For a tree grown in over 70 countries, from Indonesia to Puerto Rico, it's curious how narrow a range of
conditions is required to produce quality 'beans' and how relatively small the total output is.
The word 'beans' is deliberately in single-quote marks,
since the thing that gets roasted and ground to make the
drink isn't really a bean at all, it's a seed.
In particular, it's the seed of a fruit that grows on trees
that can easily reach twenty feet or more. Some wild
varieties grow to over 45 feet or 15m. Most of those
seeds come in a pair, though there is a variety that
produces only one (the peaberry). The berry resembles
a cranberry, with a sweet pulp covered by a membrane
called a silverskin.
In a band around the equator from approximately 25 degrees north or south, comes the overwhelming
majority of the world's coffee output. Temperatures of between 60F (15C) and 70F (21C) are best as is
rainfall of six inches per month or more.
Loamy, good-draining soil is needed and also helpful is high humidity - plenty of mist and cloud at the high
elevations, over 3000 ft (915m) for the good stuff. At these elevations the oxygen content is lower, so the
trees take longer to mature.
The robusta, or coffea canephora, goes into making the majority of coffee because it can be grown at lower
altitudes and is more disease resistant. But it's the high-altitude coffea arabica that forms the base of a gourmet
Diffuse light and moderate winds are helpful, both of which are sometimes produced by deliberately growing
in the shelter and shade. By contrast, wine grapes like hot sun and lots of it.
Once planted, the tree takes about five years to mature to first crop and even then a single tree will only make
enough for about two pounds (1 kilogram) of coffee.
Those two pounds equal about 2,000 beans, (correct or not, it's the standard term), usually hand-picked by
manual laborers. Manual they may be, but ignorant they are not. Coffee bean harvesting is a skill developed
over time, where the picker learns to select good beans and discard the bad. Bean by individual bean. That's
only one reason coffee is high priced.
The trees have broad, dark green leaves and produce a flower that resembles Jasmine. Some - in Brazil and
Mexico, for example, - blossom over a six to eight week period. In countries that lie along the equator such as
Kenya and Colombia, though, a tree can have mature berries growing alongside still ripening ones. That's part
of what makes picking such a specialty.
Blossom to harvest may cover a period of up to nine months depending on the weather and other factors and
the cycle will be carried out for the life of the tree - about 20-25 years. With the best cultivation technology, a
good harvest will be between 6,600 lbs (3,000 kg) and 8,800 lbs (4,000 kg) per hectare. (One hectare is about
From these inaccessible regions, where conditions are harsh, the berries are brought down and processed to
make up the world's second largest commodity (by annual dollar volume).
So, the next time you savor that brew, give a thought to the long journey it traveled to reach your cup. It
might make that high price seem less steep.