Where Coffee Comes From

What is Coffee?

Coffee may appear to be a simple drink, but in reality it is a highly complex product. It is derived from over 1500 chemical substances (approximately 850 volatile and 700 soluble), and when prepared correctly involves thirteen independent chemical and physical variables. Understandably then, the science of coffee is highly specialized, requiring a multidisciplinary approach involving the fields of genetics, agronomy, botany, physics, mathematics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, engineering and physiology, among others.

Arabica versus Robusta

While there are several different coffee species, two main species are cultivated today.  Coffee Arabica, known as Arabica coffee, accounts for 75-80 percent of the world's production.  Coffee Canephora, known as Robusta coffee, accounts for about 20 percent and differs from the Arabica coffees in a couple of ways. While Robusta coffee beans are more robust than the Arabica plants, they produce an inferior-tasting beverage with a higher caffeine content.  Both the Robusta and Arabica coffee plant can grow to heights of ten meters if not pruned, but producing countries will maintain the coffee plant at a height reasonable for easy harvesting.

Ideal Coffee Growing Conditions

Most people perceive the tropics, to which coffee is native, as being hot and humid – but that is not always the case. The best coffee actually comes from the cooler, more temperate environments of the higher mountainous regions within the tropics. Conditions most suitable for coffee growing include: abundant rainfall, mean annual temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and well drained, nutrient-rich soils – elements that can be found at a variety of altitudes. Coffee is cultivated at all altitudes from sea level up to the frost level. Lower elevations push the ideal growing conditions to one end of an extreme. In this hot and humid environment, with its excessive year-round rainfall, coffee trees produce fruit almost endlessly with no particular season, as the higher temperatures tend to accelerate ripening. Under these conditions, much of the fruit tends to rot or be eaten by prey before it has the chance to germinate and give life to the next generation of coffee trees. The parent coffee tree’s biological response is to produce an excessive quantity of fruit to overwhelm the adverse conditions, so that a few of the seeds might succeed in becoming the future generation. As a result, lowland coffees lack substance, and the coffee flavor is often harsh, bitter, and dirty, as well as higher in caffeine, and quite undesirable overall. Yet, the tendency of these lowland coffees to be inexpensive and easy to grow makes them ideal for commercial mass production.

In contrast, the higher mountainous elevations are conversely different – stretching the growing conditions to the other extreme. Rainfall is sparse, and the much cooler temperatures at these altitudes slow down growth, causing the beans to mature more gradually and develop more flavor essence. The soils in these rugged mountainous terrains tend to be thinner, and without rich soil there is meager nourishing support for the coffee trees. It is a hard environment for the coffee tree to contend with. In response to these conditions, the trees only produce a small annual yield averaging about one pound per tree every year. Yet, each one of those beans is plump full of valuable essence and coffee flavor. These coffees, because of their low yield nature, tend not to be very abundant. However, their scarcity, along with the special attention required for their cultivation, makes these genuine mountain-grown coffees more costly and more special than the mass-produced, commercial varieties. Wrought from these extreme conditions is a flavor that is worth all the hardship. It is a taste that is often described as rich, deep bodied, well balanced, delicate, aromatic, and overall an excellent coffee.

Interesting Coffee Fact

The coffee plant has become a major source of oxygen in much of the world.  Each hectare of coffee produces 86 lbs of oxygen per day, which is about half the production of the same area in a rain forest (source: Anacafe). That's a lot of oxygen!


Above a picture of the global coffee belt.