Where does coffee come from?

Top image: © Dennis Tang | Flickr

Coffee comes from Ethiopia. It also comes from a plant. It came from the old world to the new world. And today it comes from farms in tropical countries that circle the globe like a belt.

It is one of the most popular drinks in the world. We devote thousands of square miles of land to growing coffee beans, and we drink millions of tons of coffee per year. This isn’t a particularly new trend. Coffee has been an important plant historically, economically, and politically for almost a thousand years.

If you’ve ever wondered where coffee comes from, read on as we explore this question from every angle.

Where did coffee originate?

Coffee’s origins are captured in a few different legends and stories. The most popular is an Ethiopian tale from the ninth century about a goat herder named Kaldi who noticed that his goats became so energetic after eating berries from the coffee tree that they wouldn’t sleep.

Kaldi tried the berries himself and felt the same energizing effects. Then he brought his findings to a local monastery and the monks experienced it, too. Word of coffee’s stimulant effects began to spread.

Yemen has a similar origin story. According to this tale, the Sufi monk Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili noticed birds flying energetically around his village after eating coffee berries. When he tried them himself, he felt alert as well. Other versions of the story claim that the monk was traveling in Ethiopia when he discovered the effects of coffee.

The truth about the discovery of coffee will probably never be known. We do know that the coffee bean comes from Ethiopia and that people started roasting coffee beans around the 13th century. One of the earliest documented uses of coffee was by Sufi monks in 15th-century Yemen who used the berries to stay awake and pray all night. The coffee plants were most likely discovered in Ethiopia and brought to Yemen, which is where coffee’s popularity took root.

A monastery in the mountains of Yemen
Coffee kept 15th-century monks awake in mountain monasteries of Yemen. (© Franco Peccho | Flickr)

How coffee spread around the world

It only took a few centuries for coffee to become a worldwide favorite. Here is a brief history of how coffee spread to much of the world:

Arabia

Coffee quickly spread in the Arabia region in the 15th century. Sufi monks brought coffee beans and their brewing knowledge with them as they traveled, and coffee quickly gained fans throughout the Islamic world. Because Islam prohibits alcohol, coffee substituted for wine in the Ottoman Empire.

The Arabs also cornered the coffee market during this time by parching and boiling the beans, which made them infertile. By the start of the 16th century, coffee was well-known in Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria. In 1554, the first documented coffeehouse opened in Constantinople, which is now Istanbul.

Europe

Coffee made its way to Europe in the early 17th century, several different accounts explain how this may have happened. According to some, Venetian merchants brought coffee to Europe from the Arabian peninsula. Another story states that an Indian pilgrim left Mecca with fertile coffee beans and started the European coffee trade. Other reports say coffee first came to Malta when Turkish Muslim slaves on the island made the beverage.

The Catholic church rejected coffee at first, with the Pope’s councilmen calling it “the bitter invention of Satan.” However, when Pope Clement VIII tried it, he liked it so much that he allegedly declared, “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

As soon as coffee had gained the Pope’s approval, it spread through Europe rapidly. Europe’s first coffeehouse opened in Italy in 1645. By the end of the century, there were hundreds of coffeehouses throughout the continent. These cafes became some of the most popular places for social gatherings and business dealings.

Americas

Coffee was slower to catch on in the Americas. In the early 17th century, Captain John Smith introduced coffee to the Jamestown settlers, but the community mostly preferred tea. In the mid-17th century, coffee was brought to what is now New York.

Coffeehouses started to appear throughout the New World over the next century, but coffee didn’t become a popular drink until after the Boston Tea Party in 1773. To protest the heavy tax on tea, many Americans switched to coffee.

Coffee cultivation and its spread

As more and more people around the world started drinking coffee, demand for coffee plants grew. For many years, coffee growers in the Arabian peninsula tried to monopolize coffee by parching and boiling the beans before shipping them out to other regions. However, this did not stop European countries from trying to carve out their own place in the market.

Several European nations acquired coffee plant seeds through trade and tried to grow coffee. Unfortunately for them, coffee grows well only in tropical climates, so they had little success cultivating the plant in Europe.

Lithograph of Indian coffee plantation, circa 1850
The bosses lounge in the shade while workers toil on a coffee plantation in India in this artwork by J.M. Rugendas from 1850. (Wellcome Collection | Creative Commons)

Holland was the first European country to successfully produce coffee. In the early 1700s, the Dutch obtained a few coffee plants through trade in Yemen and created a plantation on the colony of Java in Indonesia. This was the first coffee plantation outside the Middle East. The plantation quickly became a success, so the Dutch established more plantations on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). They also created botanical gardens in Amsterdam in an attempt to grow coffee in Holland.

In 1720, the Dutch gifted France some coffee plants as part of a military agreement. Following Holland’s lead, the French used their territories in more tropical areas of the world to produce coffee. They brought their plants to their Central American colonies and quickly discovered that the region’s climate was perfect for it.

Over the next several decades, plantations popped up all over Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. This region remains the largest producer of coffee in the world.

Where does coffee grow?

Coffee grows best in the tropical climates that exist around the equator. This zone is called the Coffee Belt or the Bean Belt, and it lies between the latitudes of 25 degrees north and 30 degrees south.

Map of the world showing regions near the equator where coffee is grown
If you would like to re-publish this image, please credit and link to beanpoet.com.

The two main factors that affect the plant’s growth are temperature and rainfall. Temperatures between 73 F and 82 F are best. No coffee plant variety can survive in temperatures near or below freezing. Arabica coffee plants require 60 to 80 inches of rainfall per year, as well as a dry period of two to three months.

The following are generally the countries with the largest coffee exports today:

Top coffee exporters

1. Brazil

Brazil is the world’s largest producer of coffee. In 2016, the country produced 2,592,000 metric tons of coffee beans. According to the USDA, the country is expected to produce 39.9 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee in the 2019-2020 marketing year. This year is an off-year for the production cycle of many of Brazil’s trees, too, so these numbers are lower than usual. Coffee plantations cover over 10,000 square miles of Brazil’s land, and the country produces about one-third of the world’s coffee beans.

2. Vietnam

Vietnam has grown coffee since the mid-1800s, but production took off in the 1980s. The Vietnamese government has heavily invested in coffee in the last few decades, and the country is now the second-largest coffee producer in the world. The USDA predicts that Vietnam will produce 32.2 million bags of coffee in the 2019-2020 marketing year.

3. Colombia

Colombia is well-known for its quality coffee. In 2016, the country produced 810,000 metric tons of coffee beans, and in the 2019-2020 year, they are expected to produce 14.3 million bags of coffee. In 2008, the Colombian crops were hit with coffee rust, a leaf disease that reduced the country’s production by 31 per cent. In recent years, though, the country has started to rebound.

4. Indonesia

Indonesia’s climate is better suited to Robusta beans, which are less popular than Arabica beans (see coffee species below). However, the country is still the fourth largest coffee producer in the world. The USDA predicts that Indonesia will produce 10.7 million bags of coffee in the 2019-2020 year. Coffee plantations cover almost 4,000 square miles of Indonesia’s land.

5. Ethiopia

Ethiopia is coffee’s country of origin, and it remains the largest coffee producer in Africa. Coffee accounts for almost 30 per cent of the country’s yearly exports, and about 15 million Ethiopian citizens work in the coffee industry. In 2016, the country produced 384,000 metric tons of coffee beans.

The coffee plant

What does a coffee plant look like?

Coffee trees are usually pruned short for better harvesting, but they can grow to over 30 feet tall. The trees are covered with green, waxy leaves that grow in pairs. Green coffee cherries grow in clusters and turn red when ripe.

Multi-colored coffee cherries on the branch
© Dennis Tang | Flickr

Inside a coffee cherry are two beans covered by a thin membrane. In about five per cent of cherries, only one bean grows inside. Some people believe these beans are sweeter and have more flavor, so they’re often sorted out to be sold separately.

Experts have trouble classifying the coffee plant because the trees can vary widely. Some are small shrubs, and others are tall trees. The leaves can range in size from one to 16 inches, and the colors can vary from purple to green to yellow. The coffee plant looks different depending on its species, where it grows, and the stage of its lifecycle.

Coffee plant species

There are two main species of coffee: Arabica and Robusta. Their scientific names are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, respectively. They have some major differences, but each has its place in the coffee industry.

Coffea arabica

Coffea arabica
C. arabicaAndres Hernandez | Flickr)

The Arabica plant is a direct descendant of the original coffee shrubs that grew in Ethiopia. It is mostly grown in Latin America, East Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and Asia. About 70 per cent of the world’s coffee comes from Arabica trees.

This species produces mild, aromatic coffee that is lower in caffeine than Robusta. The beans are also flatter and longer than Robusta beans. Arabica trees grow at fairly high altitudes, usually between 2,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level.

Coffea canephora

Coffea canephora
C. canephoraKrzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz | Wikimedia Commons)

Robusta plants primarily grow in central and western Africa and Southeast Asia. The bean is rounder and smaller than the Arabica bean and tends to have a stronger taste. Robusta beans have 50 to 60 per cent more caffeine than Arabica beans. Because of their strong flavor, Robusta beans are mostly used for blends and instant coffees.

The Robusta tree is more resistant to diseases and parasites than the Arabica tree, so it’s less expensive to cultivate. It can also withstand hotter climates, so it can grow at lower altitudes.

Life and growth cycle of the coffee plant

Coffee plants have a long lifespan, and it takes years for them to start producing coffee beans. According to the Coffee Research Institute, flowers start to grow on a tree three to four years after planting. This is the first step toward bearing fruit. Over the next several months, the tree experiences pollination, cell division, and the growth of the coffee cherry.

It takes about one year for a cherry to mature after the tree flowers. In total, a coffee plant usually needs five years of growth for full fruit production. There is usually one major harvest per year, but some countries have a main crop and a secondary crop each year. Coffee plants also have a continuous growth cycle, so you may see flowers, green fruit, and ripe fruit all at once on a single tree.

The trees can live for up to 100 years, but they are typically the most productive between the ages of seven and 20. On average, one tree produces 10 pounds of coffee cherries per year, which equals two pounds of green coffee beans.

How coffee gets from the plant to your cup

Coffee goes through a long production process to get from the tree to your cup. Here are six steps to manufacturing coffee:

Harvesting coffee beans

In most areas, the coffee cherries are picked by hand once they are red and ripe. Some countries, including Brazil, have been able to mechanize the harvesting process in the flatter areas of their landscapes.

There are two methods of harvesting coffee beans. With the strip picking method, all cherries are removed from the branch at once. With the selective picking method, only ripe cherries are removed.

Drying coffee beans

Coffee is processed using either the dry method or the wet method. With the dry method, the cherries are spread out to dry in the sun immediately after harvesting. With the wet method, the cherries go through a pulping machine to remove the pulp. Then, they are transferred to a water-filled fermentation tank, which removes the thick, gluey substance called mucilage that coats the beans. After a day or two, the beans are ready to dry in the sun.

Man raking coffee cherries in the sun
Coffee cherries dry in the sun at Café Tuxpal in Santa Ana, El Salvador. (© Dennis Tang | Flickr)

Coffee processing

Once the beans are dried to 11 per cent moisture, they’re ready for processing. First, the beans go through the hulling machine, which removes their dried husks. Then, the beans may go through polishing, which is an optional step that removes any remaining silver skin.

Machine removing the pulp from coffee cherries
A machine removes the outer husk and pulp from coffee cherries, leaving what we know as the bean. (© Dennis Tang | Flickr)

Lastly, the beans are graded and sorted by size and weight. Beans with color flaws or imperfections are removed. This is usually done both by hand and by machine so that only the highest-quality beans are exported.

How coffee beans are transported

At this point in the process, the beans are referred to as green coffee. They are bulk-shipped all across the world in woven bags or plastic-lined containers. In the 2018-2019 year, over 170 million bags of coffee were produced.

Loading coffee onto a truck for transport
Bags of coffee are loaded on a truck in Nicaragua for transport around the world. (© Dennis Tang | Flickr)

Coffee cupping

The beans are tested and evaluated for quality at several points along the coffee supply chain. Before being roasted in bulk, coffee goes through a taste-testing process called cupping. Small samples are roasted and brewed, and the taster evaluates the coffee’s appearance, smell, and taste to make sure the product is up to standards.

Cupping coffee after roasting
Preparing for a coffee cupping at Los Pirineos Coffee Farm in El Salvador. (© Dennis Tang | Flickr)

Coffee roasting

Roasting machines are usually kept at a temperature of around 550 F. The beans are agitated constantly while they roast so they don’t burn. Then, beans are cooled right away with cold air or water. Once the beans are roasted, they are ready to be packaged and sold. Some are ground up before being packaged. Others are packaged as whole beans.

Roasting beans at Saltspring Coffee
Roasted beans are let out of the roaster to cool at Saltspring Coffee in Richmond, B.C. (© Kris Krug | Flickr)

Still brewing after all these years

Coffee has a lengthy and vibrant history. Not long after Sufi monks discovered that the beans energized them for their prayer sessions, people all across the region were consuming coffee as well. In just a short time, the excitement about coffee had spread to the entire world. Coffee production shows no signs of slowing down soon. For hundreds of years, it has proven itself to be a delicious beverage, a great energizer, and an important part of the world’s economy.

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