While you may drink coffee every day, unless you've lived in a coffee-producing country you may have no idea what a coffee tree looks like. A coffee tree is a woody perennial evergreen, covered with dark-green, waxy leaves growing opposite each other in pairs. They can grow 30 feet (9 m) high, but in cultivation, coffee trees are kept short for easier harvesting. It takes three or four years after planting for the tree to become productive. The tree produces fragrant white blossoms (some say the blossoms smell like jasmine), and then, nearly a year later, the coffee cherries mature. A coffee tree produces continuously: One plant can be flowering, have immature beans and mature cherries all at the same time. Each tree can produce beans that make between 1 and 1.5 pounds (0.45 and 0.68 kg) of roasted coffee every season.
A Coffee branch can have flowers, green beans and red beans at the same time, all year around!
WHAT IS ACTUALLY COFFEE?
What we call a coffee bean is actually the seeds of a cherry-like fruit. Coffee trees produce berries, called coffee cherries, that turn bright red when they are ripe and ready to pick. The fruit is found in clusters along the branches of the tree. The skin of a coffee cherry (the exocarp) is thick and bitter. However, the fruit beneath it (the mesocarp) is intensely sweet and has the texture of a grape. Next comes the parenchyma, a slimy, honey-like layer, which helps protect the beans. The beans themselves are covered by a parchment-like envelope called the endocarp. This protects the two, bluish-green coffee beans, which are covered by yet another membrane, called the spermoderm or silver skin.
There is usually one coffee harvest per year. The time varies according to geographic zone, but generally, north of the Equator, harvest takes place between September and March, and south of the equator between April and May. Coffee is generally harvested by hand, either by stripping all of the cherries off the branch at one time or by selective picking. The latter is more expensive and is only used for arabica beans.
Coffee pickers can pick between 100 and 200 pounds (45 and 90 kg) of coffee cherries per day. Only 20 percent of this weight is the actual bean.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF COFFEE...
Coffee has two main varieties: arabica and robusta. Arabica is descended from the original Ethiopian coffee trees. The coffee made from this variety is mild and aromatic. It's the king of coffee and accounts for about 70 percent of the world's coffee production. These coffee trees grow best in higher altitudes, between 2,000 and 6,000 feet (610 and 1,829 m) above sea level. Mild temperatures (60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit / 16 to 24 degrees Celsius) and about 60 inches (152 cm) of rain per year ensure arabica's growth. Heavy frost will kill arabica coffee trees.
Robusta coffee trees represent about 30 percent of the world's market. The bean is smaller and rounder than an arabica bean. Robusta is a heartier plant and can withstand warmer temperatures, up to 85 F (29 C). It can also thrive at lower altitudes than arabica. Robusta beans produce a bitter-tasting coffee with about 50 percent more caffeine than arabica. You'll find robusta coffee trees in Southeast Asia and Brazil.
Coffee connoisseurs discuss beans like wine lovers and discuss the various vintages. Beans from trees grown in Africa and Arabia are characterized as ‘complex, with intense berry or spice undertones’. Coffee from Latin America is described as ‘clean-tasting, tangy and bright’. Southeast Asian coffees are typically ‘full-bodied and earthy’.
Many coffees are blends of several types of coffee, which produces a more complex flavor.