Coffee is the second most-drunk beverage in the world, after water. Coffee beans have become the most heavily-traded agricultural commodity, and the second most heavily-traded commodity, period (oil is most heavily-traded). So, how difficult can it be, after all? Coffee is either organic or not organic, right? Not exactly. Some that’s produced organically isn’t certified organic, as the certification process costs too much for the farmer(s). But there’s a lot more to it than that these days. You cannot discuss organic coffee without digressions into related topics such as shade grown, Bird Friendly, Fair Trade, sustainability, and small (or micro) lots. While this month’s column isn’t meant to be a complete discussion of any of these issues, it wouldn’t do to ignore any of them altogether, either.
First, and as usual, a little background is called for. A coffee plant is a woody, broad-leafed, evergreen. Coffee shrubs can reach over 30 feet in height, but they’re usually kept much shorter to permit easier harvesting. The shrubs grow best in the so-called “Bean Belt,” a region that circles the globe between the Tropics of Capricorn (23.5 degrees south of the equator, running through areas such as Australia, Chile, southern Brazil and northern South Africa) and Cancer (23.5 degrees north of the equator, which runs through Mexico, the Bahamas, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, and southern China).
Photos of coffee shrub and coffee cherries below by Ana Labate.
The shrubs do not become productive for at least three or four years after planting. Their blossoms are white; after the blossoms appear, it takes almost a year for the coffee cherries to mature. A coffee cherry is the fruit of the coffee shrub. It’s not a cherry at all, but it looks like one when fully ripe. Inside the cherry, covered by various membranes, protective layers, and a thick skin, is a pair of coffee beans.
Coffee shrubs produce continuously, meaning that on any one plant you’ll find blossoms, unripe fruit and mature cherries. Each season, one plant will yield enough beans for between 1 and 1.5 pounds of roasted coffee. Most coffee is still harvested by hand, although some larger farms now use mechanical harvesters.
Although coffee was first consumed by humans as a food, it was a beverage of great popularity in the Islamic world by 1300. The custom of drinking coffee gradually spread to Asia, then Europe; from Europe, its spread to North America was inevitable. Although there are at least twenty species of the genus Coffea, only two are of commercial importance, Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta (the upright form of Coffea canephora), which produce, respectively, arabica and robusta beans. Arabica beans are descended from the original East African coffee trees, and they still account for some 70% of the beans grown today (of that 70%, however, only a small percentage are considered of good-enough quality for “gourmet” coffees).
Arabica shrubs are finicky, preferring higher altitudes (at least 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level), shaded sunlight, relatively constant temperatures, and sufficient rainfall; they can be killed by a heavy frost. The robusta species wasn’t developed until the early 1970s. Robusta plants are hardier than arabicas. They grow more easily at lower elevations, have a heavier yield, and are much more tolerant of sunlight (even direct sunlight) and warmer temperatures. Robusta beans are smaller, rounder and said to be more bitter-tasting; they also contain roughly 50% more caffeine than do Arabica beans.