Rainforest berries: Coffee

The first coffee was drunk over a thousand years ago by Arab traders. According to legend, it was discovered by an Ethiopian shepherd who saw his goats were unusually frisky after eating the caffeine-rich coffee berries.

Today, coffee is the second biggest commodity traded after petroleum. The beans are a major export for tropical countries in South American, Africa, and Southern Asia. Just in the UK, over 70 million cups are drunk everyday.

Growing under shade

E048---Coffee-production-(P.Turvil-image)Coffee plants grow naturally under the shade of tall trees, but the majority of commercial production grows in sunny conditions where the trees have been removed. This earns a higher yield of coffee berries, but lowers the forest biodiversity and uses more fertiliser compared with production under trees. ‘Sun’ production is also thought to reduce the quality of the final coffee bean.

Nine months brewing

Coffee berries take nine months to ripen. They are harvested by hand when they are 10mm (0.5’’) long and cherry-red. Ripe berries are produced all year round because of the even seasonal temperatures allow a succession of jasmine-scented flowers and immature green berries.

After harvesting, the berries are fermented in water to remove decomposing pulp and begin chemical reactions that help develop the flavour. After drying, these ‘green’ beans are roasted where the temperature and duration of heat determines the final coffee aroma and flavours, as required. Grounding and brewing follow.

Fun fact

E053 - Camellia sinensisTea (Camellia sinensis) is grown in similar climates to coffee. The top 3-5cm (1-2’’) of fresh leaves are harvested from waist-high bushes every week to ten days.

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At a glance

Distribution and Habitat

Coffea species are native to east Africa and southern Asia, growing in rainforests understory.

Size

The shrubby tree may grow up to 12m (40’) in the wild, but in production is kept nearer 3m (10’) for easy harvesting of coffee berries.

Use

One of the world’s most popular stimulant drinks and a vital crop for many Third World countries

Scientific name

Coffea arabica accounts for around three quarters of global production; C. robusta one quarter.

Fun fact

The laurel-like coffee plant leaves contain bitter-tasting chemicals that prevent herbivores from eating them.

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