Where Do Coffee Beans Come From?
Saying “coffee comes from coffee beans” is like saying a car comes from a car dealership. It’s kind of a lame, uninformative answer.
So, for this post I decided to answer the question, what is a coffee bean in the first place... and where do coffee beans come from?
The results I found may surprise you… or they may just reinforce what you already knew. Either way, it was a fun question to answer!
From the Coffee Plant
Coffee beans come from coffee bean plants (1), which are a type of shrub or bush.
If you’re wondering what a coffee plant looks like, the closest comparison is a berry bush or a grapevine. These plants can get pretty tall, too. Now, we’re not talking redwood-height here, but they’re certainly taller than you or me!
Most coffee plants have rich, dark green and waxy leaves, although sometimes the color can wander into more of a purple or yellow hue. You can see some coffee plants in the video below.
There are two different kinds of coffee plants: Arabica and Robusta. Now, this might sound simple, but in reality these two plants have many varieties between them.
Of the two, it's the Arabica that is by far the most prolific, with dozens of varieties grown all over the world. In particular, you’ll find these plants growing in the “coffee belt” – a band of countries around the earth’s equator where the conditions for growing coffee are at their best. It’s also from this “branch” of the family that we get most of the higher-end, expensive artisan coffees.
Take, for example, the Bourbon, which is grown largely in South America. This Arabica variety is among the absolute best when it comes to coffee beans. Stumptown Coffee Roasters – one of my favorite coffee providers – refers to the Bourbon as the “pinot noir of coffee”, and there’s no doubt.
"So sweet, so complex and so delicate, this is the pinot noir of coffee. A cup of Bourbon-type variety is lush and classic. It charms the snob and the rookie alike." - Stumptown Coffee Roasters
When farmers take the time to painstakingly grow these plants with care, they produce high-quality beans that are bound to please all coffee drinkers, from the newbies to the hardcore extremists. If you’re interested in learning more, Stumptown has a great breakdown of the major Arabica varietals (2).
Of course, Bourbons aren’t the only variety or “cultivar” of the Arabica coffee plant. There are countless others. Most of them are grouped into the Bourbon-Typica varieties, where you’ll find many of the classic Arabica varieties. Then there is the Introgressed “branch” of the family (yes, I went there!).
These are coffee plants that have “brought over” traits from other species (typically the Robusta) but which are still considered Arabica. Many of these have been created to resist dangerous crop killers like coffee leaf rust.
Finally, we have the newer F1 hybrids – plants that are the direct result of two distinctly different parents.You can find more info on the expansive world of the Arabica plant with this FANTASTIC interactive map (3) from World Coffee Research. It’s loaded with information and definitely worth a gander when you’re done here!
The other half of the coffee family tree, the Robusta, is made up of only two varieties, C. c. robusta and C. c. nganda, both of which come from the Coffea canephora plant. But in spite of this paucity of varietals, Robusta coffee plants actually do a lot of the heavy lifting, delivering heaps of the lower quality coffee cherries that keep the world going round.
The bulk of Robusta beans are grown in Africa and Indonesia (4), although Vietnam is the surprising winner for the largest single producer of the heavily caffeine-infused beans.
Fun Fact: This is actually one of the main things that makes Vietnamese coffee such a unique beverage! The use of the caffeine-intense Robusta beans rather than the more delicate Arabica beans is a rarity in the specialty coffee drink world.
How Long Does It Take for a Coffee Plant to Grow?
If you’re wondering how long it takes to grow coffee, it usually takes about one year for a new plant to begin flowering. From there it can be another two or three years (5) before the tree begins to bear fruit. Check out this time lapse of a coffee plant sprouting (6) to see it in action!
Once mature, a coffee plant that is properly located in the shade can live for thirty or even forty years. Some even put the number much higher (7)!
However, it’s in the first couple of decades (after the first stretch of growth in which the plant is getting to the point where it can grow beans on a commercial level) that are the most valuable to farmers.
Unfortunately, the longevity of a coffee plant’s productivity has been seriously hampered in recent times by a major shift towards sun-grown coffee (8). This monocrop approach moved coffee beans out of their naturally shady habitat, forcing farmers to use hybrids that could adapt to the intense bouts under the hot sun in the usually equatorial regions where beans are grown.
All of these factors led to a cutting in half (9) of the productivity of a coffee plant’s bean-growing life cycle.
Properly grown and tended, a coffee plant produces fruit after three to five years, and can continue producing for an average of 50 to 60 years.
Thank goodness, in recent years many farmers have realized the harmful effects of this “mass production” method, and have started moving back towards more traditional shade grown beans.
So there’s the coffee plant, but how do we get coffee beans from a bush?
Cherry Coffee Beans, The Fruit of Life
Okay, “fruit of life” might be a little extreme, but do coffee beans come from cherries? Yes. And coffee beans in turn give us coffee, the nectar of life.
These little cherry fruits consist of an outer skin or husk covering an inner layer of pulp. In the center of this pulp are two coffee beans, each covered in a second thin layer, or parchment, and a final thin membrane. You can get a good visual in the video below.
The cherries grow in bunches along the branches of the coffee plant. They start out green and then turn a bright, cherry red once they’re ready to harvest.
So, the next time you’re asked what coffee is made of, the answer can be broken down into a few parts.
- Coffee is made from coffee beans.
- Coffee beans come from the coffee plant, a large shrub or bush.
- Beans are found in the center of coffee cherries, the fruit that grows on coffee plants.
- Coffee plants grow all over the world, particularly in Central/South America, Africa, and Asia.
Where is the birthplace of coffee?
The birthplace of coffee is traditionally thought to be Ethiopia, a country in eastern Africa south of Egypt and north of Kenya. Some regions of Ethiopia still, to this day, harvest coffee cherries from coffee trees growing wild.
Where do most coffee beans come from?
Most coffee beans come from a band centered on the Equator, but which runs most of the way around the Earth. Coffee beans are harvested from trees grown in Africa, Asia, Indonesia, and Latin America. They grow at a range of elevations from near sea level (for example, on the island of Hawaii) to high in the Andes of Colombia and Peru in South America.
Who were the first to drink coffee?
While the Ethiopians are credited with the discovery of coffee, the Sufi monasteries of Yemen (just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia) were the first places where coffee was studied and documented. By the end of the 16th century, coffee was well known throughout the Middle East, moving to Turkey, South India, North Africa, and Persia. It then spread to the Balkans, Italy, and the rest of Europe by the 17th century.
- The Roasterie. (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://www.theroasterie.com/blog/coffee-101-what-does-a-coffee-plant-look-like/
- Coffee Varietals. (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://www.stumptowncoffee.com/varieties/
- World Coffee Research. (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://varieties.worldcoffeeresearch.org/
- Haines, D. (2019, April 30). What is Robusta Coffee? Robusta vs Arabica: 12 Differences. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://enjoyjava.com/robusta-coffee/
- National Coffee Association. (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://www.ncausa.org/About-Coffee/10-Steps-from-Seed-to-Cup
- Video: Timelapse of a Coffee Plant Sprouting and Growing. (2015, December 04). Retrieved June 1, 2019, from http://www.royalcupcoffee.com/blog/articles/video-timelapse-coffee-plant-sprouting-and-growing
- Meister. (2018, August 09). The Lifespan of a Coffee Plant. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://drinks.seriouseats.com/2012/09/lifespan-coffee-plant-coffee-cherry-development.html
- De la Gente. (2017, April 20). Sun-grown vs. shade-grown: How it impacts the environment and the farmers. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://www.dlgcoffee.org/news/2017/4/6/coffee-cultivation-sun-grown-shade-grown-and-how-it-impacts-the-environment-and-the-farmers
- The problems with sun coffee. (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2019, from http://www.coffeehabitat.com/2006/02/the_problems_wi/