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Coffee 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Coffee (Part One)

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.

Arabica Coffee

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)




Central America


Brazil (mutant)





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)

El Salvador


Red Bourbon mutation in Brazil


Mocha (Mokka)

Bourbon (via Yemen)

Yemen, East Africa

Notable Coffees that are Related to Bourbon

Yellow Bourbon Red Bourbon

Orange Bourbon Pink Bourbon

Bourbon Chocola Arusha





Catuai – Cultivar



Gesha – Cultivar


Africa, Central America

Robusta Coffee

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