The Origins of Coffee: Where Does It Come From?

coffee from around the world

There are only a few regions on earth where coffee can be grown successfully. The main regions are Latin America, Asia, and Africa. These places have the climate, temperature, elevation, and infrastructure hospitable for growing and cultivating coffee plants.

While they can all produce high-quality coffee beans, each region has its own particular set of environmental factors, regional traditions, and unique characteristics that make the coffee from that specific region distinct. 

Coffee beans come from coffee trees grown in South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, where they are harvested, processed, dried, and eventually roasted for consumption. 

History of Coffee Cultivation

Traditionally, to mimic the conditions typical in nature, coffee is often grown in the shade of trees. For coffee crops to survive, various condition requirements must be met, including maintaining temperatures that are not too hot or too cold, as well as mitigating the impact of pests. Farmers are known to use altitude to regulate temperature and protect crops against infestation.

These ancient practices of “shade-grown” coffee cultivation date back more than 500 years

With the advent of pesticides, sun-tolerant trees, and the widespread use of fertilizers, sun-grown coffee became prevalent. This method can produce greater yields, though it does contribute to deforestation. When using this method, Robusta plants yield better results than Arabica, so it is more common for farmers to grow these plants in sun-grown operations. 

Major Coffee Growing Regions

As was covered extensively in another article, coffee is cultivated in three main regions, each with distinctive practices, concerns, and growing methods. All these factors ultimately affect the taste of a single cup of coffee. It is a long journey from the coffee tree to your cup of coffee.

Coffee aficionados can typically identify Central American and South American coffees by their sweet and acidic flavors. Coffees from African countries are known for being brightly acidic with notes of floral flavors. Asian coffees tend to be heavy and rich due to the musty climate in many Asian countries like Indonesia and Vietnam. 

Arabica vs. Robusta: The Two Titans of Coffee

According to Anzueto et al., “Commercial coffee production is based on two plant species, Coffea arabica L. (arabica coffee) and C. canephora Pierre ex Froehn. (robusto coffee).” The Coffea arabica is more commonly known as simply the Arabica bean, and it is common to West Africa, Vietnam, and Indonesia, the climates of which provide a more complex flavor.

At the same time, the C. canephora is typically called the Robusto bean and can be found in the regions of India, Columbia, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Guatemala, where a heavier and richer flavor results from the cultivation.

These species make up 99% of the coffee worldwide. Robusta beans are strong and aggressive with a bitter taste. As discussed in our previous article on the various regions of coffee, the Robusta bean typically has more caffeine than the Arabica bean, which has a sweeter, smoother, and more flavorful taste.

The Journey of a Coffee Bean

Coffee beans begin on trees that grow cherries (or fruit) on the branches. After that, they are strip-picked or selectively-picked during harvest. After that, farmers extract the seed from the cherry. This can be done in a number of ways, including the wet-processed method and the natural method.

These methods result in the pulp or mucilage being separated from the seed. Finally, the seeds need to be dried, typically in the sun, before they resemble the beans we have come to know and love. 

Ethical Coffee Sourcing

The coffee industry is a multibillion-dollar industry, and it is a key mover on the global market. Because coffee is specific to certain regions and the economies of various countries are dependent upon a thriving coffee export business for the health of their economy, the industry is ripe for exploitation. 

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, abuses led to the need for the United Nations to partner with the International Coffee Organization and create the International Coffee Agreement of 1962. Since then, a series of contracts and treaties have been agreed to that are often associated with the Fair Trade movement.

These agreements necessitate the ethical sourcing of coffee. For decades, workers were exploited throughout every region where coffee was cultivated. Their pay was low, and the workers were sometimes injured or even died harvesting and processing the coffee.

It is incumbent upon importers as well as exporters to maintain the delicate balance necessary for this ethical sourcing. While exporters mainly rely on worker collectives to protect the rights of farmers, importers rely on demand-side economic tactics to ensure compliance. 

There are several brands that do a particularly good job with this. Paddy & Scott’s coffee partners with African farmers, being sure to visit the grow sites to ensure ethical working conditions. Land Girls Sumatran coffee goes so far as to be ethically sourced while also supporting female empowerment.

Cafe Mam is so transparent that their indigenous population in Chiapas, Mexico is even on Instagram! Make sure you take notice of where and how the brand you are drinking sources its coffee. Not only is the flavor important, but the ethics of sourcing the coffee matter as well. 

Conclusion

With the locations for coffee bean growth limited, the coffee cultivation process is complex. The bean is subject to various threats, and all of those must be combated to get the coffee to your cup. Each set of solutions, from cultivation to processing, can lead to a different experience, so it will only benefit you to explore the offerings from each region. What do you have to lose?  

FAQ:

Where do coffee beans naturally grow?

The most common regions for coffee to grow are certain Central and Latin American countries, parts of Africa, and a few Asian countries. 

Where are coffee beans grown in the US?

Due to the climate required for coffee to grow, there are only a few places in the US where coffee can grow. This includes Hawaii, where the soil is enriched by volcanic ash in such a way that it creates the distinctive Kona blend. While the Kona blend is rich and dark like Asian coffees, coffee from the US territory of Puerto Rico is more like Latin American coffees. Some limited places within the borders of the contiguous 48 states can also produce coffee, like California, but it is limited.  

What does the coffee plant look like?

The coffee bean comes from being removed from the cherry, or fruit, of the flowering coffee tree. The leaves of the tree are dark and waxy and grow in pairs to protect the tree’s fruit.    

Can I grow coffee beans?

Depending on your region, growing coffee plants can be difficult. You must maintain the plant at a specific temperature for them to live. When people try to grow their own small crop of coffee beans, they typically do so in their homes or in a greenhouse. 

Which countries are the largest producers of coffee?

Among South American regions, Brazil is the top coffee producer, while Colombia produces the most among Central American countries. In Asia, Vietnam and Indonesia are the lead producers, while Ethiopia is the most prodigious producer of coffee on the African continent. 

How does altitude affect the flavor of coffee beans?

Because the altitude affects the temperature at which a coffee cherry is grown, it can affect the flavor. Higher altitude can reduce the temperature at which the plant is grown, thus slowing the maturation process and leading to a denser bean with a sweeter flavor profile.
Christopher Mize

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