The core component of any coffee is the coffee bean. DUH! But there are many varieties, grown at different elevations, in different soils and with the addition of cultivated or hybrid methods diversity seems unending. So, what is up with that?
Coffee cherries grow on trees and look like cherries. When they are bright red, sometimes purple depending on the type of coffee tree, they are ripe for the pickin’. The picking can be done with machines at lower elevations going down the rows of coffee trees shaking the coffee cherries loose. At higher elevations with steep slopes the picking is done by hand.
Globally there are about 25-100 varieties of coffee species, depending on who you talk to, but only five are in commercial production. Arabica coffee is the primary commercial coffee followed by Robusta and Liberica. It should be noted the coffee growing industry in the 1900s was almost exclusively of Arabica coffee. A vicious disease outbreak in the 1860s of a fungus that caused coffee leaf rust (CLR) started in Sri Lanka and over the years has spread across the global coffee industry. By 2005 it was considered a world-wide pandemic. The most recent outbreak was in 2012 severely affecting coffee production in Latin America and in the Caribbean.
As a result of the initial outbreak of CLR that decimated the coffee plantations in Sri Lanka crops were switched to tea. At the time Sri Lanka was part of the British Empire and it is thought that the collapse of that coffee industry is the origin of the affinity for tea drinking in Great Britain. It's not known if that was the source or a point of interest for contemplation.
The development of more disease-resistant strains of the Arabica coffee, which makes up about 60% of today’s coffee industry, moved forward and now there are numerous types of c.arabica including the well-known Blue Mountain, Columbian, Java, Sumatra, Santos, to name a few.
The second primary coffee industry consists of Robusta coffee beans. These beans are more disease resistant due to their high caffeine content and have a much different chemical make up than the Arabica bean. With much higher caffeine content and less sugar than the Arabica, the flavor of Robusta coffee is stronger and harsher and some would say bitter. The ratio of caffeine between these two species is: Robusta has 2.2- 2.7% caffeine and the Arabica bean is around 1.2 – 1.5% and is significant to taste. High-quality Robusta is excellent for espresso.
The other two primary coffee species in the global coffee industry are the Liberica and the Excelsa.
The Liberica species of coffee is truly unique among coffee species. It has an aroma that is flowery and fruity yet it has a slightly smoky full flavor. Not typically a favored as a cup on its own. However, blend it with another bean and it adds that extra something, something.
Excelsa accounts for only about 7% of the coffee industry. Recently reclassified as a Liberica due to its similar taxonomy it really stands alone. It has a distinctive tart, fruity, dark flavor. A blend with an Arabica gives the Arabic more substance and power. Brewed on its own the Excelsa flavor and aroma is not a favorite.
And there you have it, a snapshot of the coffee bean, the magical fruit. Fruit because it has the bean within the fruit, a stone fruit.
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