When you buy coffee beans or even a fresh brew, you may have no idea how much work goes behind it. Well, 62% of Americans drink coffee every day, and the "craft coffee" scene is bustling, which begs a few questions.
So, where do coffee beans come from, how do they end up in my beverage order, and why does it matter? We're glad you asked! Here's what you need to know!
How Was Coffee Discovered?
You may have heard the story about the farmer noticing his "dancing sheep" and trying the peppy plant himself, or some other "telephone-game" version of the story. While this story may be partially true, it is dubious.
Kaldi, a goat herder in (what is now) Ethiopia, discovered the plant after seeing that his goats could not sleep upon consuming it in such quantities. This was all the way back in the 9th century, and the first record of it was written in 1671.
However, the first credible example of coffee was in (what is now) Yemen in the mid-15th century, where records describe drinking the modern form of our favorite beverage in the Sufi shrines. It is more likely that the drink originated in this region in its modern form around this era.
Understanding the Types of Coffee
Before we discuss regions of the world, let's quickly understand the important distinction between the two types of coffee. These are Arabica and Robusta.
Robusta coffee is the type you would typically find in instant coffee like Nescafe or in mid-quality espresso. Robusta is much cheaper than Arabica and is known for having a more bitter flavor profile.
Conversely, Arabica coffee is "the good stuff." This is the most common type of coffee sold in the US, and it likely covers all of the hot and iced coffees you've ordered or brewed in the last year.
Don't let the name fool you, as Arabica coffee has nothing to do with the region. You can find Arabica coffee in Hawaii, Brazil, or anywhere that grows coffee beans!
Still, it's important to understand the difference between these two plants. They grow differently, require different harvesting and growing, and come at completely different price points!
Where Do Coffee Beans Come From?
All coffee beans are grown relatively close to the equator with a similar climate and altitude. They need certain levels of moisture in the air, certain soil composition, and more. Without these conditions, coffee beans cannot grow to fruition.
Other than that, here's what you need to know about growing and cultivating America's favorite fruit!
Regions of the World
With these conditions in mind, it should come as no surprise to you that the world's top producers of coffee are:
- Brazil (5.7 billion pounds)
The list goes on. As you can see, the majority are grown in southern Asia, eastern Africa, northern South America, and Central America. However, many Caribbean and Pacific islands, as well as Middle Eastern countries can also grow coffee beans.
Did you know that only one US state can grow coffee beans? If you guessed Hawaii, you were right! Having said California is attempting to enter the coffee growing game now too.....
Why Does the Region Matter?
It's great to know that coffee beans grow in a similar climate at similar altitudes near the equator. It's a great piece of trivia, but why does this matter?
Well, understanding the regions where coffee beans grow can make a world of difference in your understanding of coffee. Here's why!
Affecting the Taste
Believe it or not, the regions where coffee beans are grown can actually affect their flavors. For example, coffee beans grown in Central America are known for their brown sugar flavors and subtle notes of spice.
Conversely, coffee beans grown in Indonesia tend to have a strong, meaty, and earthy flavor with notes of cocoa or mushroom flavors. Some African and South American cocoa beans are known for their fruity notes. The list goes on!
Of course, the flavor also depends on the roast, the type of plant, and the processing. However, the region can make a remarkable difference in a coffee's flavor profile.
Much like wine tastings, many coffee connoisseurs can distinguish the flavor profiles of coffee and accurately estimate its region!
So, what impacts the flavor if these beans are grown in similar climates and altitudes? Primarily, it comes down to the soil composition, species of trees, and a few other factors.
Affecting the Price
We all know coffee prices can vary widely, and millions of people shop at coffee shops every day, spending over $2,300 a year on coffee. Of course, you can save a lot if you buy coffee beans brewing at home, but even those prices vary! This is due to several factors.
First, the region of a coffee bean may impact the price substantially. This can be due to labor costs, access to the coffee regions, a nation's infrastructure, the length of the harvest season, and more.
Prior to the 1990s, many parts of South and Central America did not have the infrastructure available to access their mountains' rampant coffee production. This made Colombian coffee, for example, quite expensive, whereas it's now one of the most common types sold in the US.
Conversely, Hawaiian coffee is grown in remote areas, requires expensive labor, and long transportation to get to the mainland US. This can also affect the price.
Of course, there are many other factors at play, but these are some important ones to consider. A coffee being more expensive doesn't always mean that it's better unless it is a high-quality Arabica bean that's more challenging to harvest.
Also, the term "better" is subjective. Some people may even prefer Robusta to Arabica!
Understanding the Coffee Bean Growing Process
If you've ever seen a coffee bean, you know that it's dark brown and hard as a rock, right? Actually, that's entirely wrong.
When coffee beans are harvested, they look like little semi-ripe fruits that can be are green, red, yellow or even pink. These resemble small "cherries" that grow from the coffee plant. Believe it or not, coffee beans are fruits, not beans at all.
Conditions For Growing Coffee
We mentioned a little about the growing conditions, but let's be a little more specific, as coffee plants are quite picky about where they grow.
First, coffee plants are incredibly vulnerable to pests. If there are too many pests, they will not grow to fruition, which many coffee farmers can tell you all about!
Moreover, this is one of the reasons why Arabica plants thrive from 1800 to 6300 feet above sea level. Robusta beans typically require a lower altitude at around 600 to 2400 feet in warmer climates.
Second, they need rich, nutrient-dense soils. Coffee plants require a lot of nutrients to grow, especially with the high demand for coffee worldwide. They need plenty of nitrogen and quality soil to come to fruition.
Finally, they need the right temperatures. Most Arabica plants grow at 64 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Conversely, Robusta plants need 75F to 80F temperatures in most cases. If these temperatures are lower than you were expecting, remember the high altitudes where they grow!
Unfortunately, some of these conditions are under threat in historic coffee-growing regions as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Many studies even predict that coffee production could decrease by 50% by 2050.
How Farmers Grow Coffee
Coffee plants need to germinate indoors first. From there, farmers need to plant them in the fields during the rainy season. It takes 3 to 4 years for each plant to begin to bear fruit.
However, you can think of a coffee farm as a turnkey rental property, as the plants can continue to bear fruit for one hundred years or more! If you're starting a coffee farm from scratch, that's a different story, but a coffee farm can be profitable for decades at a time!
From there, it's a matter of keeping pests away from the coffee, ensuring that the plant has enough nutrients and water, and then waiting to harvest.
Coffee farmers harvest these fruits when they are at their maximum ripeness, so they can exhibit their purest flavor profiles. Typically, this is done by strip picking or selective picking, and most are picked completely by hand!
This process can take a long time, but it's the best way to ensure that only high-quality coffee beans enter the sale. Think about that the next time your Starbucks order takes too long!
How Do Coffee Beans Become Coffee?
We still have a long way to go from hand-picking to the counter. The beans still need to be fermented and roasted.
Yes, coffee beans need to ferment, and they will do so naturally as a result of the high sugar content in their fruits. During this process, the biggest challenge for farmers or processors is to keep pests away, as these strong odors can attract flies, mites, and other pests.
From there, coffee beans are roasted in a drum that's typically preheated to 240F. At this temperature, coffee beans are left to roast for about 10 to 15 minutes depending on the intended roast. Next, they will exit at around 195F and remain on a cooling tray at the front of the roaster.
Yes again, that 3 minutes of difference is the difference between a light roast and a dark roast! Coffee roasting is done with incredible precision.
Afterward, they need packaging, grinding, and brewing for you to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee! Just remember that you need to use it or freeze it within a couple of weeks of opening your coffee to enjoy it at its peak freshness. Otherwise, all of the hard work mentioned above to make it taste good will go to waste!
What About Rare Coffee?
Finally, let's discuss some of the rarer types of coffee. These are generally more expensive due to difficulty growing or harvesting, remote access, or high labor costs. However, there are plenty of rare coffees sought after by coffee enthusiasts all over the world.
Some of these include Hawaii Ka'u, Panama Elida, and so many others. Many coffee lovers are stunned by the quality of these coffee types, as they often taste quite different as a result of different growing requirements, processing issues, and more.
If you find an expensive coffee and you're hesitant to try it, do some research on that region and find out what people say about it. For all you know, it could be the best coffee you've ever tried!
Enjoy Your Next Brew
Now that we've answered the question "where do coffee beans come from?", you can see that a lot of work goes into the process. We didn't even mention transportation, sanitation in warehouses, or several of the other logistics that bring the fruits of coffee plants into your beverage.
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