Considering that coffee beans are grown in over 70 countries across the globe, it is amazing how the right conditions for growing quality beans exist in such a narrow range. It is also amazing how small the total output of actual weight is when compared to other agricultural commodities.
Actually, the word coffee bean is a bit of a misnomer. The part of the plant that is roasted and turned into the drink we admire is actually a seed. The coffee tree can grow as tall as twenty feet or higher and produces a fruit. Inside the fruit is the pit or seed. Maybe it should have been termed a coffee seed instead?
The optimal coffee growing regions of the world lie within twenty-five degrees latitude north and south of the equator. Within these regions the optimal temperatures range from 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the optimal rainfall is six inches a month (or more).
Other coffee growing requirements include a well drained, loamy soil and the high humidity produced by the abundant rainfall and mists especially prevalent above the 3500 feet elevation levels. Because lower light levels are also preferred, coffee is often grown in shade provided by shelter or natural environmental features.
The majority of coffee grown is the coffea canephora, or robusta, variety. Robusta can be grown easier at lower elevations and possesses more disease resistance than other types. However, really good gourmet coffees are grown at high altitudes and includes varieties of the coffea aribica species.
Coffee trees spend their first five years or so reaching maturity. The first crop, which only yields about two pounds of coffee, usually does not occur until that time. Each pound equals about 1,000 beans which must be hand picked and sorted. This is the main reason coffee is typically high priced.
You may be surprised to learn that coffee trees blossom over different periods based on location. Further from the equator in areas of Mexico, for example, the trees will be in bloom for up to eight weeks. Conversely, in areas nearer the equator, the trees will be in blossom over a much longer period which produces a longer harvest period. Picking the mature berries, or fruit, requires skilled workers looking at each berry daily.
From first blossom to complete harvest the total time frame is up to nine months depending on meteorological factors. The coffee trees continue this cycle every year during their lifespan of about twenty to twenty-five years.
Some of the regions where coffee is grown are very inaccessible. The conditions are harsh to say the least. Nonetheless, each year thousands of pounds of coffee are brought down, processed, and delivered to our homes or markets.
The next time you reach for a cup of coffee, consider the long journey it has taken to reach you. Growing coffee is an amazing process that makes the price of each cup seem not so expensive after all!