Is coffee fruit or a type of bean? Many coffee drinkers have probably never given the question a second thought. The word “bean” is in the name, after all. But, for those of us looking to get the most out of our roasts, the more questions we ask about coffee, the more we deepen our understanding of this mysterious (and often confusing) plant. So, why not start with the most basic question of all– what is it?
In short, coffee is a fruit. While “bean” is in the name, the coffee bean is technically the seed, or “pit” of a berry called a coffee cherry.
But that’s not all there is to this oddly-named fruit. As with all things coffee-related, there is plenty more to the story of this “bean” than meets the eye. If you’ve ever wondered about what coffee is, or how it goes from the farm to your cup, this post has the answers!
What Exactly is a Coffee Cherry?
So, the coffee bean isn’t a real bean. But what about the coffee cherry? Is it a real cherry?
No, coffee cherries are not actual cherries. (Are you starting to notice a theme here?)
However, the coffee cherry does have a little more in common with its namesake than the coffee bean does.
For starters, the coffee cherry is green when unripe, turning a brilliant red, or deep purple when it reaches full maturity.
It may also surprise you to learn that the coffee cherry is edible. While it doesn’t taste like actual cherries, its flavor is pleasant, sweet, and a little tangy. Many people also swear by the health benefits of the coffee cherry. It contains eight times more antioxidants than blueberry– a superfood known for having a particularly high concentration of antioxidants.
Unfortunately, despite everything the coffee cherry has going for it, the berry is often overshadowed by the far more lucrative pit at its center. The green, delicately-flavored seeds of the coffee cherry are what become the highly sought-after coffee bean. During the harvesting process, the sweet, tasty flesh of the coffee cherry is often discarded or–because of its high nutrient content –repurposed as a fertilizer. As long as coffee beans are in demand, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever find coffee cherries in the produce section.
How Does Coffee Grow?
So, the coffee bean isn’t an actual bean, and the coffee cherry isn’t an actual cherry. But surely the coffee plant is a little easier to classify, right? Think again!
The coffee plant is a genus of flowering plants in the family Rubiaceae. And, while you’ll often hear these plants referred to as “coffee trees” there is some dispute among botanists about exactly how to classify the plant.
This dispute is due to the coffee plant’s drastic change in size and shape across the different species. Some species of the plant are small, reaching a height no taller than your average bush, while others can reach heights of up to 30 feet! And the task of classifying the plant doesn’t get any easier when new species are still being discovered, with one discovery as recent as 2009.
Coffee plants can also range in color, from yellow to purple, to varying shades of green.
Where Does Coffee Grow?
So, where does this elusive plant grow?
Coffee thrives in high-altitude climates with well-defined seasons and rich, fertile soil. The plant also likes lots of moisture, which makes it perfectly suited to the rain forests of Brazil, where over one-third of all modern-day coffee is grown.
1. South America
Overall, South America is responsible for over 60% of global coffee production. That’s quite a lot of beans when considering that around 19 billion pounds of coffee were produced in 2020 alone.
South America’s seemingly unending acres of mountainous rainforest give the continent a big upper hand when it comes to coffee farming. Other big South American producers include Columbia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, and Guatemala.
But when it comes to the country with the highest coffee output, Brazil has its neighbors beat by a mile. Last year alone, Brazil turned out 3,558,000 metric tons of coffee.
To put Brazil’s number in perspective, consider the output of Vietnam, the world’s second-largest coffee producer, which only turned out 1,830,000 metric tons of coffee in 2020. It’s still an impressive number, but a little less impressive when considering it’s only a little over half of what Brazil was able to produce.
East Asia as a region is second when it comes to coffee production. This makes sense when considering the region’s abundant rainforests and high mountain peaks. Scientists have even traced the origins of coffee to this region, with Africa as another likely candidate.
After Vietnam, the top coffee producers in the region include Indonesia, India, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and the Philippines.
The last region is Africa. While coffee export began in Africa and the Middle East during the sixteenth century, you won’t find nearly as much coffee being produced there these days.
Ethiopia is the biggest coffee producer in Africa, which is fitting when considering that Ethiopia was one of the first countries to farm coffee on a large scale. Even now, when competing with the massive coffee production coming out of South America and Asia, Ethiopia holds strong as the fifth-largest coffee producer, having exported 441,000 metric tons of the bean in 2020.
Ethiopia’s coffee is especially worth noting for its reputation as being among the best coffee in production. The majority of Ethiopia’s coffee is grown in the country’s southwestern highlands region and is purported to be 100% organic. While about half of the coffee grown in Ethiopia is consumed by Ethiopians, the remaining 50% that makes it out of the country is highly sought-after by coffee connoisseurs.
Other notable coffee producers from Africa are Uganda, the Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea, and Kenya.
How Many Types of Coffee are There?
Now that you know what coffee is and where it comes from, you’re probably wondering how many types of coffee there are.
While coffee can be broken down by species, cultivar, variety, and region, it generally falls under four main types: Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa.
To understand the differences between these four main types of coffee, let’s take a closer look at what makes them so distinct.
By and large, Arabica is the most common coffee type, accounting for 60% to 70% of the coffee produced worldwide. Arabica is especially popular in North America, where it’s heavily marketed to consumers. Odds are, if you’re a coffee drinker who lives in the U.S., you’ve had Arabica. Its popularity is due in no small part to its taste. Arabica is famous for its mild, sweet flavor and low acidity. These characteristics make this coffee very drinkable for both casual and serious coffee consumers.
Arabica is also known for being particularly temperamental. It thrives in only the most ideal climates for growing coffee. Because of its relatively low caffeine content, this coffee is vulnerable to insects, and it’s also prone to disease. These factors combined make growing Arabica more than a little difficult and often result in low crop yields. For this reason, Arabica can be on the pricey side. However, because people vastly prefer this coffee’s flavor, they’re more than willing to pay the higher price.
The second most common type of coffee is Robusta. Unlike Arabica, Robusta is known for its bold, bitter flavor and high acidity. Robusta is more commonly consumed in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, where they tend to like their coffee’s flavor a bit more… pronounced.
This coffee type also contains much higher levels of caffeine than Arabica, which is great for those of us who like our coffee with a little punch.
Robusta’s caffeine content is the reason why this coffee is so easy to grow. Caffeine is toxic to bugs, and acts as a natural repellent, preventing the plant from contracting diseases spread by insects.
The Robusta plant is also much more resilient than Arabica, making it better suited to lower elevations and therefore easier to farm. This results in higher crop yields, which is the reason some farmers prefer it to Arabica.
Though it’s often thought of as a second-rate coffee, a high-quality cup of Robusta can be a pleasant surprise. Its flavor contains notes of chocolate and rum and pairs well with cream and sugar.
Unfortunately, though, most Robusta you’re likely to find in the states is anything but quality. Often Robusta is used for making instant coffee, or else is mixed in with higher quality Arabica beans to be sold as bargain blends. But, if it’s caffeine you’re after, and you don’t mind the taste of cheap coffee, Robusta could be the coffee for you.
Far less common than even Robusta, you’re unlikely to find Liberica on the grocery store shelf. Liberica is a coffee known for its fruity and floral flavor and is often sought out among coffee drinkers in the know. However, this coffee hasn’t always been hard to come by.
Liberica was quite popular around the turn of the 20th century. After a nasty disease called “coffee rust” wiped out the majority of the world’s Arabica supply, producers turned to the more resilient Liberica to take its place. At that time, the Philipines was the top producer of Liberica and, as a result, quickly became one of the world leaders in coffee production until sanctions imposed by the U.S. ended not only the production of Liberica in the Philipines but also the world over.
These days, if you’d like to get your hands on a cup of Liberica, be prepared to shell out some serious cash. High-quality Liberica beans can come with some big price tags; but, according to many coffee drinkers, it’s well worth the money to experience this coffee’s unique flavor.
While technically a variety of Liberica, Excelsa is often considered a type of coffee in its own right. This is due to Excelsa’s peculiar nature, both in terms of flavor and cultivation.
Because Excelsa is the least common of the coffee types, most roasters don’t know how to properly handle the beans to get the most out of their flavor. This has led many to consider Excelsa to be lacking in flavor. However, when handled properly, this couldn’t be further from the truth!
According to the lucky few who have tried Excelsa, its flavor is tart, fruity, and delicate. When roasted correctly, Excelsa’s flavor can also be more complex than more common coffee types, combining aspects of both light and dark roasts.
However, like Liberica, high-quality Excelsa is not cheap. If you’d like to try this coffee, be prepared to spend.
How is Coffee Harvested?
There are a couple of methods for harvesting coffee cherries.
The first method is called strip-picking. This is where all the cherries are stripped off the branch at once, regardless of whether or not they are ripe. Because strip-picked coffee is made with unripe beans, it’s typically used in lower-quality batches.
The second method is called selective picking. With this method, only the ripest cherries are picked one at a time. This method results in much higher-quality batches, which also tend to be more expensive.
How is Coffee Processed?
After the coffee cherries are picked, they’re introduced to a machine that removes the flesh of the fruit before depositing the beans into a fermentation tank. The tank is filled with water and the beans are left to ferment for up to 48 hours to remove what’s left of the fruit pulp clinging to the beans’ outer casing. Then, it’s on to the drying process.
The beans are either spread out on a drying table to sun-dry or are loaded into large machines called tumblers which dry them out much faster. After about 11% of the moisture has evaporated from the beans, they’re ready for hulling.
Hulling is the process of removing the husk of the coffee bean. This is performed by a hulling machine and is the last step before the beans are graded according to color and appearance and sorted into batches according to their quality.
Lastly, a few beans from each batch are taste-tested by an expert to ensure their quality before they’re shipped out either straight to the consumer, or a coffee company to be roasted.