So now you know…

Coffee, machine-dried at Santa Rosa mill

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Before landing in Costa Rica, I’d only seen one coffee plant: the one on display in the Tropical room at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.

Coffee grows on a fairly small tree, often called a “coffee bush” or “shrub.” Depending on the varietal of coffee, the trees can be between 3 and 8 feet tall. Higher quality coffee (Arabica) comes from smaller trees, lower quality (Robusta, used for blends) trees are usually twice the size of Arabicas.

Caturra coffee tree in at Golden Bean farm in Atirro

The beans that we see when we buy roasted whole bean coffee grow inside a small fruit known as coffee cherries. The cherries grow along the branches of the coffee tree. They start out green, and once they turn dark red, they’re mature enough to be harvested.

ripening coffee cherries at one of Santa Rosa’s fincas

Coffee grows literally around the world, in what is known as the “coffee belt,” spanning the equator between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. (Think Southern Mexico to Bolivia). It can grow in other places with lots of encouragement, but the only places it’s grown commercially fall around the earth’s wide waist.

Meaning, it’s grown predominately in Central and South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. It is not grown anywhere in the continental US, but it is grown in Hawaii. Technically, it’s grown in North America because there are coffee farms in parts of Mexico, but that’s the only place on the continent. There are a few commercial farms in Australia but a globally negligible amount.

The world’s top 3 producers are Brazil, Colombia, and Vietnam, recently displacing Indonesia. Vietnam is a relatively new player in the global coffee world, one whose production has exploded in recent years. African coffee comes from predominately from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. Some gourmet coffee is still grown in Yemen. India also exports lots of Robusta for blends.

Tall top of a Robusta tree at Santa Rosa mill

It is actually illegal to plant Robusta in Costa Rica, per legislation passed as a quality protection measure for the national brand/reputation of Costa Rican coffee. But there are some desirable features of Robusta, so it sneaks its way in. More on that later.

Currently, Jamaica is not a major producer, but their Blue Mountain coffee made a name for itself in the recent past. The Pacific Islands are home to many gourmet coffees, including the Indonesian Sumatra (available at Starbucks.) Coffee export stats fluctuate dramatically, and people from all sectors of the industry have told me all different things. Many exporting nations are also working with minimal infrastructure and technology, so market info and trading stats don’t even necessarily show the whole picture of production. Part of the coffee ‘game’ is also storing quantities in warehouses and waiting for market prices to be just right before buying/selling.

Even though Europe purchases and consumes a massive portion of the coffee grown worldwide (Finland and Norway jockey for highest annual national per capita consumption), no coffee grows there. The climate just doesn’t support it.

The most important climactic restriction for coffee is that it can never see temperatures below freezing. Even a day or two of frost can severely damage or kill a plant. Because coffee plants produce for several years and are not ripped out after each harvest, one frost can disrupt the entire life span of the plant. Coffee’s second demand is consistent rainfall. It won’t grow in desert climates.

Robusta and some Arabica varietals can take full sun, but the higher quality/better tasting beans prefer shade. Coffee sucks up lots of nitrogen from the soil, so shade grown coffee is better tasting not just because it’s shielded from the stress of the sun, but because the plant is fertilized by the decomposing leaves falling from other vegetation.

Robusta coffee grows at low altitudes and in flat spaces (much more similarly to other industrial agriculture crops), but Arabica needs some elevation and some slope, for drainage, etc. Arabica particularly thrives in volcanic soils, making South and Central America ideal commercial growing locations for a crop native to the other side of the world.

Soil composition directly affects the flavor of coffee, so anything that affects the soil indirectly affects the flavor. Coffee coming from rainier regions is distinctly different (don’t ask me exactly how- the language for describing coffee flavors is as complex as for describing wines) from that grown in sunny regions. For example, the coffee in the Turrialba region is subject to heavy rains and never matures as fully as coffee in other parts of the country. The result is a bean that produces lots of foam when brewed. Since this is appealing to Italians, many Italian roasting companies buy from Turrialba coffee mills.

Soils at different altitudes have different make ups, and interplanted species deposit different organic matter (leaves, flowers, bugs) into the soil to decay, thus affecting the overall soil composition and “food” the coffee plant takes in.

Unless coffee says specifically where it’s from, it’s a blend of Arabica and Robusta, Robusta being the filler, Arabica bringing the flavor. Most Robusta comes from Brazil, with Vietnam offering up more and more every year. Companies like Folgers, Maxwell House, and Dunkin Donuts constantly adjust where they buy from based on price and availability in order to maintain a consistent flavor. Even coffee that’s labeled by country comes from numerous places. Colombia is a big place, so is Kenya. So coffee labeled “Colombian” or “Kenyan” will include beans from all parts of the country. “Gourmet” roasters/cafés/vendors are now selling “estate coffees,” meaning all the beans in the bag came from the same single farm.

Coffee is a truly international product in that it’s either grown, processed, or sold between almost every single country on earth. If you drink decaf it’s likely that it was sent to Canada, Switzerland, or Germany to be stripped of its caffeine. Some coffees are roasted “at origin” near where they’re grown, but most US distributors buy “green” unroasted beans and roast them according to a carefully calculated formula to maintain a distinct brand flavor.

As you can see, there are no simple answers to any questions about coffee. Grounds for thought over your next cup!

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