Coffee cultivation and species

Coffee varieties

There are more than 60 varieties of coffee but only two of them have commercial importance:
  •     Coffea Arabica
  •     Coffea Canephora - Robusta

Arabica is originally from Ethiopia and today it is grown around the world. Robusta was discovered in Congo and from there it has spread throughout tropical Africa and to Indonesia, Vietnam and beyond.

About 65% of the world’s output is Arabica, and 35% is Robusta. Arabica's flavour is milder and has more nuances than Robusta. The strong flavour of Robusta makes it best suited to blends of dark roasted coffees like espresso or French-style coffees. Robusta also gives a stronger body and crema for espresso.

Coffee growing areas and countries

Coffee grows in the tropics, the region between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, in different parts of the globe. There are five major areas where coffee is cultivated:

  •     South America
  •     Central America
  •     Africa
  •     Asia
  •     Oceania

The coffee plant needs plenty of rain to grow, something like 1,500-2,000 mm a year. The temperature for growing is different: for Arabica it is 15 – 24˚C and for Robusta it is 24 – 30˚C as coffee is extremely vulnerable to frost.

Its habitat is at high altitudes. For Arabica the optimum growth altitude is between 1000 – 2000 m above sea level and for Robusta it is around 100 – 700m above sea level. The higher the altitude, the more aromatic the beans are when they ripen. Soil and the environment have also a very great influence on the flavour characteristics.

Coffee is produced in about 60 countries. The biggest coffee producing countries are: Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia and India. Those countries mainly grow coffee for export. For example, Brazil exports around 23,000,000 sacks per year, and each sack weighs 60 kg.

The coffee plant

Botanically coffee belongs to the family Rubiaceae among with gardenias and quinine. The coffee plant can grow to a great height and because of that it is described as a coffee tree. In the wild it can grow as high as 10 metres. On plantations and coffee producing farms, they are pruned to a height which is most comfortable for harvesting.

The flowers of the plant are white and smell like jasmine and orange. Coffee plants flower at different times: Coffea arabica flowers after rain and Robusta flowers irregularly.

The coffee fruit is the size of a cherry and when ripe the colour is usually dark red or yellow. The berries are ripe for picking about nine months after flowering. They don’t all ripen at the same time, so a single tree has to be picked several times. Each fruit contain two coffee beans. Coffee beans grow pressed together inside the berries.

Picking coffee

Depending on the country and region, coffee is picked by hand or with machinery. Hand-picking is typical, for example, in Colombia, Central America and Africa, where the plantations are mainly on steep mountain slopes and the berries ripen unevenly.

Mechanical picking is possible in places like Brazil, where plantations are on plains and the harvest ripens evenly. However, even in Brazil most of the crop is harvested by hand.