Ever wondered where your favorite coffee beans come from? This everyday staple goes through quite a journey to get from farm to cup!
Ever wondered where your favorite coffee beans come from? This everyday staple goes through quite a journey to get from farm to cup!
It’s early morning and you’re about to have your rich, aromatic cup of joe to start your day. As this velvety liquid warms you from the inside, I’m sure you, like many coffee lovers, have wondered, “Where do coffee beans come from?”
Well, I’m here to give you the answer!
Coffee, that stimulating and comforting drink loved by millions around the world, comes from an evergreen shrub of the Coffea plant species. Coffee farmers harvest the fruit of this plant, known as coffee cherries. They then extract the seeds, or coffee beans, to produce the delicious beverage we’ve come to know and love so much.
Join me as I explore where coffee beans come from. The origins of coffee will surprise and inform you, while giving you a new appreciation for this much-loved drink.
Overview: Where Do Coffee Beans Come From?
The coffee beans in your kitchen are the roasted seeds of the Coffea plant species in the genus Rubiaceae. These plants bear fruit, the coffee cherry, which farmers harvest. They then extract seeds from the fruit to yield green coffee beans.
Once harvested and dried, these coffee beans undergo processing, milling and roasting. Once that’s all taken care of, we get roasted coffee beans from which we brew coffee.
Two varieties of coffee trees account for the majority of the coffee consumed worldwide: Coffea robusta and Coffea arabica. These coffee bean plants produce Arabica beans and Robusta beans with complex and varied flavor profiles.
But what about the origin of the coffee plant? Do you know how the story of coffee began?
Today, everyone agrees that coffee cultivation began in the Kaffa province of Ethiopia. It later spread to Mocha in Yemen and subsequently became a hit worldwide.
They say that in the 9th Century CE, an Ethiopian goat herder, Kaldi, noticed that his herd got wired after consuming bright red berries from a shrub. According to folklore, he took these berries to show the abbot and monks at a nearby monastery.
The abbot flung these berries into the fire, proclaiming they were “satanic.” Surprisingly, the aroma wafting from the roasted coffee cherries beguiled the monks. So, they retrieved these burnt coffee cherries and extracted the beans from within. And if you believe the legend, they brewed the world’s first coffee from these “roasted” coffee beans.
The rest, as they say, is history!
Coffee Growing Regions
So, does coffee grow in every region around the world? The answer, unfortunately, is no.
Coffee species grow in regions known as the “Coffee Belt” or “Bean Belt.” These tropical regions lie along the equator between the Tropics of Cancer (latitude: 23.5 degrees north) and Capricorn (latitude: 23.5 degrees south).
The tropical climate, rich soils and availability of high-elevation farming land in these regions provide the perfect environment for growing coffee plants. Consequently, these countries produce some of the best coffee in the world.
Africa and the Middle East
Most African coffee beans come from Eastern and Western Africa. Ethiopia and Kenya are the leading coffee producers of Arabica coffee, with Rwanda and Tanzania hot on their heels.
In addition, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon are worth a mention, all growing high quality Robusta coffee beans.
Ethiopian Arabica coffee accounts for approximately three percent of the world’s coffee production. These beans, grown in Kaffa, Harar and Sidamo, come in three varieties: Longeberry, Mocha and Shortberry. Ethiopian coffee is famous for its superior quality, bold flavor, winy acidity and floral red or purple fruit notes.
After Ethiopia, Africa’s second most notable coffee producer is Kenya. Many coffee farmers here prefer to grow Arabica coffee plant varieties over the intensely caffeinated Robusta beans.
Most of Kenya’s coffee plantations sit at between 1,400 and 2,200 masl (meters above sea level), gracing the slopes of Mount Kenya, the Aberdare Range, Mount Elgon and the western highlands. These high elevations result in more delicate Arabica beans.
Kenyan coffee is the preferred breakfast coffee among coffee enthusiasts worldwide. It has a bold and bright taste, heady aroma and unique floral purple fruit undertones.
South and Central America
Latin America dominates the world’s coffee markets, with South America producing an impressive 70 percent of the world’s coffee beans.
Most of Central America’s Arabica coffee beans come from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. These beans are well-balanced, mild and delicate with medium acidity.
They have a clean, bright taste, making them a particular favorite of mine (and most coffee connoisseurs). No wonder coffee roasters and coffee houses in the specialty coffee drink world pay premium prices for these beans!
Top South American coffee producers encompass Brazil (of course), Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Brazil is the foremost producer of the world’s coffee and has held this title for an incredible 150 years! South American coffees have a deep, earthy flavor with a creamy chocolate aftertaste. The perfect afternoon treat!
Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific Region
Indonesian beans have a clean, smooth finish with low acidity. These beans display rich, full-bodied, earthy flavors and sweet chocolate and nutty tasting notes. These qualities are due to not only where the coffee grows but also the semi-washed method farmers use to process the beans.
It’s no surprise that Indonesia grows some of the best coffee around, including the expensive artisan coffee (which I consider unethical), Kopi Luwak. The country’s growing regions are on the islands of Java, Sulawesi and Sumatra, but also on Flores, Bali and Papua New Guinea.
Another Asian country famous for its coffee production is Vietnam, the second largest exporter of coffee after Brazil. Vietnamese Lam Dong beans are smooth and medium-bodied. They display mild, delicate flavors of chocolate, caramel and vanilla, with low acidity and almost no bitterness.
But are these the only countries in Asia where coffee beans grow? Absolutely not! Here are a few honorable mentions: Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal, Laos and Yunnan province in China (yes, really!). Although their green coffee production won’t match that of Indonesia and Vietnam, these countries still produce some kick-ass beans!
Types of Coffee Plants
If you’re an absolute coffee devotee like I am, it would please you to know that there are over 120 known coffee plant varieties. However, only four species – Coffee arabica, Coffea robusta, Coffea liberica and Coffea excelsor – are well-known.
Coffee shrubs have dark green waxy leaves distributed in pairs along woody-stemmed branches. These evergreen perennial shrubs (coffee trees) can grow up to 20 feet (6 meters) high in the wild. Farmers prune coffee shrubs to approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters) to enable them to harvest coffee cherries and improve productivity.
Two coffee species, Arabica and Robusta, dominate the commercial markets.
The most sought-after coffee beans in the world come from Arabica plants. These shrubs thrive at higher altitudes above 800 meters and are generally more challenging to grow.
Oval in shape, unripe Arabica cherries are a richer shade of green than Robusta cherries when on the branch. The beans are naturally lower in caffeine than Robusta beans and have a mild, full-bodied and well-balanced flavor.
In addition, Arabica beans are more expensive. This is due to their high quality and labor-intensive harvesting process. They are predominant in fine espresso blends or drip coffee blends of the highest caliber. 70 percent of the world’s coffee is Arabica.
Southeast Asia, Central Africa and West Africa are the primary producers of Robusta coffee. This coffee variety thrives at lower elevations and requires less rainfall.
These beans taste earthy and woody with a slight bitter or astringent note. They also contain twice as much caffeine as Arabica coffee. For this reason, you’ll rarely find them sold as pure Robusta coffee. Rather, this species is a favorite in bold coffee blends or for making instant coffee.
How Do Coffee Beans Grow?
In reality, coffee beans are the plant’s seeds. When planted unprocessed, these seeds germinate and grow into coffee plants.
The process begins by planting the seeds in shaded beds. After sprouting, farmers transplant these young seedlings into small pots containing precise soil formulations. With the proper care, the Robusta or Arabica plant quickly grows stronger. When the roots are established, permanent transplantation onto the coffee farm occurs.
Most coffee plants grow into a flowering coffee tree within 12 months and begin to bear fruit (cherries) after three or four years. Coffee cherries usually develop two coffee beans. However, Peaberry coffee – prized for its high acidity and a lighter, sweeter flavor profile – occurs when cherries develop only one bean.
In short, Arabica coffee plants need the following growing conditions at a minimum:
Elevations of between 800 and 3,000 masl
Cool subtropical or tropical climates with an annual rainfall of 1500-2000 mm
Rich, slightly acidic, volcanic soils
Sloped, rugged terrain with adequate soil drainage
Given these conditions, an Arabica coffee plant can produce fruit for up to 50 years and yield 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) of fruit annually. On the other hand, Robusta plants can bear fruit for as long as 20 years and each can yield as much as 8 pounds (3.6 kilograms) per year.
How Is Coffee Harvested?
Coffee cherries ripen at varying rates, based on temperature and elevation. They change from a darker green to bright yellow, then orange, and finally brilliant red or dark crimson.
Due to differing ripening times, coffee cherries are hand-picked, an expensive and labor-intensive process. However, larger coffee farms tend to machine-harvest their cherries.
Farmers generally use two harvesting methods:
Selective-picking: Pickers leave unripe green cherries to ripen, while ripe red ones are hand-harvested. The process occurs in 10-day intervals and is typical for high quality Arabica plants that produce top-dollar coffee.
Strip-picking: Farmers harvest all cherries from the plant, regardless of their maturity level. This harvesting method is faster and costs less, but there is a real risk of defective or unripe coffee cherries making it into processing. Larger commercial Arabica or Robusta coffee plantations tend to use this method.
How Are Coffee Beans Processed?
After harvesting comes processing. Farmers process coffee cherries by removing the husk (skin and fruit pulp) and the parchment (the seed’s thin protective membrane).
There are four main types of processing methods:
Natural or Dry processing: Farmers sun-dry picked coffee cherries with the parchment and husk intact. Once dry, the seeds undergo preparation for the milling and roasting process. Prevalent in Africa, where access to water is a challenge.
Fully-washed or wet processing: Farmers first remove the husk from the cherry to reveal the seeds and parchment. They soak and ferment these seeds in a tank, allowing the parchment (mucilage) to degrade completely. The seeds meet a 10-12 percent humidity level after drying. Predominant in Java, Indonesia and Central America.
Semi-washed or wet-hulled processing: Farmers remove the husk from the cherry to reveal the seeds. The seeds are sun-dried with the parchment intact. Farmers then remove the parchment and expose the beans to a second drying. Unique to the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.
Pulped-natural or honey processing: Farmers remove the husk from the cherry to reveal the seeds and parchment. They then dry the seeds without washing. Some parchment remains on the seeds during the drying and roasting stages. Prominent in Costa Rica and Brazil.
Once the seeds have undergone processing, they proceed to next-level coffee milling. Here farmers hull the beans (to remove parchment) and polish them (to produce high quality coffee beans).
Coffee processors then grade the beans on size and quality. They also taste them for acidity and body (quality control) before packing them into bags to prepare them for the roasting process or market.
Major coffee roasters and coffee houses buy these green beans for the coffee roasting process. These roasted beans end up in our grocery stores and retail coffee shops once the coffee roasting process is complete.
Well, that’s it! I hope this blog post has put you in the know and given you an appreciation of where coffee beans come from.
I also hope the next time you drink coffee at home or enjoy your favorite frozen coffee at Starbucks, you’ll appreciate how much goes into producing the highest quality beans on farms worldwide.
So which coffee beans are you curious to try next? Are you loyal to any one region, or are you adventurous enough to try a brand new variety? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments!
FAQ: Where Do Coffee Beans Come From?
Coffee bean plants and coffee beans originated in the Kaffa Province of Ethiopia around 1,100 years ago. Legend has it that a goat herder, Kaldi, noticed his goats quite energized after they ate red berries from the coffee plant in the 9th Century CE. He reported his findings to the abbot and monks at a nearby monastery. These monks brewed the first delicious cup of joe with roasted coffee seeds because the delicious aroma seduced them.
Starbucks gets coffee from all over the world. You’ll find single-origin and blended coffees from countries like Hawaii, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. Starbucks also sources beans from Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, Indonesia, East Timor and even China. This global sourcing policy guarantees a wide range of flavor profiles and a consistent supply of beans.
The Coffea plant from which we get coffee beans is a flowering plant species in the Rubiaceae family. It produces fruit (coffee cherries) whose seeds coffee producers harvest as coffee beans. A majority of the coffee we drink comes from two coffee plant varieties: Coffea arabica (Arabica coffee beans) and Coffea canephora (Robusta coffee beans).
Arabica and Robusta plants grow in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, South East Asia and North, Central and South America. These areas fall within the “Bean Belt,” or “Coffee Belt,” along the equator between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The tropical climates, high altitudes and rich volcanic soils are ideal for the growing and cultivation of viable Arabica and Robusta coffee plants.