What is coffee?
Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, second only to crude oil. It could be described as liquid sanity or as a hug in a cup but ultimately, coffee is a fruit. We’ll just give you a second to process that …
Yes, coffee is a fruit which grows on a tree. What we call “coffee beans” are not beans at all. They are actually the seeds of a cherry-like fruit. When the cherry fruit is ripe and deliciously red and juicy, it will be harvested, either by hand or by machine.
There are 60 varieties of coffee but just two types are commercially cultivated for drinking; arabica and robusta.
What is Arabica?
Arabica is a species of coffee which makes up two thirds of the world’s coffee production. It is higher in quality but lower in caffeine than its Robusta counterpart. Arabica coffee beans are grown at elevations of 3000 to 6000 feet. These altitudes cause the beans to grow more slowly but it also leads to a more aromatic and flavourful coffee. Rich volcanic mountain soil provides the best growing conditions for arabica.
What is Robusta?
Robusta is the more “robust” species of coffee. Robusta plants are more disease and insect resistant than arabica plants. This also makes them easier and cheaper to grow. Robusta plants are grown from sea level up to elevations of 2000 feet. Robusta coffee has twice as much caffeine as arabica beans and yields a harsher and more bitter tasting cup.
Where is coffee grown?
Coffee is produced in over 50 countries around the world and 30 of these countries cultivate 5 million tonnes of coffee every year. It is grown between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where the climate is warm and humid. This area is sometimes known as “The Bean Belt”.
Coffee is predominantly grown in South and Central America, Asia, and Africa. Brazil is the world’s biggest coffee producer, followed by Columbia.
Much like wine, the taste of coffee varies based on where it was grown. Other factors include the weather; how much rain or shine, the chemistry of the soil; the level of acidity, the variety of coffee plant, the altitude at which the coffee is grown, and the processing methods used.
Legend has it that coffee originates from Ethiopia in Africa circa 750AD. Kaldi, an Ethiopian shepherd, noticed that his herd of goats were gobbling up some succulent looking cherries and becoming more energetic as they did so. He decided that he would try some himself.
Delighted by his discovery, Kaldi took the cherries to a monk. However, the monk disapproved and cast them into a fire. This produced a deliciously enticing aroma so they quickly raked the beans from the embers, ground them into a powder and dissolved them in hot water … and so the world’s first cup of coffee was born!
The Characteristics of Coffee From Africa
The coffees of Africa are often considered to be the world’s most exquisite coffees. The high altitudes and rich soils are perfect growing conditions for the cultivation of premium coffees. Indeed, African coffees are renowned for their distinct flavours and intense aromas. Fruity, sweet and floral, they carry notes of blueberries, tomatoes, melons and spices.
Nonetheless, there are variances between the coffees produced in different countries within the region. Coffee produced in Ethiopia for instance are noted for their extravagant fruity finish. In comparison, coffee from Tanzania has a winy acidity.
The origin of coffee in Asia begins in 1600 AD with Baba Budan, an Indian Sufi saint, who went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. During his journey, he visited the Yemeni port city of Mocha in Arabia. Whilst there, he enjoyed the refreshing dark and sweet liquid that we know as coffee. Baba Budan secretly smuggled away seven coffee beans in his garments.
When he returned to his homeland of India, he planted the seeds in Chikmagalur, Karnataka. Eventually, the coffee plants spread into the hills which are now known as the Baba Budan Hills – the birthplace of coffee in India.
The Characteristics of Coffee From Asia
Asian coffees are known for being earthier and mustier than other coffee species, akin to that of sweet pipe tobacco and dark chocolate. These coffees are known for having the most curves, smooth character and low acidity.
As with African coffees, there are significant differences between the countries of origin. Coffee produced in India is the only coffee in the world to be produced under shade. It is full bodied with a delicious aroma. On the other hand, coffee from Sumatra has notes of maple syrup.
In 1723, as a French naval officer by the name Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu obtained a seedling from a coffee plant in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. During a voyage to Martinique in the Caribbean, de Clieu shared his water rations with the coffee plant and successfully protected it from his shipmates, a storm and a pirate attack. He planted the tree in Martinique and three years later, the first coffee was ready to harvest. Fast forward another fifty years, there were 18 million coffee trees growing on the island.
The Characteristics of Coffee From Central America
Coffee grown in Central America is known for its balance, which is why it is an ideal choice for people starting out with coffee. It is not too bitter and not too acidic. Coffee from these growing regions has smooth flavours like chocolate and butter with notes of apples and cherries, which perfectly complement the cocoa. However, there are distinct differences from country to country. For instance, coffee from Costa Rica is known for being full bodied and rich whilst coffee from Panama is known for its smooth finish and slight sweetness.
The Characteristics of Coffee From South America
South America produces the most amount of coffee worldwide. Its climate and vast mountain ranges provide ideal growing conditions for the coffee plants. The coffee is renowned for its well rounded taste, it is moderately acidic and moderately sweet with a medium to full body. As with coffee grown in Central America, the flavour of the coffee varies greatly depending on its country of origin. For instance, Brazilian coffee is known for its heavy body and nuttiness whereas Peruvian coffee is known for its light body and chocolate aroma.