Coffee 101: Let's Meet The Coffee Plant
Every living structure has a skeleton beneath its surface that helps define who it is. Like mammals, coffee plants have the same structure.
We know which coffee shop has better coffee. We know what our favorite type of coffee drink is. We know if we prefer decaf or regular. We know how much milk and sugar to add. You would think we know everything there is to know about coffee. But, do we really know all the basics when it comes down to the coffee plant?
Do we know how that the plant makes its way into our cups? Do we know what happens beyond the coffee harvest? Behind the production? How can we know everything there is to know about coffee if we do not know what started it all?
So, let’s get down to the bottom line of everything coffee related!
THE ‘W’S OF THE COFFEE PLANT
What is the coffee plant?
Part of the Rubiaceae family, the coffee plant can be found in either a shrub or a tree in the southern and tropical regions of Africa and Asia. The plant produces many different types of beverages (such as coffee) and coffee-related products.
Depending on where and how the coffee plant was grown, there can either be one of two types of coffee beans that are produced. The two main types of coffee beans that can be produced are Arabica and Robusta beans. One is more bitter and stronger (Robusta), whereas the other is sweeter with a smoother flavor (Arabica).
Both types of coffee beans are sold worldwide to make beverages all over the place, whether mass produced and prepackaged or sold as whole beans to make fresh brews.
Where is it grown? How is it grown?
Coffee plants cannot be grown in any climate, they only grow in very particular circumstances. In order for the plant to grow to its full potential (life of 30 - 40 years), they require warm tropical climates and rich soil.
Generally these specific climates are found along the equator such as the Equador, Africa, and the Middle East. If the coffee plants are grown in unfit conditions it can have drastic effects on the coffee as a whole. Ideal conditions to grow a coffee plant is in mountainous areas with lots of shade to protect the plant from the sun in the hot weather.
The plants can reach heights up to 10 metres (5’ - 7’ tall) and range in terms of level of bitterness depending on where the tree is. Some trees have a higher caffeine content where others are better known for having a beautiful aroma to taste.
Which countries grow the coffee plant?
By metric ton, Brazil holds the title for the leading production of coffee worldwide, as it is a very warm climate, also known as the perfect weather to grow coffee plants. With a total of 27,000 square kilometers of coffee plantations and a hot climate it is the ideal place to grow coffee plants.
Ranging from 2,595,000 metric tons in Brazil to 204,000 metric in Guatemala, coffee production is more than just a staple that is found in one country, but rather in countries all over the world. All of the coffee producing countries around the world contribute to 40% of the world’s Robusta coffee production and 80% of the Arabica coffee production.
PARTS OF THE COFFEE PLANT
What we all know to be a ‘whole bean coffee’ is not the natural way that coffee beans look like. Initially, when they are on the coffee plant they do not look anything like the way they do now. The coffee beans go through a long process before they come to look like what we know of them today.
Coffee is not considered a bean, but rather is considered a ‘cherry.’ Starting off as dark green covered in wax cherries, the coffee plant can produce colorful leaves such as yellow and purple leaves. The coffee cherries start as a cherry and then become white flowers as they bloom, with seeds inside. Inside the seeds one can find two coffee items, or what we refer to coffee beans as being.
Essentially, coffee beans begin as red seeds that look like cherries and cranberries. Although the size of the cherry may vary, each coffee cherry has the same skeleton structure, with little regard to the type of coffee, whether they are Arabica or Robusta.
The outer layer of the cherry (known as the Exocarp) holds the entire bean together. Underneath the Exocarp is a thin layer of skin, known as the the Mesocarp. Within the Mescarp is an envelope-like layer that holds the bean in tact, called the Endocarp. Beneath the Endocarp is another thin membrane that covers the skin of the actual seeds, called the Endosperm.
And finally we have what is known as the Embryo which is the true seed or the coffee bean itself. It is not unusual to find two seeds inside the Embryo, in fact, more often than not you will find two seeds inside and the single seed is the rare one.
HOW IS THE COFFEE PLANT HARVESTED?
Coffee plants can be harvested in one of two ways: the wet method and the dry method. The wet method involves picking only the ripe cherries from the trees and combining them with water. Picking the wrong cherries from the coffee plant will result in sour tasting coffee.
Each coffee cherry needs to be hand picked for there are different rates at which the plants ripen. To soften the skin and remove the pulp, the cherries are soaked in water, causing the cherries to feel sticky to the touch and are then soaked in water for 24 hours.
Following the water procedures, the cherries are spread out to dry and eventually pulled to separate the outer layer from the inner one. Unlike the wet method, the dry involves removing the cherries from branches and drying them out. Once they are dried, the cherries are placed in a machine that removes the outer layer and the pulp.
HOW IS THE COFFEE PLANT PRODUCED?
In both harvesting methods, once the cherries are dried they produce a green coffee bean. Those beans are then measured for quality type and sorted accordingly. The beans are then packaged into bags and distributed around the world to be sold by vendors.
Before these beans can be made into brews, they need to be roasted to a degree. The roasting degrees play a crucial role in the way that the coffee is produced and eventually brewed. For mild brews a light roast is the proper degree and for strong ones a dark roast is best.
Coffee plants are usually mass produced in large machines that can produce thousands of coffee beans at a time. When it comes to production, the raw fruit from the plant is converted into a finished product of coffee. Understanding how the coffee bean gets to your local coffee shop is the first step in understanding everything there is to know about coffee. You wouldn’t order from a restaurant without knowing all the ingredients of the dish and how they got there.
So why not follow that same rule when it comes to coffee? Knowing the whole coffee process will give you a better coffee experience overall, making your brew taste better.