Most people start their mornings consuming a freshly brewed cup of coffee. When you have a cup made from premium beans, it's easy to get lost in the delicious aroma and taste. But, have you ever thought about where coffee beans actually come from?
Put simply, coffee beans come from coffee plants, and there are two different types of plants; Arabica and Robusta plants. However, the region a coffee plant is grown in, how it's harvested and how they are graded all affect the final taste of a coffee bean.
These factors can determine whether a coffee bean will be bold, taste sweet or have any different undertones. While lower grade coffee is usually a standard flavour - high-quality coffee will detail the notes that are evident from the bean. Here, we take readers through the history of coffee, how the climate, elevation and soil type affects the flavour and the different types of coffee plants.
This history of coffee
Drinking coffee is such a long-running tradition that it dates back earlier than can be evidenced. There is evidence of coffee drinking from as early as the 16th century.
The evidence traces coffee trees back to the region of Ethiopia and legend has it that a goat herder named Kaldi first discovered the potential of coffee beans. The story goes that Kali discovered the stimulating effect of coffee when he noticed that his goats were very excited and active after they ate beans from a coffee plant. However, the discovery of coffee didn't appear in writing until 16 71.
In the mid-1600's coffee was bought back to New York - which was called New Amsterdam at the time. Coffee shops began to steadily appear, but tea was the drink of choice in the area until a heavy tax was imposed on it by King George III.
Communists revolted against this tax by switching from drinking tea to drinking coffee. This movement was known as the Boston Tea Party, and changed the way the world drank coffee forever.
What type of plants produce coffee?
The beans that come from Robusta have three prime advantages; they have high levels of antioxidants and caffeine and give a better layer of crema. Crema is the light brown froth that settles at the top of the cup of coffee. It's created by the air bubbles that develop as part of the coffee extraction process. Baristas and coffee connectors generally associate crema with high-quality coffee.
Robusta beans tend to have about double the amount of caffeine that a bean from an Arabica plant has. This caffeine is thought to actually act as a pesticide, keeping bugs away and making it easier for coffee growers to allow their plants to thrive.
The large number of antioxidants in Robusta plants are called chlorogenic acids, these are produced as a self-protection method for the plant. However, during the oxidation process, the high levels of these acids can produce unwanted flavours, which can affect the overall taste of the bean.
Robusta plants grow well at lower altitudes and high temperatures, so they're popular in countries like Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia
In comparison to Robusta beans, coffee beans from an Arabica plant have a smoother taste. They generally have a sweeter flavour than Robusta beans and tend to have flavour notes of chocolate and sugar. This is partly due to the fact that Arabica beans have almost 60% more lipids and almost twice the concentration of sugar than Robusta. Because of their smooth taste, these beans make up about seventy per cent of the world’s coffee production.
Arabica coffee plants excel in high altitude areas and grow best when they're planted about 3,000-7,000 feet above sea level. This type of coffee plant really thrives in areas like Colombia, Guatemala and Jamaica.
Arabica plants produce flowers much quicker than Robusta plants - they take a couple of years to produce ellipsoidal fruits. Each ellipsoidal fruit has two flat beans inside, known as coffee beans.
Unfortunately, Arabica coffee plants are prone to pest infestations and other plant diseases due to their lower caffeine content. So a lot of attention needs to be shown to these types of plants while they are growing. Because of this, beans from arabica plants are more expensive than coffee beans from robusta plants. On the commodity market, arabica coffee beans go for around twice the price of robusta beans.
Where is coffee grown?
The bean belt is a region in the world that's known for being an ideal place to grow coffee plants. It's a strip along the equator that's located between latitudes 25 degrees North and 30 degrees South.
Colombia ranks as one of the most popular countries in the world to grow coffee due to its perfect combination of rainfall, soil and altitude.
Colombia has a lot of rich volcanic soil - this type of soil is light and fluffy - making it great for water drainage. Volcanic soil is also rich in minerals, making it a very fertile ground for a coffee plant.
Of course, where there is volcanic soil, there are volcanos. The high altitude of volcano peaks fits the growing profile of coffee plants well. Arabica plants thrive in Colombia when planted at an altitude of around 1500 metres. Neighbouring volcanos can also provide shade, which aids plants growth.
Lastly, the amount of rain in Colombia works well when considering what a coffee plant needs. Coffee thrives in places where there is at least 200cm's of rainfall a year -something Colombia almost always achieves. The average rainfall in Colombia per year is 263cm.
All of these factors help coffee plants in Colombia to produce coffee beans that are strong tasting with a full-bodied flavour.
Brazil is another South American gem when it comes to growing coffee. This country lies within a tropical zone, which means humid and hot temperatures that are ideal for coffee plant growth.
Brazil is also blessed with some of the highest mountains in the world, providing many areas to grow coffee plants are the perfect altitude. The South West region has nutrient-rich, deep reddish-purple soil that coffee plants love.
In fact, Brazil is the world's largest coffee-producing country and over two million hectares of land in the country are dedicated solely to growing coffee. This land produces around 43 million bags of coffee a year - most of which is predominantly arabica coffee beans.
If you're looking for a coffee bean that's grown in Brazil, you can try Glass House Mountains Yellow Bourbon Brazilian Coffee Beans.
If you haven't noticed the trend already - South America is prime real estate for growing coffee trees. Guatemala is slightly less humid than other areas, but still has a mild subtropical climate and the nutrient rich volcanic soil that both Brazil and Guatemala boast.
These factors combined together allow coffee plants to flourish within the region. The area of Antigua with Guatemala is the most well-known coffee region thanks to its abundance of sunshine in the day, and cool weather at night.
The valley of Antigua is surrounded by three large volcanos, Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango. The volcanic pumice in the area allows the soil to retain its moisture, and every so often Fuego volcano will smoke, giving a light dusting of minerals to the soil that the coffee plants are growing in.
If you're looking for a coffee bean that's grown in Brazil, you can try Glass House Mountains Yellow Bourbon Brazilian Coffee Beans which have a lightly sweet caramel taste, or you can try Glass House Mountains Guatemalan Coffee Beans which have a spicy, crisp and tangy taste.
Central America is an arm of land that lies north of South America and south of North America. Within Central America, Nicaragua is a desirable region to grow coffee plants.
Much of the country of Nicaragua is dotted with trees. When coffee plants are grown with a significant amount of shade, coffee cultivators commonly call it "shade grown". Studies have proven that shade-grown coffee trees have a higher sugar and lipid content than those grown in the sun.
Furthermore, other studies have shown that coffee trees that are grown in sunny areas tend to have a more bitter taste than those that are grown in very shaded regions.
Nicaragua's diverse landscapes and volcanic soil work well for coffee growth, the varying climates and elevations between different regions allow for different flavour profiles of the coffee beans.
If you're looking for a coffee bean that's grown in Nicaragua, you can try Glass House Mountains Single Origin Nicaraguan Coffee Beans which have a smooth cinnamon and almond taste.
Papua New Guinea
Much of the coffee that's produced in Papua New Guinea is grown in the mountain highlands of the country. These areas are typically filled with very small farms, that are owned and harvested by local farmers.
The high altitude of this region allows coffee trees to thrive. This country tends to produce coffee beans that are modest with low-toned richness. Papua New Guinea is famous for it's rainforest - conditions that bode well for coffee growth. The adequate rainfall paired with the rich and fertile soil in the area, helps cultivate a healthy and luscious coffee plant.
If you're looking for a coffee bean that's grown in Papua New Guinea, you can try Glass House Mountains Single Origin Papua New Guinea Coffee Beans which have undertones of citrus, peach and Melon.
How is coffee harvested?
Traditionally, coffee was always harvested by hand. However, in the past couple of decades, some farms harvest their coffee using a machine.
Coffee plants are hand-harvested using one of two techniques. The first technique is called strip picked. The type of harvesting means that all of the coffee cherries (that contain the coffee beans) are picked off a coffee plant all at once. This method is quicker but not all of the berries may be at the same maturity - meaning the flavour of the coffee can be compromised.
The other hand picking technique is called selectively picked. The process involves examing each berry and only handpicking only the ripe cherries. This method takes longer but ensures a premium coffee bean.
While undertaking the selectively picking method, pickers will rotate between trees every eight to ten days, and will only pick coffee cherries that are at peak ripeness.
When coffee is harvested using a machine, it will usually work by shaking a tree so that all knock all of the coffee berries off at the same time - similar to strip picking.
Does the region a coffee plant is grown in effect the taste of the coffee bean?
Yes, each different region of the world has slightly different taste profiles for coffee beans, and this is caused by the varying, soil, elevation and climate in each area. Sumatra, an island in Indonesia, is well known for growing some of the naturally sweetest beans in the world, because of its conditions. Whereas, Brazil is known to produce chocolate and nutty flavoured beans.
Are Robusta coffee beans or Arabica coffee beans more common?
Arabica beans make up around 70% of the world's coffee production, so they are much more popular. The taste of robusta coffee beans is much more bitter than the flavour in Arabica, so the former is commonly used in instant coffee. While Arabica are more popular thanks to their smoother flavour, they are more expensive than Robusta coffee beans.
Are decaf beans made from different coffee plants to caffeinated coffee beans?
No, all coffee plants produce coffee beans that have caffeine in them. However, Robusta beans tend to have about double the amount of caffeine content than Arabica beans have. Decaffeination is the process of removing caffeine from coffee beans. There are multiple methods used to decaffeinate coffee beans, however, the most popular way involves soaking the beans in a solvent.