What is Arabica Coffee and Why Should I Drink it?
Millions of cups of coffee are consumed each day in the United States. But how many coffee-lovers know where their favorite brew comes from? And by where we don’t mean what part of the world – we’re talking about the real basics here, as in the plant from which coffee comes. The coffee plant is a perennial evergreen shrub or small tree that will grow to heights of 9-12 feet in the wild. And although everyone calls the part that gets roasted the coffee bean, those wonderful nuggets that give us our daily jolt of java aren’t beans at all! Read on, dear coffee-lovers, to find out everything else you never knew about your favorite beverage, including what is meant by Arabica coffee.
The Many Kinds of Coffee Plants
Right now there are 124 known distinct species of coffee plants that all belong to the genus Coffea. This is where we need to give a little lesson on scientific names. The scientific name for a plant or animal has two parts: The first part is always the genus or generic name, in this case Coffea and is always capitalized, and the second part is the more specific species name, and that part is written lowercase. So, for example, Coffea arabica is just one the 124 species of coffee plants in the world. As you take your next sip of coffee, you might be wondering what species of coffee plant you’re enjoying. Without even looking, we can take a guess and we’ll probably be right. More than likely you’re drinking C. arabica. How do we know? Because, as it turns out, 60-80% of all coffee produced in the world comes from C. arabica. And the rest mostly comes from just one other species, Coffea canephora, although it’s more commonly referred to as robusta coffee or Coffea robusta.
If there are 124 different species of coffee plants in the world, why is it that we only drink two of them? The answer has everything to do with the business of farming. Being a coffee plant is one thing but being a commercially viable coffee plant is another thing entirely. Those 122 other varieties of coffee plants simply don’t make the cut because they don’t like being cultivated. The interesting thing is that more species of coffee plants are being discovered all the time. In fact, over the past ten years nine new species were added to the list. There are people who actively seek out new species of coffee plants because they’re on a quest to find one that produces naturally decaffeinated coffee. In case you didn’t know, coffee comes naturally caffeinated. It’s actually a defense mechanism of the plant. High doses of caffeine can kill many insects, so the ones that would otherwise chow down on a coffee plants avoid it like the plague. If you don’t want caffeine in your coffee, it has to be intentionally put through one of several decaffeination processes, which you can read about in our recent article, Taming the Buzz: Making Decaffeinated Coffee.
About Those Beans that Aren’t Really Beans
Sure, they do look like beans, but they aren’t true beans. The only plants that are supposed to be called beans are those from the plant genus Phaseolus (common beans, French beans, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, green beans), but pretty much anything that looks like a bean gets called a bean even if it’s not a true bean. Examples of bean imposters include coffee beans, vanilla beans, castor beans, cocoa beans, Old World soybeans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), peas and other legumes. So what is a coffee bean if it’s not a bean? It’s a seed! And seeds are found inside fruits. Usually when you think of fruits, you want to eat the fruit and get rid of the seeds, right? Coffee is the exact opposite. We want to get rid of the fruit in order to get to the seeds.
The fruit that the coffee tree produces starts out as a dark green coffee “berry” that eventually turns yellow ripe and eventually ripens into a deep red or purple “cherry” indicating it’s ready for harvesting. Most of the time, a coffee cherry contains two seeds, although about 5-10% of the time there is only one seed. In that rare occasion you get what is called a peaberry – a rounded football shaped seed. Either way, it is these seeds that are the coffee beans.
Back to Arabica Coffee
Most coffee plants grow best in the tropics at higher altitudes, but they cannot tolerate freezing temperatures. Coffea arabica is the coffee plant that accounts for the vast majority of coffee produced in world. In the wild, C. arabica can become a true tree growing as high as 30-40 feet! The plant appears to have its origins in the mountainous regions of Yemen as well as the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia. The intentional cultivation of C. arabica in Yemen is well-documented as of the 15th century. When growing C. arabica commercially, it takes a good seven years to become mature enough to produce and harvest, and the plants tend be kept pruned down to a reasonable height to facilitate harvesting. Most C. arabica is grown at an altitude of 4,200-5,000 feet and does best at temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s worth mentioning here that we refer to Coffea arabica as Arabica Coffee, which is not to be confused with “Arabic Coffee,” which instead refers to a particular way of brewing coffee common in Arab countries that adds a spice such as cardamom to the roasting process.
Arabica versus Robusta
Although the lion’s share of coffee cultivated commercially is Arabica coffee, there is also Robusta coffee. Interestingly, Robusta is easier to grow (less vulnerable to insect pests) and has greater yields than Arabica, which means it’s cheaper to produce. But Robusta also tastes quite different from Arabica. It has an unpleasant, bitter, and overall much less sweet flavor. Robusta is typically found in mass-produced commercial canned coffees and instant coffee. Robusta also has nearly double the caffeine of Arabica, which is what helps it fend off insect damage. In the commodity markets, Robusta green beans sell for about half the price of Arabica green beans.
At Empire Coffee, we are big fans of Arabica coffee. It’s simply a smoother, sweeter, crisper and overall better-tasting cup of coffee. In fact all the coffees on our site are 100% Arabica coffees. To purchase any of our Arabica coffees please visit our online shop or contact us for wholesale orders.