What is a Coffee Bean?
Everyone recognizes a roasted coffee bean, but you might not recognize an actual coffee plant or the corresponding cherry like coffee fruit.
Coffee trees are pruned short to conserve their energy and aid in harvesting, but can grow to more than 30 feet (9 meters) high. Each tree is covered with green, waxy leaves growing opposite each other in pairs. Coffee cherries grow along the branches. Because it grows in a continuous cycle, it’s not unusual to see flowers, green fruit and ripe fruit simultaneously on a single tree.
It takes nearly a year for a cherry to mature after first flowering, and about 5 years of growth to reach full fruit production. While coffee plants can live up to 100 years, they are generally the most productive between the ages of 7 and 20. Proper care can maintain and even increase their output over the years, depending on the variety. The average coffee tree produces 10 pounds of coffee cherry per year, or 2 pounds of green beans.
All commercially grown coffee is from a region of the world called the Coffee Belt. The trees grow best in rich soil, with mild temperatures, frequent rain and shaded sun.
Coffee bean traces its origin to a genus of plants known as Coffea. Within the genus there are over 500 genera and 6,000 species of tropical trees and shrubs. Experts estimate that there are anywhere from 25 to 100 species of coffee plants.
The genus was first described in the 18th century by the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linneaus, who also described Coffea Arabica in his Species Plantarum in 1753. Botanists have disagreed ever since on the exact classification, since coffee plants can range widely. They can be small shrubs to tall trees, with leaves from one to 16 inches in size, and in colors from purple or yellow to the predominant dark green.
In the commercial coffee bean industry, there are two important coffee species — Arabica and Robusta.
Coffea Arabica — C. Arabica
Varieties: Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, Mundo Novo, Tico, San Ramon, Jamaican Blue Mountain
Coffea Arabica is descended from the original coffee trees discovered in Ethiopia. These trees produce a fine, mild, aromatic coffee bean and represent approximately 70% of the world’s coffee production. The beans are flatter and more elongated than Robusta and lower in caffeine.
On the world market, Arabica coffees bring the highest prices. The better Arabicas are high grown coffees — generally grown between 2,000 to 6,000 feet (610 to 1830 meters) above sea level — though optimal altitude varies with proximity to the equator.
The most important factor for coffee bean growth is that temperatures must remain mild, ideally between 59 – 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with about 60 inches of rainfall a year. The trees are hearty, but a heavy frost will kill them.
Arabica trees are costly to cultivate because the ideal terrain tends to be steep and access is difficult. Also, because the trees are more disease-prone than Robusta, they require additional care and attention.
Coffea canephora — C. canephora var. Robusta
Most of the world’s Robusta is grown in Central and Western Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Vietnam, and in Brazil. Production of Robusta is increasing, though it accounts for only about 30% of the world market.
Robusta is primarily used in blends and for instant coffees. The Robusta bean itself tends to be slightly rounder and smaller than an Arabica bean.
The Robusta tree is heartier and more resistant to disease and parasites, which makes it easier and cheaper to cultivate. It also has the advantage of being able to withstand warmer climates, preferring constant temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, which enables it to grow at far lower altitudes than Arabica.
It requires about 60 inches of rainfall a year, and cannot withstand frost. Compared with Arabica, Robusta beans produce a coffee which has a distinctive taste and about 50-60% more caffeine.
The Anatomy of a Coffee Cherry
The beans you brew are actually the processed and roasted seeds from a fruit, which is called a coffee cherry.
The coffee cherry’s outer skin is called the exocarp. Beneath it is the mesocarp, a thin layer of pulp, followed by a slimy layer called the parenchyma. The beans themselves are covered in a paper-like envelope named the endocarp, more commonly referred to as the parchment.
Inside the parchment, side-by-side, lie two beans, each covered separately by yet another thin membrane. The biological name for this seed skin is the spermoderm, but it is generally referred to in the coffee trade as the silver skin.
In about 5% of the world’s coffee, there is only one bean inside the cherry. This is called a peaberry (or a caracol, or “snail” in Spanish), and it is a natural mutation. Some people believe that peaberries are actually sweeter and more flavorful than standard beans, so they are sometimes manually sorted out for special sale.
The History of Coffee Bean
No one knows exactly how or when the coffee bean was discovered, though there are many legends about its origin.
An Ethiopian Bean Legend
Coffee grown worldwide can trace its heritage back centuries to the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau. There, legend says the goat herder Kaldi first discovered the potential of these beloved beans.
The story goes that that Kaldi discovered coffee after he noticed that after eating the berries from a certain tree, his goats became so energetic that they did not want to sleep at night.
Kaldi reported his findings to the abbot of the local monastery, who made a drink with the berries and found that it kept him alert through the long hours of evening prayer. The abbot shared his discovery with the other monks at the monastery, and knowledge of the energizing berries began to spread.
As word moved east and coffee reached the Arabian peninsula, it began a journey which would bring these beans across the globe.
The Bean Starts on the Arabian Peninsula
Coffee bean cultivation and trade began on the Arabian Peninsula. By the 15th century, coffee was being grown in the Yemeni district of Arabia and by the 16th century it was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey.
Coffee was not only enjoyed in homes, but also in the many public coffee houses — called qahveh khaneh — which began to appear in cities across the Near East. The popularity of the coffee houses was unequaled and people frequented them for all kinds of social activity.
Not only did the patrons drink coffee and engage in conversation, but they also listened to music, watched performers, played chess and kept current on the news. Coffee houses quickly became such an important center for the exchange of information that they were often referred to as “Schools of the Wise.”
With thousands of pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca each year from all over the world, knowledge of this “wine of Araby” began to spread.
Coffee Bean Comes to Europe
European travelers to the Near East brought back stories of an unusual dark black beverage. By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe and was becoming popular across the continent.
Some people reacted to this new beverage with suspicion or fear, calling it the “bitter invention of Satan.” The local clergy condemned coffee when it came to Venice in 1615. The controversy was so great that Pope Clement VIII was asked to intervene. He decided to taste the beverage for himself before making a decision, and found the drink so satisfying that he gave it papal approval.
Despite such controversy, coffee houses were quickly becoming centers of social activity and communication in the major cities of England, Austria, France, Germany and Holland. In England “penny universities” sprang up, so called because for the price of a penny one could purchase a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation.
Coffee began to replace the common breakfast drink beverages of the time — beer and wine. Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and energized, and not surprisingly, the quality of their work was greatly improved. (We like to think of this a precursor to the modern office coffee service.)
By the mid-17th century, there were over 300 coffee houses in London, many of which attracted like-minded patrons, including merchants, shippers, brokers and artists.
Many businesses grew out of these specialized coffee houses. Lloyd’s of London, for example, came into existence at the Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House.
The New World
In the mid-1600’s, coffee was brought to New Amsterdam, later called New York by the British.
Though coffee houses rapidly began to appear, tea continued to be the favored drink in the New World until 1773, when the colonists revolted against a heavy tax on tea imposed by King George III. The revolt, known as the Boston Tea Party, would forever change the American drinking preference to coffee.
“Coffee – the favorite drink of the civilized world.” – Thomas Jefferson
Bean Plantations Around the World
As demand for the beverage continued to spread, there was fierce competition to cultivate coffee outside of Arabia.
The Dutch finally got seedlings in the latter half of the 17th century. Their first attempts to plant them in India failed, but they were successful with their efforts in Batavia, on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia.
The plants thrived and soon the Dutch had a productive and growing trade in coffee. They then expanded the cultivation of coffee trees to the islands of Sumatra and Celebes.
Bean Coming to the Americas
In 1714, the Mayor of Amsterdam presented a gift of a young coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France. The King ordered it to be planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. In 1723, a young naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu obtained a seedling from the King’s plant. Despite a challenging voyage — complete with horrendous weather, a saboteur who tried to destroy the seedling, and a pirate attack — he managed to transport it safely to Martinique.
Once planted, the seedling not only thrived, but it’s credited with the spread of over 18 million coffee trees on the island of Martinique in the next 50 years. Even more incredible is that this seedling was the parent of all coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, South and Central America.
The famed Brazilian coffee bean owes its existence to Francisco de Mello Palheta, who was sent by the emperor to French Guiana to get coffee seedlings. The French were not willing to share, but the French Governor’s wife, captivated by his good looks, gave him a large bouquet of flowers before he left— buried inside were enough coffee seeds to begin what is today a billion-dollar industry.
Missionaries and travelers, traders and colonists continued to carry coffee seeds to new lands, and coffee trees were planted worldwide. Plantations were established in magnificent tropical forests and on rugged mountain highlands. Some crops flourished, while others were short-lived. New nations were established on coffee economies. Fortunes were made and lost. By the end of the 18th century, the coffee bean had become one of the world’s most profitable export crops.