Let's get this out of the way first: The coffee beans that we use to caffeinate ourselves actually come from seeds tucked inside the cherry fruit (yes fruit) that grow on coffee trees. And like a lot of fruiting trees, coffee trees can be rather fickle in where — and how well — they thrive.
While there are up to 100 known species of coffee plants and trees in the coffee genus (Coffea) around the world, the Arabica coffee tree (Coffea arabica) is by far the most popular in the coffee market, taking up 60 to 70 percent of the share. Robusta (Coffea canephora or Coffea robusta) takes up most of the rest, though with twice the caffeine as Arabica, its taste is known to offend.
More than likely, Arabica is what's in your morning cup. It's also among the most sensitive to climate, elevation and disease. It grows best in the so-called Coffee Belt — also referred to as the Bean Belt. (More about that in a moment.)
First, some specifics on Arabica:
- The Arabica tree needs a somewhat particular mix of hot and cool weather to grow its best beans: a temperature range between 59 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 23 degrees Celsius), with ideal temperatures between 64 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (17 to 21 degrees Celsius).
- It needs lots of rain (but not too much): between roughly 59 and 98 inches (1.5 and 2.5 meters) of annual rainfall, with a roughly three-month dry season to coincide with harvesting, processing and drying of beans.
- It flourishes in higher elevations (but not too high): Arabica grows between 1,800 feet (548 meters) to upwards of 8,500 feet (2,590 meters) above sea level, with the sweet spot somewhere above 5,000 feet (1,524 meters).
- Elevation is key to creating a flavorful coffee — hot-and-cold climes produce beans that are smaller, denser and pack more flavor that coffee aficionados (and regular Joes) appreciate.
To explain why, Jordan Chambers, a wholesale educator for Chicago coffee seller Intelligentsia Coffee, uses the 2004 movie "Sideways," which is set in California wine country, as an example. Chambers espouses the benefits of the region's unique climate on the grape.
"When [Paul Giamatti's character] talks about Pinot Noir, he says it's a fighter and it takes extra effort and work, and that's why he enjoys that in the cup," Chambers explains. "The same thing happens with higher-elevation coffee."
Bill Nigut, a green coffee buyer for Intelligentsia, adds: "When the coffee tree is at a higher elevation, it's closer to the sun so it's exposed to more UV rays during the day. A lot of people think that those UV rays help with flavor development."
Earth's Bean Belt
While coffee was discovered in Ethiopia over a millennium ago, thanks to human intervention and commercialization it now grows around the world, thriving in the specific conditions we mentioned above.
But that brings us to the so-called Coffee Belt — or Bean Belt — where virtually all of the world's commercial coffee is grown. It circles the planet between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn — the most northerly and southerly circles of latitude on Earth where the sun shines directly overhead. The equator is the dividing line between them.
In that belt, we find 29 coffee-growing countries:
In Africa it includes the nations of Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia. In Asia the Coffee Belt encompasses India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and Yemen. North, Central and South America comprise of many nations, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Hawaii, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Those countries in the Bean Belt provide us with the estimated 2.25 billion cups of Joe every day around the world.
Brazil is the world's largest coffee producer, by a long shot, taking up about a third of the world market. One reason: It's a big country in the Coffee Belt, with a coffee-friendly geography and climate. About 10,000 square miles (25,899 square kilometers) of Brazil are covered by coffee plantations — an area about the size of the state of Maryland.
The Belt's Best Coffee
Despite being the largest coffee producer, Brazil doesn't necessarily produce the "best" coffee. So what does? "The No. 1 thing that will mess up coffee is at origin," Chambers says. For instance, coffee cherries ripen at different times, even those on the same tree.
"It takes a pretty specific expertise to know when [cherries] are at maximum ripeness," Nigut says. "There's a lot of work that goes on at the farms over just picking them at the right time."
The picked cherries then go through varying processes that separate the cherry from the two seeds (beans) inside, and the beans are then washed and dried for up to two weeks before being packed into jute bags and sent to consumers for roasting, brewing and drinking. Harvesting, production and roasting also positively and negatively affect flavor.
All of these things go into creating what amounts to the many tastes, notes, hints and impressions of the coffees that come from the Coffee Belt. The Specialty Coffee Association even created an infographic wheel of the dozens of flavors one might encounter when drinking a cup of coffee.
"The three things we look for in coffee are bitterness, acidity and sweetness," Nigut says. "Any good coffee that you're drinking is going to have some balance of those three things."
Both Chambers and Nigut are partial to African coffees. Because of altitude and climate, the coffees from there are more dynamic, Chambers says. "They're going to be super complex. You'll have more flavor thoughts and ideas when you're drinking it than if you're drinking coffee from South America.
"Some of the coffees in South America," Chambers adds, "... taste like a chocolate-covered cherry when they're really, really good. There's not a lot of that tart acidity that you can get in a lot of African coffees. When you get into Central America coffees, they're just pretty nutty. There's not a lot of acidity to them because they're lower elevation."
Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Thailand and other Far East producers often cultivate robusta. Chambers is not a fan of this bean. "Go lick your car tire. That's what it tastes like," he says.
If he had to choose one cup of coffee, Chambers likes the beans from the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia. Nigut is partial to the areas around Mt. Kenya, in the East African country, where he travels for work.
"It's really high altitude," he says, "and there's volcanic soil that's really good for development."