When you take that first sip of morning coffee, do you ever stop to wonder what’s behind it?
Often, we may know the common qualities of our favorite coffee – the type of roast, the country it came from, maybe if it’s a blend or a single origin – but the full picture of the bean behind the brew is a mystery deeper than its rich dark color. Let’s dive into the beautiful world of coffee beans.
Coffee plants fall under the genus “Coffea,” which defines the more than 120 species as the “coffee genus.” These plants are distinguished as small evergreen shrubs or trees that sprout opposite leaves and what’s known as a “drupe” – a berry that contains two seeds inside, which will later become the coffee beans. Coffee plants are found in tropical forests around the world, particularly in South America, Africa and parts of Asia, and they can live up to 20 to 30 years.
While the exact number is changing all the time, there are around 6,500 species of coffee worldwide, both cultivated and wild. These can be divided into three types: varieties, cultivars, and hybrids. A variety, for the purpose we’ll use it here, is any subspecies of coffee, specifically the ones that grow naturally without human intervention. Conversely, a cultivar is not naturally occurring – they’re the ones that have been cultivated for specific purposes by coffee growers. And finally, a hybrid is a cross between two or more species of coffee – and that can be natural, cultivated, or both!
There are thousands of strains of varieties, cultivars and hybrids but when it comes to the coffee we drink, there’s really only two main species to talk about: Arabica and Robusta. There’s a strong possibility that the coffee in your cup is made up of one of these two, or a blend of both! Arabica makes up nearly 60 percent of coffees grown around the world, while Robusta makes up about 40 percent.
However, Arabica and Robusta couldn’t be more different in their qualities. Originally found in Ethiopia, Arabica is considered superior for one major reason: flavor. Known for its sweet, creamy brews, Arabica beans have notes of chocolate, caramel, fruit, or berries, and are high in antioxidants, sugar, and fatty acids. They’re also lower in caffeine (which helps the flavor), and more acidic than their Robusta cousin.
Robusta, on the other hand, is a sturdy, highly caffeinated bean, but it’s strong jolt gives it a very bitter flavor. Also known as Coffea Canephora, Robusta beans are known to taste earthy or like burnt rubber. But! These beans are around 2.7% caffeine, compared to Arabica’s 1.5%, which not only makes them ideal for instant coffee and espresso blends, it also makes Robusta coffee plants resistant to disease and pests. Robusta was discovered in Sub Saharan Africa, although Vietnam currently produces the most.
These two coffees grow differently, as well too. Although it’s sweet taste means Arabica beans are in higher demand, the coffee plants themselves are fragile and highly susceptible to coffee leaf rust (CLR). Also, much like blueberries, Arabica coffee cherries do not all ripen at the same time on the plant, so they have to be picked by hand to ensure uniform ripeness for roasting.
On the other hand, as we mentioned before Robusta is, well, robust: the plants are resistant to CLR and pests and are a much higher-yielding crop than its sweeter brother. Robusta also matures faster and is less temperamental (for instance, it can grow in full sunny conditions), so it is a highly cost-effective crop compared to Arabica.
But we can’t ignore that flavor, so despite the fact that Robusta is a stronger crop, Arabica still dominates the global coffee market. Because of this, and in an effort to ensure a stronger future, higher crop yields, and hardier plants, World Coffee Research developed a catalog of Arabica varieties, their qualities, and the ideal factors for their growth. This catalog describes everything from the optimal altitude for a coffee plant to the year it will yield its first crop, allowing farmers to pick plants that are best situated for their environment. It also describes the history of the two main types of Arabica, Bourbon and Typica, which coffee as we know it today descended from, making them the most “culturally and genetically important groups of Arabica coffees in the world.”
On the surface, coffee genetics may not seem like an important factor in your morning brew, but the cultivation of coffee over hundreds of years is what brought the steaming mug before you today. As climate shift and cultures change, coffee cultivation does its best to keep up, and tools like the Arabica Varieties Catalog help ensure a stronger future for our favorite brew. The flavors in your coffee can tell you a story – that’s decades of biology and science brewing in your cup.