Starting at the Very, Very Beginning: The Coffee Plants

Posted on Jan 2, 2012

Starting at the Very, Very Beginning: The Coffee Plants

Yes, we could start our history of coffee with the story of the goat who chewed the coffee beans in the first place – and we’ll get to that – but if you really want to know your coffee history, it will help to start even before that step.

So where do we start? Coffea is as good a place as any – as in the name of the genus of flowering plants that contains a number of coffee-producing shrubs. There are essentially two species famous for producing coffee: Coffea canephora (also known as “Robusta”) and Coffea Arabica (or simply “Arabica”). It is Arabica that is often considered the better coffee producer of the two species – and this species is native to a number of northeastern African regions such as southeastern Sudan, Ethiopia, and perhaps northern Kenya as well. Robusta, however, often has a much higher caffeine content than Arabica – hence the “Robust” in “Robusta.

Technically, all of these coffee plants are members of the Rubiaceae family. As shrubs and small trees, these coffee plants typically perform best in equatorial regions, which is why to this day most coffee production is handled in areas such as South America, Africa, and southeast Asia.

As for the coffee beans themselves, they are not technically beans but rather the seeds of the berries that grow on these coffee plants. Coffee berries will typically hold two seeds, though some (called the “peaberries”) only carry one seed with them. It’s possible that the infamous goat in the story you’ll hear a little later was chewing on whole coffee berries which happened to contain the coffee seeds, or coffee beans.