What is Coffee

Everyone recognizes a roasted coffee bean, but you might not recognize an actual coffee plant.

white flower on coffee tree

Coffee trees are pruned short to conserve their energy and aid in harvesting, but can grow to more than 30 feet (9 meters) high. Each tree is covered with green, waxy leaves growing opposite each other in pairs. Coffee cherries grow along the branches. Because it grows in a continuous cycle, it’s not unusual to see flowers, green fruit and ripe fruit simultaneously on a single tree.

It takes nearly a year for a cherry to mature after first flowering, and about 5 years of growth to reach full fruit production. While coffee plants can live up to 100 years, they are generally the most productive between the ages of 7 and 20. Proper care can maintain and even increase their output over the years, depending on the variety. The average coffee tree produces 10 pounds of coffee cherry per year, or 2 pounds of green beans.

All commercially grown coffee is from a region of the world called the Coffee Belt. The trees grow best in rich soil, with mild temperatures, frequent rain and shaded sun.

Anatomy of a Coffee Bean

The beans you brew are actually the processed and roasted seeds from a fruit, which is called a coffee cherry.

The coffee cherry's outer skin is called the exocarp. Beneath it is the mesocarp, a thin layer of pulp, followed by a slimy layer called the parenchyma. The beans themselves are covered in a paper-like envelope named the endocarp, more commonly referred to as the parchment.

Inside the parchment, side-by-side, lie two beans, each covered separately by yet another thin membrane. The biological name for this seed skin is the spermoderm, but it is generally referred to in the coffee trade as the silver skin.

anatomy of a coffee bean

In about 5% of the world's coffee, there is only one bean inside the cherry. This is called a peaberry (or a caracol, or "snail" in Spanish), and it is a natural mutation. Some people believe that peaberries are actually sweeter and more flavorful than standard beans, so they are sometimes manually sorted out for special sale.

Once harvested, the coffee bean has an amazing journey ahead: 10 Steps from Seed to Cup