You can find coffee pretty much anywhere you look. From coffee shops to gas stations, restaurants, and even a vending machine at the top of Mt. Fuji! Coffee is so common, yet most people don’t know where it comes from. If you were to guess that coffee comes from some far away, magical land, full of lush greenery and beautiful people, you’d be close.
But let’s go deeper and see exactly where coffee comes from.
Short History of Coffee
Somewhere in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, sometime in the 6th century, lived a goatherd named Kaldi. Kaldi would regularly lead his goats out into the region’s hills, where they would graze on grass for most of the day.
One afternoon, Kaldi tried to find his goats to gather them and bring them home, but they couldn’t be found. After searching for some time, Kaldi came around a bend and found his goats jumping and dancing, full of energy and excitement. When he finally coerced them home, they wouldn’t sleep.
The following day, Kaldi led his goats back up into the mountains. His goats returned right back to the area; he found them the previous afternoon. He noticed them eating a bright red cherry on a tree and found his goats dancing again. Curious by this happening two days in a row, Kaldi plucked a few cherries and ate them himself. Minutes later, Kaldi felt a rush of energy and joined his jumping and dancing goats.
Excited by the discovery, Kaldi collected a cherry pouch and brought them to a monk at a nearby monastery. Upon hearing Kaldi’s story and seeing the bright red cherries, the monk used the fruit and seeds to brew a tea. He found himself, after drinking this tea, more alert during the long hours of midnight prayer.
The monk spread the word about Kaldi’s discovery and the rest is history! Coffee quickly made it’s way east, eventually reaching the Arabian peninsula. From here, coffee began its journey across the globe.
By the 16th century, coffee was well known in the area, gaining popularity in Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. It was enjoyed in homes and coffee houses, which served as places to not only drink coffee but also share ideas and information.
By the 17th century, coffee had made its way to Europe, becoming very popular across the continent. Only a short 50 years later, there were over 300 coffee shops in London alone, attracting merchants, artists, and brokers.
Flash forward to the current day and coffee is grown in around 70 counties globally, with over 400 billion cups consumed worldwide every year. We love coffee here on planet earth!
Benefits of Drinking Coffee
Can we get obvious out of the way? Coffee is delicious and never gets boring. There are too many different varieties, growing techniques, processing methods, coffee roasters, and brew methods to get bored. Because coffee is a fruit, it can never and will never taste the same. Coffee from Kenya might taste like cranberry juice, while one from Colombia— peaches and cream. There is so much variety.
Contains Many Minerals and Antioxidants
Not only is coffee packed with flavor, but it is also full of antioxidants and minerals. These antioxidants can, among other things, help lower the risk of cancer and prevent cognitive decline and heart disease.
Coffee contains caffeine— around 100mg of it for a 250ml cup. We are all well aware of the physical energy boost caffeine provides, but it can also do a bunch of other things too. It can aid concentration, reduce mental fatigue, fight the risk of diabetes, and help reduce depression. Coffee is a wonder seed!
Allows You to Travel the World
With every cup of coffee you drink, you are exploring the world through flavor. You are essentially tasting the soil, the air, and the weather of that country.
Because each growing area is vastly different from one another, it is possible to taste our way through countries, using our taste buds and noses to discover faraway lands. Each country’s coffee tastes so different that if we were to plant two of the same coffee trees, one in Ethiopia and one in Colombia, the two would taste unrecognizably different from each other.
How Does Coffee Work
Coffee begins its life as the seed of a small flowering tree— the Coffee tree. As the tree grows, it eventually produces a beautiful cherry-like fruit. Deep inside these coffee ‘cherries’ lie the coffee seeds or beans. Coffee cherries can range in color, anywhere from the more common reds and greens to much rarer pinks and oranges. The color of a particular cherry is dependent on the variety of coffee plant the fruit comes from.
Once the fruit has fully ripened, usually in the dry season, the coffee cherries are picked from the trees. From here, they are brought back to a processing facility for the next steps on their way to becoming drinkable coffee!
After the coffee is sorted by size and weight, it goes through a process known as pulping. During the pulping stage, the coffee seeds are separated from the fleshy fruit and the skin of the cherry.
The seeds are then washed to remove any sticky, honey-like mucilage that remains, coating the seeds. Because the mucilage is super sticky, the seeds are soaked for between 24 and 72 hours, allowing bacteria to dissolve and separate the seeds’ mucilage.
It should be noted that this washing step is skipped for some coffee processing methods. We’ll get into those methods in the sections below.
After washing, the coffee is spread out on either drying beds, known as ‘African raised drying beds,’ or on concrete or brick patios to dry in the sun. It is turned to ensure even drying and left for between ten days and up to one month.
Once the coffee has reached a low enough moisture content, around 10%, the coffee is dry enough to be stored without rotting. These seeds are often stored for up to 2 months before being hulled, the papery ‘parchment’ layer removed and then exported worldwide.
Upon reaching its final destination— the coffee roasting facility, the coffee is heated using a coffee roaster machine. The coffee roaster will use this machine to impart the perfect amount of heat onto the seed, for the perfect amount of time, to bring out and preserve the coffee’s natural flavors.
Now, finally, after such a long journey, the coffee is ready to be ground, brewed, and consumed.
Pros and Cons of Drinking Coffee
- Coffee is delicious.
- It is packed full of antioxidants and nutrients.
- Drinking quality coffee from reputable roasters is a good thing. Those who pay coffee producers a fair price can help the producers provide for their families and make coffee more sustainable.
- Good for a mental boost.
- Good coffee can be expensive.
- Some people are sensitive to caffeine, so don’t do well-drinking coffee.
Types of Coffee Species
While there are hundreds of different coffee species that exist, we really only consume two of them— Arabica and Robusta. Arabica and Robusta look pretty much the same to the untrained eye, but there is no mistaking the two when it comes to taste.
Arabica coffee is the species used in specialty coffee and is considered the more desirable of two species. It is characterized by its vibrant acidity, moderate caffeine content, and massively varied flavor profile. Arabica coffee can be so delicate and tea-like in flavor but can also be jammy, with huge fruit and berry notes.
This species of coffee is much harder to grow than it’s sister, Robusta. Only growing at specific altitudes, with specific amounts of rainfall, and the delicious Arabica takes a lot more work to produce at certain temperatures.
Arabica coffee only grows well at high altitudes of between 1000 and 2000 meters above sea level, but the higher, the better. It also prefers a temperature of between 15 and 24°C. Its trees have deep root systems, requiring nutrient-rich soil.
There are literally hundreds of different varieties of coffee falling under the Arabica species. Geisha, Bourbon, SL-28, Caturra, Catuai, Typica, and Castillo are just a few of the many different species. New coffee varieties— both human-made hybrids and natural mutations, occur often.
Arabica coffee makes up 75% of worldwide coffee production, fetching around 3 times the Robusta price.
Robusta is much easier to grow. It is the weather and disease-resistant sister of the Arabica coffee species. A cup of Robusta is low in acidity with much higher caffeine content. Robusta is not capable of producing the kind of various flavors that Arabica is, and therefore, it is much cheaper. A typical Robusta coffee may taste earthy, with notes of wood and rubber.
Robusta coffee can grow at far lower altitudes and much higher temperatures. It can be produced in huge qualities with lower maintenance, meaning Robusta makes its way into instant coffees and espresso blends. Because of its unappreciated flavor profile, it is rarely seen in specialty coffee shops.
Robusta coffee makes up around 25% of worldwide coffee production, with Vietnam being the world’s leading producer.
Types of Coffee Processing
When we talk about coffee processing, we refer to what happens with the coffee cherries after they are picked from the tree and sorted.
There are three main methods— natural, washed, and honey when it comes to processing coffee. Each method imparts a unique and vastly different flavor to the coffee. While there are many more, less traditional processing methods out there, like anaerobic fermentation and carbonic maceration— natural, washed and honey processing are by far the most common.
There are also other processing that coffee can undergo. For example, the world’s best decaf coffee undergoes a process known as C02 decaffeination— a technique used for removing the caffeine from coffee. But this is done at a later stage.
Today, we’re going to hit the big three— natural, washed, and honey.
The natural processing method produces coffees that are, above all, fruity and sweet. Because the fruit is left on the coffee seed, completely intact, the fruit can impart its sugars on the seed within. This results in a slightly fermented coffee, often reminiscent of wine, with flavors ranging from tropical fruits like mango and jackfruit to grapes and berries.
Instead of having the fruit and the mucilage removed during processing, natural coffees are left to dry, fruit and all with washed coffees. As the coffee dries in the sun, a small fermentation occurs within the seeds, imparting a recognizable and distinct ‘winey’ flavor to the coffee. Some people love this ‘natural’ taste. Others, not so much.
When drinking a natural coffee, you are tasting the entire coffee cherry result— not just the seed.
Coffees that are processed using the washed method usually have the cleanest flavor profiles. They can have flavors ranging from delicate notes of jasmine, juicy blueberry, and even big chocolate flavors.
A washed coffee’s clean cup profile comes from the fact that it is washed clean of anything that might alter the coffee seed’s flavor.
After the coffee has been picked, the fruit and skin are removed from the seeds. The seeds are then transferred to a tank of water, where they will soak for up to 72 hours. The soaking helps remove any of the sticky sweet mucilage that remains on the coffee seeds. From there, the coffee is dried in the sun, after which it is packed, hulled, and shipped to its next destination— the coffee roaster. You’ll find washed coffees coming from all over the world.
Some people consider washed coffees the most honest representation of a coffee. Because no outside factors are making the coffee sweeter or more flavourful, the seed itself must be fully ripe and delicious on its own.
Honey processing is the midway point between washed and natural processing. It generally produces a sweetener than a normal coffee cup, without the winey, fermented flavors of a natural coffee.
Unlike its name, the honey processing method doesn’t actually involve honey in any way. The name comes from the honey-like substance, the mucilage, that encases the coffee seed. In the honey process, a certain amount of this mucilage or ‘honey’ remains intact on the seed as they are left to dry. This imparts more sweetness onto the coffee.
There are three levels of honey processing— yellow, red, and black. These different levels refer to the amount of mucilage that is left coating the seed. The darker the color and the more mucilage left intact, the sweeter and fruitier the coffee might be.
Where Does the Best Coffee Come From
All the best coffee grown on planet earth comes from a narrow belt, known as the ‘coffee belt.’ This strip of land has everything a coffee tree needs so it can grow nice and big, with beautiful, ripe cherries. High altitudes, nutrient-rich soil, and distinct wet and dry seasons are essential factors for coffee trees.
The coffee belt runs laterally around the planet and covers all the great coffee-producing countries, including Ethiopia, Colombia, Kenya, and Costa Rica. Let’s take a look at a few of the top origins and what they are known for.
The origin of a coffee determines its taste. And no place is more of a testament to this than Ethiopia. The coffee from Ethiopia is truly unique. It is sometimes so different from other origins that one might easily pick an Ethiopian coffee in a blind tasting of 10 coffees. We’re talking flavors of earl grey tea, florals, peach with a creamy citrus acidity.
Ethiopia’s main growing regions include Sidama, Yirgacheffe, Harrar, Limu, Djimma, Lekempti, Wallega, and Gimbi, where both washed and natural processing is used. Much of the coffee coming from Ethiopia is of unknown lineage— a massive jumble of different varieties that, when combined, form a unique coffee known as ‘Heirloom Ethiopian Varieties.’ Other varieties like Gesha and Djimma are also grown in Ethiopia.
Many people who visit Yirgacheffe in Ethiopia reminisce about the fragrant, freshly roasted Ethiopian coffee wafting through the air as it is roasted in nearby houses and coffee shops.
Premium Costa Rican coffee is known for its crisp, bright acidity and its use of the honey processing method. For a country that is so well known for producing excellent quality coffee, it actually produces comparatively little of it, making up only 1% of the world’s coffee market.
Costa Rica’s coffee is grown across 8 key regions, including Tarrazú, the Central Valley, the Western Valley, Tres Rios, Brunca, Guanacaste, Orosi & Turrialba. Common varieties grown across the 8 regions include Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, Villa Sarchi, Villa Lobos, SL-28, and Gesha.
Brazil is currently the world’s largest coffee producer, making up around 35% of worldwide coffee production. A massive range of coffees grown in Brazil, including Bourbon, Catuai, Acaia, and Mundo Novo, to name a few (though there are many, many, many more). Brazil also grows a fair amount of Robusta coffee too.
Though much of the Brazillian coffees you might see is in coffee blends or drinks like cold brew coffee infused with nitrogen gas, Brazil produces some excellent, specialty grade coffee.
Brazillian coffee ranges in flavor from deep and earthy to light vanillas, melon, and florals.
The natural processing method is quite common in Brazil, as are other experimental processing methods.
Colombia is probably the most well-known coffee-growing region globally, known for it’s bright yet rich coffees. Being the third-largest coffee producer globally, Colombian beans find their way all over the world in various forms— from cups of instant coffee in gas stations to cortados (a cortado is a small-sized coffee with espresso as its base) at the best specialty cafes in the world.
Coffee is grown all over Colombia, with 14 main growing regions situated around the country. While many different coffee varieties are grown in Colombia, some of the main ones include Typica, Bourbon, Tabi, Caturra, Colombia, Maragogype, and Castillo.
As the 9th largest coffee exporter globally, Guatemala makes up around 2.7% of the world’s coffee production. Its delicious coffees are known for their sweetness and bright, vibrant acidity.
Guatemala is home to the famous Antigua coffee-growing region— an area famous for producing stellar cup quality. But this is only one of the eight growing regions in the country. Other areas also include well known Huehuetenango and Acatenango, Atitlán, Cobán, Faijanes, San Marcos, and Nuevo Orientea.
The main coffee varieties grown in Guatemala are Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, Typica, Maragogype, Pache, and Pacamara.
Vietnam is a coffee giant. Currently, the 2nd largest coffee producer globally, Vietnam, grows a huge 22% of the world coffee supply. Most of the country’s coffee is the Robusta species and darkly roasted Vietnamese coffee for instant coffee and blends. There is, however, a small portion of Vietnam’s output, around 5% of total production, that is Arabica coffee. Most of this 5% is made up of the Catimor and Excelsa Arabica varieties.
Vietnam is broken up into three main coffee growing regions— the Central Highlands, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. Most of the specialty grade Arabica in Vietnam comes from the Lam Dong province.
Coffee production in Indonesia goes way back, with its first exports being recorded in 1711. And until the 1870s, before leaf rust decimated production, Indonesia was producing almost entirely Arabica coffee. Today, around 25% of the country’s production is Arabica, and the remaining 75% is Robusta.
Indonesia is currently ranked as the 4th largest coffee producer globally, making up for around 8% of the market. The Arabica grown in Indonesia is made up mostly of the Typica, Caturra, Bourbon, Catimor, Tim Tim, and S-Hybrid varieties.
The key coffee growing regions in Indonesia are Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, Flores, and Bali. Coffees from Indonesia are often quite sweet with unique woody and spice notes.
Do’s and Don’ts With Coffee
- Do drink coffees from different origins. Each origin tastes unique.
- Do try different coffee varieties. Like the origin of coffee, variety plays a huge part in the flavor of a coffee.
- Do try organic coffee. Organic coffee has a better and longer-lasting taste.
- Do brew simply. When you get a new coffee, try cupping it. Cupping is a brew method similar to the process of brewing original cowboy coffee.
- Don’t brew coffee too strong. Strong coffee can be nice in the morning, but brewing too strong might not allow the coffee’s true flavors to shine.
- Don’t be afraid of trying a bag of premium Robusta coffee, roasted by a good coffee roaster. While you might not enjoy the taste, it is interesting to see how different coffee can be from species to species.
FAQ About Coffee
How long does it take for coffee plants to grow?
Depending on the variety, a coffee plant can take 3 to 4 years to produce fruit. This is from a newly planted coffee tree. Once the cherries have been picked, the fruit will grow once again. After around 10 months, the new coffee cherries will be ripe and ready to be harvested.
How do you get coffee beans?
Coffee beans are found within the fruit that grows on the coffee tree. While most coffee varieties have two beans within each cherry, some varieties, like peaberry, have only one. The coffee cherries are picked from the trees before being processed and dried. Once the beans have reached the desired moisture level, usually around 10%, the coffee is ready to be roasted.
Who drinks the most coffee in the world?
Per capita, Finland drinks the most coffee in the world. The national average is around 25 pounds, or 12kg, per person each year. That’s more than double the amount of coffee consumed per capita in the United States, which sits at 25th on the list.
Where does Starbucks get their coffee?
Starbucks sources it’s coffees from 3 major growing regions, spanning over 30 countries worldwide. These origins include Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Sumatra, and Ethiopia, to name a few.
Coffee really is a magical thing. Everything on the way from the seed to the cup can affect the way the coffee will taste. From the amount of rain that fell on the cherries and the soil the coffee trees were grown in, all the way to how the coffee was dried and eventually roasted. So much work and love going into each little bean!
So next time you pick up a bag of coffee, take a look at the label— have a quick google search of the area the coffee came from. You’re likely to find pictures of the area, and maybe even the people who grew the coffee you are about to enjoy!
Photos from: belchonock / depositphotos.com, tropper2000 / depositphotos.com, NatashaBreen / depositphotos.com, luminastock / depositphotos.com, dedivan1923 / depositphotos.com and dehooks / depositphotos.com.