Where is Coffee From?


Someone recently asked the question, “Where is coffee from?”. I thought this was interesting because there are so many dimensions to the question that the person asking it probably wasn’t aware of. Someone wanting to know more about coffee can actually become a lot more informed by seeking to answer all dimensions of this question, so I thought I’d write this post to answer them.

The initial question was probably concerned with origin, i.e. which country or countries does coffee come from. There are many answers to that question, which I’ll cover shortly, but then there various other ways the question could be interpreted, for instance what plant does it come from, what actually is coffee (it’s not a bean), and more.

I’m going to assume that a good percentage of people asking where coffee is from, are probably at a similar level of coffee knowledge that I was a few years back. In my case, that would have been that I thought coffee came from Columbia / Brazil only, and that it comes from a plant. There’s so much more to coffee than this, and I think learning this info is crucial for anyone who wants to make the most of coffee. I don’t think I would be enjoying coffee anywhere near as much as I am now if I hadn’t sought to increase my knowledge of coffee, what it is, where it is from and how it’s produced.

Plants

Coffee Plants.

Photo Credit: Walter Rodriguez

Coffee comes from a coffee plant, of course, but many people are surprised to learn that there are a number of different coffee plants that our coffee grows on.

The two main species of coffee plant are Arabica, and Robusta.

Arabica is grown in higher altitudes and is a more difficult coffee to work with, it is regarded as the best quality coffee, and most specialty coffee is 100% Arabica, except for blends such as espresso blends which will include some Robusta.

Robusta as the name suggests is a much more hardy plant, it will grown in lower elevations where it’s easier to produce, it can be machine harvested rather than needing to be hand picked, it’s not as susceptible to diseases such leaf rust which can devastate Arabica, so it’s a lot cheaper to produce.

There are many different varieties or “varietals” of Arabica plant, such as Typica, Bourbon, Geisha, Caturra, Catuai and many more, some of which are natural breeds and some of which have been cultivated.  There are also a few Arabica / Robusta hybrids.

 

Cherries

Coffee Cherries.

Photo Credit: K Parks

Cherries / berries, are the fruit of the coffee plant.  They’re picked when ripe, and then processed using a few different processes depending on the choice of the farm / processor.

It’s thought that animals first started munching on the attractive looking ripe berries and that humans at some point noticed that animals were getting energy from them, and so followed suit. It’s believed to be tribes people who started consuming coffee cherries, by making them into fat balls, making the worlds first energy bars ;-).

The story that is most famously told as the beginning of coffee, is that a goatherd noticed his goats were energized by munching coffee cherries, and he gave it a try himself. From doing a bit of research it would appear that tribes folk were probably eating coffee much earlier than this, and that there were more than likely several different occurrences of people discovering the energising properties of coffee.

Not a great deal is actually done with the cherry flesh, it’s usually just composted, but it’s now thought to be a wasted superfood, packed full of antioxidants. In fact the fruit contains more antioxidants than blueberries and raspberries, and it’s high in proanthocyanidins, chlorogenic acid, quinic acid, ferulic acid and caffeic acid which are thought to have various positive effects on the body. Hopefully in the not distant future we’ll see coffee fruit flesh becoming a big source of income for coffee farmers.

Seeds

Green Raw Coffee Beans.

Photo Credit: WFIU Public Radio

What we know of as the “Coffee bean” isn’t a bean at all, it’s a seed. All beans are seeds, but not all seeds are beans, only plants that are members of the family Fabaceae / Leguminosae, produce seeds which are beans, and the coffee plant isn’t a member of this family, so the coffee seed isn’t a bean.

Not that it matters, but at least it’s a nice little bit of useless info you can annoy your friends and family with ;-).

Nearly all coffee cherries contain two seeds, except for the peaberry which contains just one. Coffee beans look like peanuts when they’re raw, and they have a slight green tinge to them which is why they’re reffered to as “greens” or green coffee beans.

 

 

Roasting

Coffee Roasting.

Photo Credit: Michael Allen Smith

Coffee is usually exported in it’s raw / green form, in hessian sacks, although some coffee, especially commodity coffee is now being transported in huge pvc / tarp sacks.

Green unroasted coffee beans will keep for a long times, a couple of years, without requiring air tight packaging. It’s once they’re roasted that that they’re susceptible to going stale quickly, especially once ground.

If coffee is being roasted to make instant coffee, it’s usually roasted in huge quantities, up to a couple of tonnes at a time, in large factories. If it’s being used in what we know as second wave coffee, meaning commodity coffee being roasted to be served in chain coffee shops / restaurants, vending, or to be sold en-mass via supermarkets, it’s also usually roasted in large batches to make it as inexpensive as possible to roast, which makes sense if you’re creating a product for the mass market.

When it comes to speciality coffee though, it is roasted in much smaller batches, using smaller roasters, by specialist “small batch” coffee roasters. Speciality coffee needs to be roasted precisely, and this isn’t something that can be done in huge quantities. It’s certainly not a case of just roasting the things until they look done. It’s one of those processes that is somewhere between a science and an art, and the roast makes a huge impact on the resulting cup.

One of the things I love about speciality coffee is the variety, and not just the variety on offer from each roaster, but the wealth of small batch coffee roasters we have in the UK – see the UK coffee roasters list, and you’ll see what I mean!

 

Grinding

Baratza Encore Coffee Grinder.

Photo Credit newwavecoffee.co.uk

Once coffee is roasted, it needs to ground before we can make our beloved beverage. Most coffee roasters do offer ready ground coffee, which they will grind in-house at various grind size depending on the brew process they’re grinding for. The problem with pre-ground coffee though is that it goes stale much quicker once it’s ground, and also it gives you much less control over your coffee brewing.

The grind has a lot to do with the resulting cup, with all brewing methods, but particularly so with espresso. I don’t really know how anyone can use pre-ground coffee for espresso, since all espresso machines are different when it comes to how fine you need to grind for the best shot, it’s certainly not one size fits all.

One thing I would hugely recommend for anyone who really loves their coffee, is that they buy whole beans and grind their own. This will make an improvement on the taste of your coffee since coffee is at it’s best within minutes of grinding, and it will also allow you to experiment with the grind for all of your brewing methods in order to get the best possible taste.

You can go for a hand grinder such as a Hario Skerton, for £20 or £30, and if you’re only mainly grinding for one process, and you don’t make many coffees at one time, this should be fine. I started out with a Skerton, the problem with me is that I grind for Aeropress, V60, Cafetiere and Espresso, so I’m continually changing the grind setting, which became a pain with the hand grinder. Plus, I was grinding quite a lot of coffee, and it was proving time consuming – so to start with I hacked my hand grinder , by attaching an electric drill to it ;-), that helped in terms of time and effort, but it was still a bit of a pain when it came to changing grind settings all the time, so I went for an electric grinder.

If you do go for an electric coffee grinder just keep in mind that the cheap £20 – £50 grinders are not usually too hot, they’re often blade grinders – if they use a blade, then they have no business being sold as “grinders”, since blades slice, they don’t grind. Grinding requires burrs, so if you’re getting a grinder make sure it’s a burr grinder. The lower end of the market are grinders such as the Baratza Encore which you can see in the image above, Rancilo Rocky & the Sage Smart Grinder Pro, which is the grinder I now have, and I love it! You can easily spend several hundred pounds on a commercial level grinder like a Mazzer  Macap or Fracino if you want to, just keep in mind that some of them are doser grinders which are meant for busy coffee shops requiring lots of grinding, if you’re using a grinder for domestic use you’ll probably wan’t a “doserless”, on demand grinder, so you’re not letting lots of ground coffee go stale in the doser.

 

Origin

The Coffee Bean Belt.

Image Credit: Candy Niemeyer

If you were wanting to know where coffee came from originally, Ethiopia is regarded by most as the initial origin of the coffee plant, at least for Arabica. The story of the goatherd noticing his goats munching coffee cherries, was also set in Ehiopia and is set in the 9th century, but the first evidence of this story only dates back to 1671, so it’s probably more myth & legend than it is an historically accurate account.

In terms of where coffee was first enjoyed as a drink, it was more than likely in Ethiopia or other parts of Africa, although the first recorded history of brewing and drinking coffee was in Yemen in the mid 1400s, thanks to Yemeni traders who picked up coffee seeds while in Africa.

 

Robusta was discovered in 1890, which makes it a relative newcomer, and was first found growing on the Lomami River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In terms of where coffee currently comes from, coffee is  still produced in Ethiopia, and Yemen, and in south American countries such as Brazil and Columbia, and in dozens of other countries which also fall within what is known as the “coffee belt” or “bean belt”, between the Tropic of cancer, and the tropic of Capricorn.

Here is a list of coffee production countries, by order of volume:

Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, Uganda, Ivory Coast, China, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Ecuador, Thailand, Tanzania, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Venezuela, Cameroon, Philippines, The Congo, Burundi, Madagascar, Yemen, Haiti, Rwanda, Guinea, Cuba, Togo, Bolivia, Zambia, Angola, Central African Republic, Panama, Zimbabwe, USA (Hawaii), Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Malawi, Paraguay, Sierra Leone, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, Nepal, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Benin – in order of volume.

So there you have it, a much in depth answer than you were probably expecting ;-), to the question where is coffee from?

Life is like a box of chocolates, so follow me on twitter and that’s all I have to say about that.

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