Your day probably begins with a roasted cup of coffee curated at home or in your favorite coffee shop. But have you ever wondered where those delicious grounds come from? The answer isn’t just coffee beans, of course, it isn’t that simple.
The Vessel that Grows the Coffee Bean
Coffee beans are the byproducts of the coffee plant, known as Coffea; the small trees that call tropical Africa and Asia home. This magical plant that brings us life on a daily basis has over 120 species but there are two main varieties, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora “Robusta.” Coffea arabica accounts for around 80% of the world’s coffee production, whereas Coffea robusta accounts for the other 20%.
While on the hunt for a coffee plant in your local tropical rainforest, keep your eye out for a bushy plant that has cherry-like fruit - this is where the coffee seeds are found. The main trunk has branches of beautiful dark green, waxy leaves that typically grow in pairs. Coffea also has a special secret that they reveal after turning three to four years old: they bloom small, delicate, white flowers.
Where Does Coffea Grow? There are a variety of countries that you can travel to where you can spot these plants. They thrive in warm environments, which is why the countries that primarily grow coffee plants are located along the Equator, along the “Coffee Belt.” Drier climates that have moderate rainfall and frost-free temperatures provide the most ideal growing conditions. Book your flight to the following countries to get your hands on the freshest of coffee seeds:
Leading in the world’s coffee production with an incredible 2,500,000 tons of coffee produced each year, Brazil is located along the “Coffee Belt” which provides the country with ideal, warm, tropical temperatures and rich soil. There are over 27,000 square kilometers of coffee plantations located primarily in Minas Gerais, Sao Paulo, and Parana. The arabica bean takes up about 85% of their production and robusta bean cover the other 15%.
After taking a hiatus during and after the Vietnam War, this country has recently re-established itself as a leader in the coffee bean industry. Vietnam has increased its production up from 6,000 tons in 1975 to almost 1,818,813 tons in 2016. Coffee accounts for their second-largest export, behind rice. The growing regions of Vietnam include the Buôn Mê Thuộ area, and the plantations each specialize in a variety of plants. Vietnam is one of the largest producers of robusta coffee, but they also produce Arabic, Chari (Excelsa), and a few special blends. A traditional Vietnamese coffee includes a single cup of fresh coffee with a splash of condensed milk.
The coffee from Colombia is known around the world for the variety and quality of the beans they produce. Every year, Colombia produces over 892,872 tons of coffee. There are five regions that produce very distinct flavor profiles in this country: The Northern, Central North, Central South, Southern, and Eastern Zones. These areas produce different varieties of the Arabica bean, with the Northern regions producing the richest, highest-quality bean since their altitudes are much higher compared to their southern counterparts. Historically, Colombia was one of the top producers of coffee beans in the world. This changed once its climate began to fluctuate in 2010. Since then, the mild temperatures in the area have started to slowly rise and their wet seasons have lasted longer than usual, making for a less successful crop each year. This is a large reason why they have fallen behind Vietnam in production.
Indonesia is starting to rise to the challenge of keeping up with the big players in the coffee production game. In the last ten years, Indonesia has been investing in growing and harvesting a larger quantity of products - 727,525 tons to be exact. Although they do fall along the “Coffee Belt”, their wet season makes for tougher production due to the mountainous topography of the land. To their benefit, the warm temperatures that are found along the Equator make for an overall prosperous harvest each year. Focusing primarily on robusta beans, they have a significant impact on the coffee industry.
The home of the Arabica coffee plant, Ethiopia is serious about producing coffee. In fact, the Harar, Limu, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffee beans are all trademarked by the government. While falling short of the production levels of the larger players in the industry, this country still accounts for about 432,287 tons of coffee a year. A rule of thumb to follow for coffee production is the altitude factor, “High Altitude = High Quality”. Ethiopia takes advantage of this idea by producing its crops on plantations located at higher elevations in order to grow high-quality beans.
Taste the Difference
As previously mentioned, the Arabica species make up about 80% of the world’s coffee production. Thriving in a variety of South American and African subtropical climates, Coffea arabica brings a powerful flavor without the kick of bitter undertones. These beans tend to have a softer, sweeter taste with higher acidity levels and a hint of fruit. This is a quality that indicates a higher quality of coffee and, lucky for the consumer, most of the coffee found at local grocery stores contains these delicious beans.
The robusta species make up approximately 20% of the coffee production and hold a distinctive flavor. The strong, robust, flavors of this bean also have a hint of peanut undertones. These seeds are packed with a punch, with twice as much caffeine as arabica beans. Robusta species are primarily located in the Eastern Hemisphere, in areas such as central and western sub-Saharan Africa.
Altitude has an important impact on the flavors the consumer will experience with each type of coffee bean. The higher the elevation that the beans were harvested at, the more complex the flavor notes will be once consumed. This is mainly because of water and temperature stability, so the plant has more time to focus on nurturing its seeds. As the plant slows down growth, as it does in higher elevations, it devotes more energy to its seeds, which in turn enhances the flavors. In these altitudes, there is also a higher chance that the drainage systems are better equipped for rainfall which will lessen the water retention, and cause the seeds to retain many of their natural flavors.
You can taste the difference between bean flavors by using a pour-over to craft your next cup of coffee. This technique best gives you the experience of tasting the individual notes that are found in each type of bean because it is made in its purest form. Check out our newest pour over product here! The reusable cloth filter is an added bonus to help you cut down on daily waste habits.
What Does Single-Origin Mean?
If you have ever been to a local coffee shop, you have probably seen labels that notate when you’ve purchased a “single-origin” product. This term is used across a variety of craft industries such as wine, spirits, grains, fruits, etc. But what does that actually mean?
Single-origin coffee requires its beans to have been grown within a single known geographic area, so, for instance, on one farm located in Colombia. This allows the consumer to have confidence and transparency on where their product is coming from. Although single-origin gives you the purest taste of the original coffee flavors, blends are not inherently bad. They are crafted by combining a variety of single-origin coffees for distinct new flavors. Doing so creates a “superior” coffee product for consumers at a cheaper cost for producers.
The Fair Trade Act has taken steps to ensure that the farmers who are farming day to day to harvest these seeds obtain fair wages for their work. Farmers get their Fair Trade certification by joining the member-led co-ops that are based around the world. Many roasters, such as Blue Bottle, have taken great strides towards supporting Fair Trade farmers by ensuring their compliance with the Fair Trade Act, then buying directly from them.
Somehow knowing where our coffee comes from, and all the hard work that goes into producing a single cup, makes us appreciate it all the more.