coffee plant with leaves and berries

Coffee 101: What Does a Coffee Plant Look Like?

The question of “where did coffee originate” is one of legends and folklore. The most common story is that of the ancient coffee forests on the Ethiopian plateau, where a goat herder named Kaldi first ate berries from a peculiar looking tree. The berries gave him a jittery, wide-awake feeling that he had never experienced before.

From there, the power of coffee spread like wildfire. Today, coffee beans are one of the world’s most important agricultural commodities, with millions of coffee plants cultivated in 70+ countries around the globe!

Here, we explore where coffee comes from, what it looks like, and some of the biological factors that create the coffee beans we all know and love.

Where Does Coffee Come From?

Coffee comes from a plant! Coffee plants are woody evergreens that can grow up to 10 meters tall when growing in the wild. Most of the world’s coffee grows within the “Bean Belt”, the area around the equator between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. This region includes parts of Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

person holding coffee cherries

Coffee beans develop inside a “cherry” that grows from these plants. In fact, the term “coffee bean” is misleading; the beans we roast to make coffee are actually seeds. You’ll usually find two of these seeds inside each cherry-like fruit of the coffee plant.

Coffee producers pick these cherries at just the right level of ripeness needed for them to express the most delicious flavor possible. Each type of coffee has its own specific maturity and harvesting process, depending on how long it takes for it to hit peak taste quality. After the coffee cherries are harvested, the beans are extracted from the fruit and, eventually, roasted.

It is at this point that the coffee finally becomes the dark brown bean we all recognize.

What Does a Coffee Plant Look Like?

There are a few important coffee plant characteristics to take note of: Coffee plants have branches that are covered in dark green, waxy leaves that grow in pairs. These leaves are fundamentally important for the plant since that is where photosynthesis, the conversion of sunlight to chemical energy, happens. The energy produced from photosynthesis allows the plant to grow the delicious cherries that contain our coffee beans.

coffee plant with leaves and berries

These branches are also where the coffee cherries grow. After about 3-5 years of growth, the plant will start flowering. Small, fragrant white blossoms (similar to a jasmine flower) will grow where the leaves and branches meet. These flowers house the plant’s sex cells and are what help the plants reproduce over time. About 6 weeks after the flowers are pollinated, the coffee cherry will develop where the flowers were located. These cherries will eventually turn red, orange, yellow, or pink, depending on the coffee varietal.

In general coffee plants live between 30-40 years, though some can live over 80! These plants, technically considered a shrub, are pruned about once a year to keep them from growing too tall; most farmers and harvesters prefer them to stay around 5-7 feet so they’re easier to maintain and harvest year over year. This height also allows them to avoid too much direct sunlight, which can negatively impact the plant’s growth.

Here are a few other fun facts:

  • The growth of the plant and the flavor of its coffee beans are affected by many factors, including climate, elevation, soil type, and seed varietal.
  • A good harvester can pick approximately 100-200 pounds of coffee cherries every day, which equals 20-40 pounds of coffee beans.
  • Coffee cherries do not ripen all at the same time; Several harvests of the same plant may be required until all of the cherries have been picked at peak ripeness.
  • The average time from flowering to harvesting is approximately nine months.
  • Bees love coffee as well! Honey bees feed on the nectar of the flowers and ingest the same caffeine we do.

TYPES OF COFFEE PLANTS

There are two main species of coffee species that we consume: Arabica and Robusta. Within the Arabica coffee family there are 100 different varietals, whereas the Robusta coffee family has just a couple. The species and varietal of the coffee plant affects how it tastes, how much caffeine it has, and where it grows:

Arabica: The majority of coffee farmed and consumed throughout the world comes from the Arabica family because it produces a better-tasting coffee. The first-ever Arabica coffee bean plant was discovered in Ethiopia, which is where half of the world’s coffee production comes from.  Arabica beans are known for high-quality flavors and aromas, with more complexity and sweetness detectable in the cup. 100% of The Roasterie’s coffees come from the Arabica family!

Robusta: These are smaller beans that have fewer sugar compounds, causing Robusta coffees to take on more earthy, bitter flavors and have more caffeine content. Robusta is also much easier to cultivate than Arabica, which is why they are a cheaper coffee bean. The low price point is why Robusta’s use is usually relegated to commercial-grade products, like instant coffee.

Anatomy of a Coffee Bean

Inside every coffee cherry, you will find two seeds. These seeds are protected by several protective layers that must be carefully removed before they can be roasted.

coffee plant graphic
Photo courtesy of Eric Lewis
  • Exocarp: Outer skin or peel of the fruit. The exocarp starts as a green color that slowly changes color as the fruit matures.
  • Mesocarp: Thin layer of pulp or flesh directly underneath the exocarp.
  • Endocarp: A parchment-like envelope that covers the bean. During the maturation process, this layer hardens to limit the final size of the bean.
  • Spermoderm: Another layer of a thin membrane or seed skin that envelops the bean.
  • Endosperm: The true seed (bean) itself. Before it is roasted, it is a beautiful green color.

It’s only after all of these layers are carefully removed and the green seed is extracted from the coffee cherry that we can finally begin the roasting process.

Thanks to this tree, we can enjoy our daily cup of joe—but there’s certainly more to it than meets the eye!