History of the Coffee Tree
Legend goes that an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi discovered the coffee tree when his goats ate the tree’s red cherry fruit and were unable to sleep at night. While the specifics of this legend are often debated, the coffea arabica tree does originate from the region of present-day Ethiopia and South Sudan. From there it was transported to Yemen and India and then later to the island of Java in the 1700s. The coffea canephora (or more commonly referred to as ‘Robusta’) was first described about 100 years after the arabica with its origins in western and central sub-Saharan Africa. Both arabica and robusta have been popularized and farmed around the world between the Tropics of Capricorn and the Tropics of Cancer and especially in Central America.
Coffee trees typically grow to the height of 3 to 3.5 metres tall (9.5 to 11.5 feet) but can vary in size, shape, and colour while producing a bright red or yellow, cherry-like fruit after flowering. The key similarities between the arabica and robusta, are their commerciality and high caffeine content. Arabica is traditionally seen as a specialty-grade coffee while robusta is utilized for its hardy, robust qualities and high bean yield.
From the 1700s to today, coffee has continued to be developed, bred and cross-bred into nearly 120 different species in order to cultivate certain flavours in the beans, breed coffee trees that are less susceptible to pests and disease and are more drought-tolerant and even for breeding trees that can self-pollinate. Every coffee variant has its own remarkable quality, flavour and profile that is distinct not only to the tree but to the region and even farm that it was grown. Understanding the unique qualities that come with each particular coffee tree, helps to cultivate a deeper level of appreciation with each cup of coffee.
Coffee tree flower
Coffee trees produce a fragrant, white flower up to three times a year. After each bloom, the trees produce their cherries from which the coffee beans are harvested and processed for consumption. Each species of coffee tree has a distinct flower ranging in size and shape.
Coffea Arabica originated in the forests of Ethiopia and South Sudan before famously being transported around the world.
Coffea Eugenioides has a lower caffeine content than Arabica. They are indiginous to East African highlands including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and western Tanzania.
Coffea Canephora is commonly known as ‘Robusta’ because of its robust qualities. It has its origins in western and central sub-Saharan Africa and was described nearly 100 years after the arabica. The Robusta is a popular commercial crop for its higher bean yield and caffeine content.
Typica is an arabica plant transported from Ethiopia to Yemen to Java in the 1700s. It is identifiable as a tall cultivar of arabica with large fruit and seeds. Typica Cultivar Examples: Java was brought to neighboring islands Timor and then East African Cameroon where it was later “released for cultivation in 1980” and has since been introduced in Central America. Maragogype was first recognised in Brazil in 1870. Kent was likely from coffee bred on the Kent Estate in India and since the 1930s has been widely planted in India.
Bourbon is an arabica plant brought from Yemen by the French to an island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, then called Île Bourbon but now known as Réunion. They have very strong stems but are “susceptible to all major diseases and pests”. Bourbon Cultivar Examples: Bourbon Pointu/Laurina’s dates back to 1947 from present-day Réunion. The “Laurina mutants were the first varieties to be patented by the roasting industry.” SL28 Ethiopian selection was brought from Tanzania to Kenya but is now most widely grown in Zimbabwe. SL34 is an Ethiopian selection and is one of the main varieties grown in Kenya. Villa Sarchi was found in Costa Rica and then released in 1957.
Pacas was found in El Salvador in 1949. Pacamara was developed in El Salvador as a cross between Maragogype and Pacas and was released in 1958. (Try HALO Pacamara) Caturra was found in Brazil in 1937 and yields both yellow and red cherries. Mocha (or Mokka) is “likely named for the port of Mocha in Yemen” as it was grown in Yemen and later brought to Réunion. Batian was bred by the Kenyan Coffee Institute and released in 2010.
Hybrids are offspring of different species, variants, cultivars or lines that are formed by cross-pollinating plants of different types. Typicas that occurred naturally in on the island of Timor in Southeast Asia include Catimor, Colombia, Icatú, IHCAFE 90, Ruiru 11, Anacafe 14, Sarchimor, Castillo, and Oro Azteca. Coffees with Other Hybrid Lineage include Jember/S795, S288, S26, Kalimas, Menado, and Kawisari. This particular image is of an Arabica Hybrid F1 called Starmaya
Ethiopian and Sudanese Coffees
Ethiopian and Sudanese Coffees like the Gesha are a wild Ethiopian coffee brought to Costa Rica and are now widely cultivated in Central America. Ethiopian and Sudanese Coffee Examples: Harrar Yirgacheffe Djimma Lekempti Sidamo (Try HALO Ethiopian Sidamo) Agaro Mugi Wellega Melka Longberry Harrar Haru Gera Mettu Awada Wenago Mechara Alghe Cioccie S6 Dalle Abyssinia Gawe Melko-CH2 Ababuna Tegu Rambung Tafarikela Dega Ennarea Dilla Ghimbi USDA 762 Barbuk Sudan Rume Sudan
Coffee Plants of the World. Specialty Coffee Association. (n.d.). https://sca.coffee/research/coffee-plants-of-the-world.
Egger, S., Ashby Orr, R. (2014). The Home Barista: How to Bring Out the Best in Every Coffee Bean. Affirm Press.
(Image 1) Recienmolido.com. (2014, August 8). Una pequeña muestra de las flores de la enorme cantidad de variedades de #café que existen. pic.twitter.com/qOufWJOcYN. Twitter. https://twitter.com/recienmolido/status/497658742016856064.
(Image 2) Tatters. (2011, September 18). Coffea arabica tree. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/tgerus/6158562220.
(Image 3) Coffee Plants of the World. Specialty Coffee Association. (n.d.). https://sca.coffee/research/coffee-plants-of-the-world.
(Image 4) Coffea canephora. Wikiwand. (n.d.). https://www.wikiwand.com/es/Coffea_canephora.
(Image 5) Zapata, R. Typica cherries growing at Finca Oro Vivo in Veracruz, Mexico. https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/04/the-typica-coffee-variety-what-is-it-why-is-it-so-important/
(Image 6) Yellow Bourbon Coffee Tree. Daleys Fruit Tree Nursery. (n.d.). https://www.daleysfruit.com.au/forum/yellow-bourbon-coffee-tree/.
(Image 7) Desk3. (2019, December 13). Arabica: Starmaya, a hybrid variety available in seed form for the first time. Comunicaffe International. https://www.comunicaffe.com/arabica-coffee-starmaya-a-hybrid-variety-available-in-seed-form-for-th e-first-time/.
(Image 8) Ethiopian Guji. Coffee and Tea Lovers. (n.d.). https://www.coffeeandtealovers.co.nz/product/5037/ethiopian-guji/