it spread throughout the Caribbean and Central America.
Typica coffee plants can be identified by their narrow leaves and elongated berries that yield large, long seeds. The tree is conical and has fairly low production compared to other varieties.
Click below for part two
Examples of Typica Cultivars
Java (by way of Yemen)
Kenya (known as K7)
Notable Coffees that are Related to Typica
Hawaii Kona Jamaica Blue Mountain
Indonesia Sumatra Mexico Pluma Hidalgo
· BOURBON – aside from Typica, the other major variety of Coffea Arabica is Bourbon, which was first transplanted by French traders from Yemen to the island of Bourbon (now known as La Réunion) in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa. From there, it was brought to Brazil in the mid-1800s where it quickly gained in popularity, replacing Typica trees.
Bourbon is now found throughout the Americas as well as East Africa. The two most common strains of Bourbon are Yellow Bourbon (Amarelo) and Red (Vermelho) Bourbon. Lesser known are the Pink and Orange varieties. Bourbons tend to have wider leaves and rounder cherries than Typicas. They are also more shrub-like in appearance with thicker stems that grow more vertically.
Examples of Bourbon Cultivars
Cross between Maragogype and Pacas (Bourbon mutation)
Red Bourbon mutation in Brazil
Bourbon (via Yemen)
Yemen, East Africa
Notable Coffees that are Related to Bourbon
Yellow Bourbon Red Bourbon
Orange Bourbon Pink Bourbon
Bourbon Chocola Arusha
· OTHER WELL-KNOWN CULTIVARS, CROSSES & MUTATIONS
Catuai – Cultivar
Gesha – Cultivar
Africa, Central America
Coffea Canephora, more commonly known as Robusta coffee, is the second most-produced species of coffee in the world behind Arabica. Where Arabica coffee beans are considered higher quality, Robusta coffees represent the lower end of the quality scale. They are far hardier than C. Arabica and therefore less expensive to maintain and easier to grow.
Robusta coffee beans have a distinct taste and they are often used in the production of mass-produced, lower grade coffees. They also purportedly have a higher caffeine content than Arabica coffees. Because of their lower quality and cost, C. Canephora often find their way into instant coffee products, and are also used as filler in coffee blends along with Arabica coffee. The world’s largest producers of Robusta coffees in the crop year 2018/2019 were (in order) Vietnam, Brazil, and Indonesia.
The Story of Kaldi the Goatherd
As the story goes, coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia during the 9th century by a goatherd named Kaldi, who while tending to his flock noticed that several of his goats behaved excitedly after consuming the fruit of an otherwise ordinary-looking shrub. Kaldi proceeded to pick some of these cherries and at the urging of his wife, took them to monks at a local monastery where, as the result of several “fortuitous” circumstances, these cherries wound up in a fire, were ground up and brewed into a concoction with hot water.
Suffice to say, this version of events has never been verified but it is a compelling account nevertheless. There are a few historically accurate takeaways, however. First, the ancestry of the coffee grown around the world can be traced to Ethiopia and surrounding regions. Second, coffee seeds were originally traded in this area and spread throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East as early as the 1600s.
From there, thanks largely to the efforts of the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company, coffee spread throughout Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean. Today, various species of Coffea are grown throughout the “Coffee Belt”, the region that wraps around the earth’s equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.
Where is Coffee Grown?
The world’s coffee belt includes growing regions such as the Caribbean, Mexico & Central America, South America, Africa, and Asia/Pacific. As far as coffee growing continents, South America leads the pack by a wide margin with roughly 11,125,620,000 pounds of coffee produced during the crop year 2018/2019. The second largest growing region is Asia/Pacific with 6,296,136,000 pounds produced.
Here is a breakdown of the world’s largest coffee-producing nations for the last crop year.
COUNTRY NAME CONTINENT/REGION 2018/2019 CROP YEAR PRODUCTION (LBS) Brazil South America 8,570,100,000 pounds produced Colombia South America 1,829,256,000 pounds produced Peru South America 562,716,000 pounds produced Honduras Central America 967,296,000 pounds produced Mexico North America 574,332,000 pounds produced Guatemala Central America 528,924,000 pounds produced Vietnam Asia/Pacific 3,943,368,000 pounds produced * Indonesia Asia/Pacific 1,243,176,000 pounds produced India Asia/Pacific 792,264,000 pounds produced Ethiopia Africa 1,026,432,000 pounds produced Uganda Africa 620,928,000 pounds produced Côte d'Ivoire Africa 302,808,000 pounds produced
*Primarily Robusta – C. Canephora
It is important to note that because coffee is an agricultural product, it is subject to fluctuations in yearly production volume due to variable and often unpredictable conditions such as weather, climate change, and natural disasters. It is also vulnerable to circumstances such as local political instability, civil unrest, and other societal influences that impact labor and working conditions.
Certain regions rely more and more on coffee production for their local economy and have seen year over year increases for the past decade or so, while others have seen recent declines in annual production figures. These declines can be due to deteriorating growth conditions (persistent drought and plant disease, to name a few) or reduction in acreage as farmers seek more profitable crops to grow.
Coffee Growing Conditions
Although growing conditions vary from region to region, and on a smaller scale, even from farm to farm, certain conditions make a particular location ideal for growing coffee. There is no magic ratio of environmental factors that will guarantee coffee plant health, but there are certain conditions, the absence of even a single one of which, will all but assure that coffee crops will fail.
Following are the primary factors for sustainable coffee growth. (Please note that the following pertain specifically to Coffea Arabica.)
· Altitude – in general, Arabica coffees grow best at altitudes above 1,800 feet (approximately 500 meters) above sea level. There are no hard and fast rules as far as proper elevations for coffee growth, however, ideal altitude levels for coffee growth are largely influenced by the latitude of the particular growing region in question.
For example, around the equator (0° - 10° north and south latitude), Arabica coffee cultivation is optimized at altitudes between 3,600 to 6,300 (roughly 1,100 to 1,900 meters) feet above sea level. The climates found in these zones tend to be wetter than elsewhere. The growing regions of Kenya, Colombia, and Ethiopia are illustrative of these types of coffee zones.
With greater distance away from the equator, say between 15° north latitude to the Tropic of Cancer and 15° south latitude to the Tropic of Capricorn, ideal altitude levels drop to 1,800 to 3,600 feet (500 to 1,100 meters). Brazil, Mexico, Jamaica, and Zimbabwe are examples of growing regions within these parameters.
· Soil – as with any plant life, Arabica coffee thrives in certain types of soil and needs various nutrients for healthy growth and production of harvestable fruit. A popular marketing mantra among coffee producers and roasters touts their coffees as grown in “volcanic soils” – which is fine and often true, but it speaks very little to the actual soil composition that makes it so conducive to the growth of healthy coffee plants.
As far as specific nutrients, coffee plants need the same basic, life-sustaining nourishment as the tomatoes in your garden (albeit in different amounts and ratios). For instance, among the most important nutrients for Coffea Arabica is nitrogen, which is vital for essential plant functions such as photosynthesis and growth.
Other important nutrients include potassium (development of the fruit), phosphorus (root, flower, and bud development), zinc, and magnesium. It should be noted that as far as pH, C. Arabica is typically grown in areas where the soil ranges from slightly acidic to just about neutral (roughly from 4.0 to 7.0 on a pH scale).
· Precipitation – successfully managing Arabica coffee growth and cultivation means achieving balance between the vital environmental factors, including precipitation. Water is crucial for coffee plants to obtain nutrients and life-sustaining elements from the soil through their root systems. Perhaps no circumstance can result in more widespread and long-lasting damage to agricultural products than drought.
Although specific precipitation amounts will vary from region to region, generally speaking, most established coffee plantations rely upon a minimum of 60” (approx. 1,500 mm) of annual rainfall, with some receiving as much as 90” (approx. 2,300 mm) of precipitation in a given year. It is important to note that precipitation in the form of rainfall not only allows coffee plant root systems to gather nutrients from the soil, it also promotes flowering which is part of the fruit development process.
Not only are annual precipitation amounts important, but how the rainfall is distributed throughout a particular crop year also impacts the coffee bean yields. For instance, in certain growing regions nine months of consistent precipitation followed by three months of dry weather (in other words, clearly defined wet and dry weather periods) actually promotes flowering and fruit (cherry) development.
· Sunlight and shade – sunlight is important to healthy C. Arabica as it enables photosynthesis, the process by which the coffee plant converts carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air into vital sugars. However, contrary to common intuition, too much sunlight can do more harm than good to Arabica coffee plants, and it has everything to do with its origins and history.
The original species of Coffea Arabica that grew wild in Ethiopia were understory plants, meaning they grew and thrived under the forest canopy, where they were largely shielded from direct sunlight. As such, they were genetically trained to grow and bear fruit without high exposure to the sun. Too much direct sunlight, particularly in conjunction with high temperatures (exceeding 80° F), can actually diminish the effectiveness of a coffee plant’s photosynthetic process.
The proximity of shade trees around coffee plants will best mimic the understory (below canopy layer) and canopy (basically the treetop layer) ecosystem in which the original C. Arabica species originated and developed in Ethiopia before being transplanted all over the world.
· Temperature – altitude and geographic location (i.e. distance from the equator) will certainly influence average temperatures in a particular growing region, along with other factors such as local humidity and average annual sunlight.
Generally speaking, however, Coffea Arabica tends to thrive in temperatures ranging from 59° F to 75°F (15° C to 24° C), and as a species, it does not do well in extreme temperatures. At the low end of the temperature scale, frost (defined as temperatures below 32° F or 0° C) can permanently damage the plant’s leaves which are needed for photosynthesis, and the fruit from which the seeds (i.e. coffee beans) are harvested.
Excessive temperatures can likewise inhibit coffee plant growth and fruit development, particularly when combined with other factors such as drought or excessive sunlight.
The growth factors summarized above should not be viewed individually, but rather, collectively. Striking the right balance of these conditions consistently and persistently over a long period of time ensures healthy development of coffee plants, productive annual yields, and the propagation of strong and vibrant future generations of Arabica coffee.
The Effects of Climate Change on Global Coffee Production
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) posted an article in 2015 that painted a bleak picture on the outlook of global coffee production due to the effects of climate change and global warming on coffee growing regions. In essence, the article reveals that within a few decades (by the year 2050) a significant amount of land currently suitable for coffee growth will no longer support this vital agricultural product in a sustainable manner.
Specifically, the NOAA posting refers to areas in Brazil and Central America that could lose anywhere from 10% to 50% of current coffee plantation acreage due to rising temperatures. As a result, minimum elevations needed to sustain coffee growth could rise by roughly 1,000 feet leaving some areas completely unsuitable.
In addition, global warming can increase coffee’s vulnerability to damaging pests like the cherry-boring beetle and diseases such as coffee rust. Although the situation is alarming, to say the least, scientists and growers are teaming up to find ways to combat these gloomy predictions. For instance, some answers may lie in the native coffee plants growing in the wild in Ethiopia, where Coffea Arabica originated, and in which scientists hope that the naturally occurring genetic diversity may offer some valuable clues.
Conclusion – Part One
We hope that Part One of our Coffee 101 series has been an informative guide to the botanical and agricultural aspects of coffee and that perhaps you learned a new thing or two about Coffea Arabica.
An understanding of the plant itself is vital to appreciating the tremendous amount of skill, effort, and fortuitous circumstances that all play vital roles in producing the world’s favorite beverage. There is a human aspect to coffee production that cannot be overstated. Without the efforts of hundreds, if not thousands, of hardworking individuals at each origin, there would be no coffee on our store shelves or in our favorite cafes.
This is the story we will strive to tell in Part Two of Coffee 101 so we hope you join us.