1. Coffee begins as a fruit
When most people think about coffee all they see is the end product: the roasted beans. But long before coffee is ready to be consumed it begins as a fruit. Found in the tropical regions of the globe, coffee trees (to be scientifically accurate, from the plant family Rubiaceae, genus coffea) produce cherries which are picked when fully ripe. Inside these cherries lie the prized seeds, which we call beans.
The two major types of coffee trees are Arabica and Canephora (Aka, Robusta). Somewhere around 70% of coffee commercially grown are of the arabica family. Arabica coffee is known for complexity and flavor, while Robusta is less flavorful but more “robust,” leading to resistance against certain diseases and pests, thus higher yields during harvest. Robusta also has much higher caffeine content than arabica. Because of this, some roasters still use robusta in their espresso blends.
2. There are many “varieties” of coffee
When you think of “flowers,” several easily come to mind such as roses, violets, lilies, etc. Though these flowers look, smell, and grow in distinct and sometimes completely different ways, they are all still considered flowers. The same can be said for the various plant expressions found in the coffee world. Some coffee types may grow better in drier climates while other only grow properly where there is sufficient rain. There are numerous varieties, including bourbon, lemperia, and caturra just to name a few.
While there is still a lot to learn about coffee, we know with little doubt that some of the earliest arabica coffee likely originated in Ethiopia where it was eventually transported to Yemen before spreading to the rest of the tropics. We also know that all coffee cultivars (the fancy but proper word for selectively bred varieties of plants) now grown around the world originated from the Typica and Bourbon plant varietals. For example, the Pacamara bean was created in a lab by cross-breading the Pacas and Maragogype cultivars in 1958. This odd coffee has since won many awards for the rare and exotic flavors it produces.
Long story short, whether you want to call them varieties or cultivars, there are many expressions of the original coffee plant, each baring specific fruits which lead to distinctive tastes.
3. The processing makes a difference
Earlier in brief we learned coffee beans are actually seeds in a fruit. This fruit has several fleshy layers which encase the two beans found inside. In essence, these layers of fruit act to defend the precious seeds inside. For farmers to access these seeds, the cherries must undergo a biological process of cherry removal. While most coffee drinkers may ignore the type of process descibed on coffee bags, the process actually has a lot to do with the flavors found in the cup.
There are three main processing methods: dry, wet, and honey. These go by other names, such as sundried/natural, or washed, or pulped-natural, but despite the lingual differences they all descibe one of the three main processes.
In the washed process, the beans are de-pulped which removes the beans from the outer cherry before undergoing a fermentation process in large metal containers for upwards of 36 hours. After this, the beans will undergo the washing process to remove the thick layer of “mucliage” which still encompasses the beans. For many years coffee professionals believed washed coffees were the best because it created more clear and complex flavors in the cup, but this long held assumption is now being challenged by the excellent coffees being produced through honey and dry processes.
In comparison, dried/natural coffees allow the beans to naturally ferment while still within the cherry. This can create some stunning and very lively flavor profiles with intense fruit notes, but up until recently it was difficult to find high-quality coffees from this process due to a lack of quality control measurments at the farm level. At Utopian, we have offered several dry/naturally processed coffees and have been stunned by their complexity and remarkable flavors.
The honey/pulped-natural process tends to fit snugley between the other two methods. Like the washed process, the coffee cherries are picked and immediately de-pulped to remove the husk from the beans. But, instead of fermenting the coffee in tanks, the beans are spread out on a patio (similar to natural coffees) and allowed to ferment over several weeks before the mucilage is mechanically stripped from the beans. This process tends to vary depending on geographic region and availability of technology, but like the natural process it can produce some very distinct and accentuated cup profiles.
4. Farmers have a lot of challenges
Producing consistently high-quality coffee from year to year is extremely difficult for most farmers for a variety of reasons. First off, farmers are continually facing issues with changing climate in coffee growing regions. An article by Daily Coffee News recently stated in Colombia “over 90 percent of the coffee farmers reported changes in average temperature. Seventy-four percent said droughts had gotten longer and worse, and 61 percent reported an increase in mountainside erosion and landslides because of more rain.” As climate change continues each year, coffee farmers are left to face the consequences.
In addition to climate change, coffee farmers must treat their plants against broca, aka the coffee borer beetle. This small pest lays its eggs in coffee cherries. When the larve hatch, they eat at the coffee seed (bean) and make their way out of the fruit to continue their destruction. Naturally, beans with insect damage do not taste very good, and the coffee borer beetle has destroyed entire crops for some producers. To fight the pest, producers have invested in pesticides and traps, as well as a slew of natural remedies such as predator introduction and pruning coffee trees during off-season.
Nevertheless, this small pest continues to be a huge problem.
While there are many other issues farmers have to overcome (just Google search ‘coffee rust’ for another major example), the last one we will mention is a lack of representation in the larger coffee market. Generally, the best coffee in the world is grown at high elevations. This means many producers live in remote rural areas. Without access to transportation and basic communication technology, coffee farmers are more than likely unable to transport their crops to a location where markets are accessable, and where fair compensation for their labor is possible. Ultimately, farmers will get paid significantly lower prices for their hard work because of a lack of access to markets where their coffee could be bought for an equitable price.
At Utopian we are always seeking out farmers in very remote areas who face these hardships. Part of our work is to partner with them and aid in overcoming challenges.
5. Most of the coffee we drink comes from cooperatives
There’s a huge assumption that most of the coffee we all regularly drink comes from an individual farmer somewhere. While this is completely possible, it’s more than likely just not the case. As mentioned before, the main challenge most coffee farmers face is a lack of access to markets. To overcome this, cooperatives were created. Where only one individual farmer may have few resources, a hundred or even a thousand farmers in a cooperative can pull together resources to create access to markets and bargan for fair prices. But cooperatives serve many more purposes than just creating representatio. Often cooperatives will create additional benefits for small farmers, such as access to educational opportunities, health and medical care, and income diversification opportunities.
At Utopian, we fully understand and value the complexity of coffee, from seed all the way to your cup. Continue to follow our blog to learn more about green coffee, roasting, brewing, and trips to origin!