Understanding Coffee: From Cherry to Cup

Coffee is one of the most beloved beverages in the world, with millions of people starting their day with a steaming hot cup of joe. But how much do we really know about the coffee plant itself, and the journey it takes from a cherry on a tree to the delicious drink we enjoy?

During our recent coffee trip to Mesoamerica, we had the opportunity to witness firsthand the incredible diversity of coffee varieties that exist. But before we dive into that, let's take a step back and explore the basics of the coffee plant.

The coffee plant, also known as Coffea, is a member of the Rubiaceae family, which includes over 13,000 species of plants. Within the Coffea genus, there are over 100 different species, but the two most commonly cultivated are Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta.

The coffee plant is an evergreen shrub that can grow up to 10 meters tall, although most cultivated coffee plants are pruned to around 2 meters for easier harvesting. The plant produces small white flowers that eventually give way to green coffee cherries. These cherries ripen over the course of several months, eventually turning a bright red or yellow color when they are ready to be harvested.

Inside each coffee cherry are two coffee beans, which are the seeds of the plant. These beans are surrounded by a thin layer of sweet pulp, which is often used to make cascara tea. The beans themselves are surrounded by a tough parchment layer, which must be removed before the beans can be roasted.

The process of harvesting and processing coffee cherries can vary widely depending on the region and the specific farm. In some areas, coffee cherries are hand-picked by workers who carefully select only the ripest cherries. In other areas, the cherries are stripped from the tree using machines. Once the cherries have been harvested, they must be processed quickly to prevent spoilage.

There are two primary methods of coffee processing: the washed process and the natural process. In the washed process, the pulp is removed from the cherries using machinery, and the beans are washed to remove any remaining pulp. This results in a clean, bright flavor profile that is often associated with specialty coffees.

In the natural process, the coffee cherries are simply laid out to dry in the sun, with the pulp still intact. As the cherries dry, the pulp ferments, giving the beans a fruitier, more complex flavor profile. This process is often used in regions where water is scarce, but can result in inconsistent flavor profiles if not done correctly.

There is also a third, less common method of coffee processing called the honey process. In this method, some of the pulp is left on the beans as they dry, resulting in a unique flavor profile that combines elements of both the washed and natural processes.

In conclusion, the coffee plant is a fascinating and complex organism that plays a vital role in the coffee industry. From the hundreds of varieties of coffee plants that exist, to the process of harvesting and processing the cherries, there is so much to learn about this incredible plant. Whether you're a coffee aficionado or simply a casual drinker, taking the time to understand the origins of your favorite beverage can help you appreciate it even more.

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The fourth edition of the Cafe Imports Coffee Family Tree is a massive collaborative effort that was intended not only to improve on the previous versions of the tree in terms of design, but also to provide more comprehensive and usable information about coffee varieties, genetics, and history, all on one beautiful poster.