I remember, in my early days of life, thinking that coffee was some sort of commodity that was unearthed from the ground.  I pictured coffee, in its dark and rich brown color, being piped out of the ground like oil and ready to be consumed by the masses.  A little while later I found out that coffee came from a bean.  So I adjusted my false notion of believing that coffee was pumped out of the ground in its liquid state, to believing that coffee was mined out of the ground in its bean state.  I pictured Juan Valdez climbing a mountain in Colombia with his faithful donkey, then submerging into a mine and climbing out awhile later with sacks of coffee beans atop his sturdy companion.

It wasn’t until later in my life when I began working in coffee that I realized how foolish my ideas about coffee’s production really was.  Maybe knowing that coffee was a commodity put these parallel images of how other commodities were produced; oil pumped from the ground and sold in barrels and metals unearthed from mines.  Maybe I was just a really dumb kid.

Now, the years have brought me (a little) wisdom.  The coffee that we know and experience in our cup is actually an extract of a crushed up bean.  That bean has to be first roasted over fire or in an oven in order to be readily crushed and extracted.  The bean that goes into the roaster is in fact green, and only turns brown through the roasting process.  The green beans grow inside of a red cherry-like fruit (aha!).  That fruit grows on tree-like shrubs.  There are many names for that shrub, but the scientific name is Coffea.

Coffea is a genus of the greater Rubiaceae family, which are a group of flowering plants.  That’s right, the coffee plant first flowers before it bears fruit.  There are a few different species of Coffea, but the two widely grown species are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta, with Arabica accounting for 75-80% of the world’s coffee production.  Arabica is also the superior species when it comes to quality of flavor, producing higher quality beans than Robusta.  However, Arabica is more susceptible to disease and requires higher altitudes to thrive.  Though Robusta is a heartier, healthier plant that grows well at all altitudes, the beans themselves can’t compare in quality to Arabica.  Robusta is much higher in caffeine content than Arabica, which partially explains why it is a much more bitter coffee (caffeine is a naturally bitter flavor compound).

Just like wine or apples, there are many different varietals of the Coffea Arabica plant.  Each different varietal producing different and unique fruit, beans, and flavor.  Quality coffees first emerge from quality plant varietals that are well suited for their growing region.  From Coffea Arabica comes many of the quality coffee plant varieties that we know and love; Typica, Bourbon, Pacamara, SL-28, and the prized Gesha.

Here is a splendid illustration from the good people at Café Imports that shows the “Coffee Family Tree”:

http://www.cafeimports.com/pdf/Coffee_Tree_11x17_web.pdf

I have had my mind drastically changed since my early days of life.  Learning that coffee is the fruit of a plant, I no longer expect coffee to taste like oil or earth, although poor quality coffees can indeed be marked by bitter and unpleasant flavors.  Instead my expectations for coffee have grown.  Now that I know that coffee comes from a plant that produces flowers and fruit, I have come to expect coffee to taste like a fresh piece of produce; sweet and clean and sometimes floral or fruity.  I hope you come to expect the same.

 

The following images are courtesy of Farm Owner’s Jonathan & Marianella Jost and their farm in Costa Rica, Cafe con Amor: