When you’re purchasing coffee, you may find yourself wondering where the beans come from. Coffee is a staple in our diets, but many Americans and Europeans have never even seen a coffee plant in person. Some coffee companies advertise themselves by the region where their coffee grows–but does that even affect the taste?
Coffee beans come from the coffee plant, which grows in “the Bean Belt” at a latitude between 25 degrees North and 25 degrees South. The Bean Belt covers over 50 countries in Latin America, Central Africa, and Southeast Asia.
The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia. As more and more people learned about the energizing effects of coffee, the plant spread across the Arabian Peninsula. Today, coffee is grown in Asia, Africa, and the Americas to produce millions of tons of delicious coffee every year.
What Do Coffee Beans Grow On?
Coffee beans are not “beans” at all. They have more in common with cherry pits than with beans or legumes.
Coffee beans grow on the Coffea plant, a tree that produces small, red berries. These berries resemble cranberries when ripe and contain the seeds that we know as coffee beans.
It takes almost a full year for coffee berries to ripen fully. Not all berries on the same tree will ripen at once, which means farmers can harvest from the same tree multiple times in a year.
When these bunches of green berries turn bright red, sometimes called “cherries,” farmers know it is time to harvest.
Coffee cherries consist of a thin layer of skin, sticky pulp, and two seeds that lie side-by-side. The seeds are covered by a papery membrane, sometimes called “the parchment,” Between them is another membrane known as “the silver skin.”
The coffee seeds go on to be dried, hulled, sorted, roasted, and ground. Just one tree can produce about 2 pounds of coffee a year, according to the USA National Coffee Association (NCAUSA).
Where Is the Coffee Plant From?
The coffee tree is native to the highlands of Ethiopia. Still, it can grow and thrive in most countries within the Bean Belt and is now found throughout that region.
According to an Ethiopian legend, sometime around 850 AD, a herder named Kaldi noticed his goats became restless and would not go to sleep after eating the red berries of the coffee tree.
Curious, Kaldi tried the berries for himself. He found himself full of energy, and he shared his discovery with his local monastery. Ethiopian monks started to use coffee to stay awake for long prayer sessions.
As word of this fantastic plant spread, farmers started growing coffee outside of Ethiopia. By the 1500s, coffee became extremely popular in the Arabian Peninsula. People built coffee houses to share ideas over a drink.
Over the following centuries, demand for coffee soared, and Europeans saw an opportunity to make a profit. So they built plantations in Indonesia, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
Brazil is now the largest producer of coffee beans globally, even though the plant is not native to the continent.
What Are the Different Types of Coffee Beans?
There are four types of coffee beans: Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, and Excelsa. Together, Arabica and Robusta account for almost all of the coffee production worldwide.
The difference between these types of coffee is less about their location and more to do with the type of tree they grow on. Arabica and Robusta are grown all over the Bean Belt. Still, Arabica coffee is highly valued, no matter where it is grown.
The Coffea arabica tree is native to Ethiopia. It is thought to be the original coffee plant that Kaldi and his goats discovered.
Farmers brought the plant to the Arabian Peninsula, where Coffea arabica earned its name and was cultivated for centuries. Now, Arabica coffee beans are grown all over the Bean Belt, not just in Africa and the Middle East.
Arabica coffee plants require specific environments and care to thrive. They are prone to disease and sensitive to frost.
The trees prefer a higher altitude and are typically planted between 2,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. The elevation means that the farmland can be steep and challenging to navigate.
Farmers often harvest Arabica coffee by hand rather than a machine. Handpicking the coffee cherries allows farmers to only select the fully ripe berries. This process is labor-intensive, but it ensures that the resulting coffee will be of higher quality.
Despite all the difficulties of harvesting Arabica coffee, it remains the most popular type of coffee globally. According to the NCAUSA, Arabica coffee accounts for about 70% of coffee sold worldwide. Arabica coffee is more aromatic and mild than other coffees, and it has less caffeine.
There are many, many subtypes of Arabica coffee grown all over the Bean Belt. These include Kona, Bourbon, and Java. These subtypes differ by soil conditions, altitudes, yield rate, resistance to diseases, and other variables.
If you’ve ever had a coffee from Starbucks, then you’ve had Arabica coffee. Starbucks only uses Arabica coffee in its blends. Starbucks suggests that the higher altitudes and colder temperatures lead to denser Arabica beans than their Robusta cousins, with a more complex flavor.
Arabica beans have less caffeine and more sugar and fats than other types of coffee beans. Some describe the taste of Arabica coffee as fruity or like honey, chocolate, flowers, or caramel. The complexity of Arabica coffee’s flavor makes it more popular and expensive than Robusta coffee.
Most Starbucks coffee beans come from Brazil or other Latin American countries. However, they also sell coffee grown in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Robusta coffee trees are far less demanding than Arabica. The Robusta tree does not need to be planted at a high altitude, can survive in less nutrient-rich soil, and is less sensitive to heat. Robusta trees are also more resistant to diseases and parasites, leading to its name–“robust” coffee.
Unfortunately, Robusta coffee is far less tasty than Arabica. These coffee beans are packed with caffeine, and they make an overwhelmingly robust and bitter coffee. But this extra caffeine makes the berries deadly to pests, so farmers can get a higher yield from their crop.
Robusta coffee is typically used in instant coffee, espresso, and blends because of its poor taste. It lacks the nuance of Arabica coffee and is more useful for a caffeine hit than for a pleasant drinking experience.
Some people drink plain Robusta coffee, though, and many coffee drinkers don’t mind a blend of Arabica cut with Robusta. Also, because Robusta is not as delicate as Arabica, it works well for iced and sweetened coffee drinks.
Robusta is the coffee of choice for farmers in Africa and Asia. This is mainly because of a fungal disease called coffee rust, which ruins coffee crops.
For over a hundred years, coffee rust has plagued coffee farmers worldwide. This disease, named for the brown spots it creates on coffee leaves, forces the tree to lose its leaves.
Without leaves for photosynthesis (the process by which plants turn sunlight into energy), the tree cannot produce berries. In addition, a severe infection can kill the tree.
Coffee rust devastated entire farms of Arabica coffee trees in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and other Southeast Asian countries in the late 1800s. However, robusta coffee trees are far less susceptible to coffee rust, which led farmers to plant hardier trees in favor of tastier coffee.
Coffee rust is less common in Latin America, where most Arabica grows. Farmers and scientists hope to someday combine the robust nature of Robusta coffee with the flavor of Arabica. A lab in Colombia has already made progress in breeding a flavorful, hardy coffee plant. However, the taste is not yet equal to plain Arabica.
Liberica coffee gets its name from its country of origin, Liberia. It is now most popular in the Philippines.
The Coffea liberica tree, like Robusta, is resistant to disease. So when coffee rust decimated Southeast Asia’s Arabica coffee crop, farmers in the Philippines turned to Liberica coffee as a solution.
Some describe Liberica coffee’s taste as woody and smoky. As a result, it tends to polarize drinkers who either love or hate the unique taste. Some people in the Philippines call Liberica coffee “barako,” which means “manly,” due to its bold and complex flavor.
Even the smell of Liberica is controversial. Some describe the odor of roasting Liberica beans like the smell of durian fruit, a pungent fruit reminiscent of wet socks. Though Liberica coffee does not taste like durian, the smell can put off less adventurous coffee drinkers.
As Arabica and Robusta coffee dominate the market, Liberica becomes harder to find. However, if you want to try this rare, unique coffee, you’ll have better luck ordering it than trying to find it at the store.
Amazon sells Philippine Liberica Ground Coffee in 8 oz. bags if you want to sample the smoky, fruity drink.
Excelsa coffee is not actually a distinct species of coffee. It used to be considered its own species, but scientists have since reclassified it as a variety of Liberica coffee.
It is primarily grown and sold in Southeast Asia. It is brewed as a standalone drink and blended with other kinds of coffee.
The Excelsa trees may be very similar to Liberica trees, but Excelsa coffee is distinct in taste and aroma. Excelsa coffee tastes tart, dark, and fruity.
Excelsa trees grow very tall and require frequent pruning and care, making harvesting the coffee berries labor-intensive. Between the difficult harvesting process and the lack of public awareness, Excelsa coffee has not found a significant global market.
If you’d like to try this hard-to-find coffee, Amazon sells Excelsa Whole Bean Coffee.
Does It Matter Where Coffee Beans Are Grown?
Chances are, the coffee you drink is Arabica coffee or a blend of Arabica and Robusta. Arabica coffee is grown in dozens of countries within the Bean Belt. These different locations can affect the taste of your coffee.
It matters where your coffee beans are grown because the nutrients in the soil, the weather, the altitude, and the farming practices used to harvest the beans can all change the taste of your coffee.
These factors are most notable in single-origin coffees, coffee made from beans from only one location rather than a blend. Because Arabica coffee has such a delicate flavor and is grown in so many different countries, there is a vast array of Arabica varieties.
One element of a coffee’s flavor is called “terroir,” or “the taste of the place.” Though terroir used to only refer to flavor notes in wines, it now applies to coffee.
Terroir comes from the chemistry of the soil, weather patterns, and altitude of the farmland, among other factors.
In general, the higher the altitude and colder the weather, the sweeter and more acidic the coffee beans. Conversely, coffee grown in warmer areas tends to be milder.
Harvest methods–and the socioeconomic reasons behind them–also have an impact on coffee’s taste. For example, handpicking coffee berries will yield higher quality coffee than machine harvesting, but it is more expensive and time-consuming.
Arabica Coffee Varieties by Location
If you’d like to refine your coffee palate and experience the difference that location can make in a batch of coffee, here are some Arabica varieties from all over the world. Try them yourself and see if you notice differences between them.
(Please note that this is not a complete list of Arabica varieties. There are dozens of kinds of Arabica coffee from all over the world!)
Kona from Hawaii
The only place in the United States suitable for growing coffee en masse is Hawaii. The most famous Hawaiian coffee is Kona.
Kona coffee comes from the Kona region of the Big Island in Hawaii. The trees grow on mountainsides in young volcanic soil rich in nutrients.
In addition, frequent cloud cover protects the trees from too much sun, and it often rains in the summer months. These factors make Kona coffee rich with a medium body and highly sought-after.
If you want to try Kona coffee, look closely at the label. Many brands use a blend of Kona and other kinds of coffee with as little as 10% Kona coffee in the mix. For an authentic Kona coffee experience, only purchase coffee labeled as 100% Kona.
Blue Mountain from Jamaica
Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is a luxurious, expensive, and hard-to-find coffee.
As the name suggests, these coffee trees grow on the Blue Mountain Ridge in Jamaica. The mountainous terrain is more challenging to cultivate and harvest than flat land, making the crops of Blue Mountain smaller and more expensive.
This Arabica coffee is sweet with very little bitterness to it. A single bag of beans can cost anywhere from $40 to $100, so be prepared to splurge if you want to try Jamaica Blue Mountain.
Yirgacheffe from Ethiopia
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, so it is not surprising that the country still produces some of the world’s best quality coffee beans. Yirgacheffe coffee comes from the region of the same name in Ethiopia, with a high elevation and a tropical climate.
African coffees are often described as fruity or floral, compared to the milder Latin American coffees and Asian earth coffees. Yirgacheffe is no different. Its flavor has been compared to berries, citrus, and wine. Medium-roasted Yirgacheffe beans are sweet and acidic.
Kenya AA coffee grows on plateaus as high as 6800 feet above sea level, higher than the average Arabica farm. The rich soil around an extinct volcano is the perfect place to grow coffee.
Unlike other coffees on this list, Kenya AA is not named for a region. Instead, these beans are called “AA” because of their grade and size. AA beans are the largest beans in a batch of coffee. The larger the bean, the more aromatic oils it will contain.
This coffee is floral, with notes of citrus, berries, and wine.
Sumatra Mandheling from Indonesia
There are several subtypes of coffee from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, one of which is Mandheling. Named for a people group on Sumatra, Mandheling coffee is prized for its low acidity.
Mandheling coffee is described as syrupy, earthy, herbal, and deep. The flavor is more intense than coffee from other continents. Coffee experts attribute Mandheling’s flavor palette to the processing methods used rather than to the geographic attributes of the land.
Sumatran coffee is the only Asian coffee that Starbucks uses. Most of their other blends come from Latin America.
Though coffee originated in East Africa, worldwide demand has led to coffee tree groves in countries across three continents.
Most of the coffee you drink is Arabica coffee unless you prefer instant coffee and blends. Arabica comes in many varieties, depending on region, altitude, bean size, processing methods, and more. This variety means that there is a coffee bean for everyone, no matter their tastes.
Every cup of coffee reflects the history of its land, the pickers, and the centuries-old processing methods. When you purchase single-origin or gourmet coffee, you experience that history in every sip.