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plant profile Coffea arabica)


berries and flower

Coffea arabica L.



The coffee shrub is native to Ethiopia. It is a truly tropical plant, requiring hot temperatures and evenly moist soil to propagate. There are various true species and many more hybrid varieties with differing habits. There are ongoing disputes among taxonomists concerning the exact classification in part due to the great variation that occurs in this species. The plant can grow as a shrub or as a tree up to 10m tall and leaves tend to be oval shaped with pointed terminal end and a wavy appearance. The colours range from yellowish, dark green, bronze to purple tinged. Fruits also vary and berries may be purple, yellow or red, while the 'bean' may be flattened on one side or oval. The most common and economically significant species are Coffea arabica, Coffea canephora var. robusta. In cultivation the tree varieties are cropped for easier harvest.


coffee plantationEven though coffee is grown in just about all tropical countries, its requirements are quite specific, yet variable between different species. Coffea arabica prefers a highland climate and shade or semi-shade while Coffea robusta prefers to grow in the plains and can take full sun. Arabica ideally needs temperatures between 15° and 24° while Robusta varieties need average temperatures between 24° and 30°. Clinging tightly to the branches, clusters of small, white star-shaped flowers produce dense clusters of berries 9 - 11 months after flowering, depending on variety.

Coffea Arabica is the most widespread commercial species, providing about 80% of the world demand. Other commercially grown species include Coffea liberica and Coffea dewevrei (Excelsa coffee), but they are cultivated to a much lesser extent.

Coffee in its natural habitat is an understory species. In plantations the natural habitat is mimicked by interspersing taller plants to provide shade (for Arabica plantations). Coffee plantations are an important bird habitat as they provide an abundance of food. Organic coffee plantations make more bird friendly habitats, while the presence of the birds also naturally keeps insects in check.


coffee berriesNobody quite knows how far back the history of coffee use reaches back in time. What is known is that it was first discovered in the Horn of Africa. One of the most common stories tells of a young shepherd or goatherd who noticed that his flock was behaving strangely, becoming agitated, skipping and hopping about with excitement after eating the fruit. Curious he decided to investigate and found that munching the berries kept him awake. He shared his discovery with a passing holy man who further investigated the matter and came to the same conclusion. This is thought to have taken place in the 6th century. A similar story is told about the discovery of Qat (Catha edulis), another stimulant plant that was discovered in the same region and whose use dates even further back than is documented for coffee.

Originally, Coffee also played a significant magical and religious role in the pre-Islamic practices of Ethiopia. It was used in all kinds of blessings as well as exorcism rituals and healing ceremonies. Coffee beans had a strong sexual-spiritual connotation due not only to the beans energizing qualities, but also as a symbolic representation of the female genitalia as the gateway of life.

Long before the seed of the coffee berry was ever roasted and ground to make a 'cuppa joe' the berries were eaten either fresh or mixed with fat as a kind of energy bar. Infusions were made from either dried or toasted leaves. It is thought that coffee beans first reached what is now Jemen with slaves which the Arabs took from the Horn of Africa. Coffee was first cultivated in Jemen and some scholars believe that the Robusta bean transformed into the Arabica variety by adaptation to this new environment. From there it spread throughout the Arab world to northern Africa, Egypt and Turkey. Notably wandering dervishes and Sufis were instrumental in spreading the use of coffee. They embraced the beverage as a means to stay alert during long hours of prayer during religious ceremonies.

coffeehouseThe Arab trade network was far flung and exerted a huge influence at the time, especially in Asia Minor, and wherever the Arabs went, coffee went as well. In 1453 coffee was introduced to Constantinople and in 1475 the first coffee house opened there. From here it reaches the port of Venice and is introduced to Italy. But religious bigots tried to get coffee outlawed and urged Pope Constantine to ban the brew. He insisted on trying a cup first and found it so delightful that he vowed to defy the devil by blessing the bean instead, so that Christians may enjoy it too. In 1645 the first coffee house opened in Italy. In 1511 the corrupt governor of Mecca Khair Beg tried to close down the coffee houses, perceiving them as a threat to his rule. But the Sultan disagreed. He considered coffee sacred and had the governor killed. By 1652 the first coffeehouse opened in London. They proved so popular that their number quickly swelled. The first coffee house in Germany was established in Hamburg in 1679, by a British merchant.

Of course, just like modern monopolists, the Arabs were highly protective about their exclusive right to grow coffee and it was forbidden under penalty of death to take viable seeds or plants beyond the border. Amazingly, they managed to maintain the monopoly until the 1600s by scalding the beans that were destined for export thus rendering them infertile. However, monopolies never last. In this case it was broken by an act of biopiracy, committed by a young Indian Sufi pilgrim called Baba Budan, who on a visit to Mecca and managed to hide some fertile seeds and smuggle them back to India. From India they spread to Indonesia and by the end of the 17th century there were coffee plantations in India and Indonesia and now the Dutch were in control of supplying the European market.

Gabriel de Clieu (98K)In 1713 the Dutch made a grave mistake. They gifted the French King Louis XIV with a coffee tree for his Botanical Garden, which inadvertentdly was to become the grandfather of French Coffee plantations in the Caribbean colonies. Apparently, a French naval officer by the name of Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu asked permission to take clippings of the tree back to Martinique. He was refused - but not one to take no for an answer he climbed over the wall of the botanical garden at night and stole some clippings to take back with him. But that wasn't even the hard part - the hardest part was to keep them alive on the long journey across the Atlantic. First there was a jealous passenger who attacked the sapling, then there were pirates to fend off and finally a storm to survive. The last ordeal was a spell of hot weather that made water scarce and he had to share his part with the young tree. Against all the odds it survived and from it another coffee empire sprouted, now in the French colonies.

Francisco de Melo PalhetaBrazil did not want to stay out of the game, but how to come by some seedlings to start a plantation of their own? Another bio-pirate was needed. They found an ingenious fellow, who was more than up for the task: the dashing Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta, He went to French Guiana ostensibly to settle a border dispute - which he did successfully. His diplomatic charms must have been highly persuasive. The governor's wife was so enamoured by him that she gave him a special gift at his farewell dinner party - a bouquet of flowers and greenery, among which were hidden some branches with fertile coffee seeds. Mission accomplished.

Coffee soon became one of the most lucrative export crops of tropical colonies around the world. The growing supply matched the ever growing demand. Coffee drinking by now was an established ritual at social gatherings and had taken over from beer as the most popular breakfast beverage.

Yet, its rise to celebrity status also produced frowns on the brow of authority on more than one occasion. Coffee houses were an entirely revolutionary innovation - with huge social implications: they were places where people could come together to discuss everything from metaphysics on politics, their imaginations and desire to communicate fuelled by the novel brew. There is a lot of speculation and postulation regarding the role of coffee as a social catalyst during this culturally, politically and philosophically highly volatile time at the late 17th to early 18th century. The Boston Tea Party for example, was planned in a coffee house and at the time drinking coffee became a patriotic act. Innumerable works of art, novel ideas, writings, and music are attributed to coffee inspiration. One of the few pieces of secular music written by J.S.Bach, himself a great coffee lover, is known as 'Coffee Cantata' and deals with one young lady's devotion to the brew. Voltaire is also said to have been a great devotee of coffee, who frequented coffee houses regularly.


harvestersIn mountainous terrain and where labour is cheap coffee is still often harvested by hand, which makes for better selection. Sometimes they are even hulled by hand. In larger operations and where the terrain is flat machinery has replaced workers for harvesting and processing. The result is not as good as inevitably there are ripe and unripe cherries on the bush, which a machine cannot distinguish. These must be sorted out later, by another machine.

The first step is to separate the ripe from unripe or overripe cherries. Due to their different densities the overripe and unripe coffee cherries as well as sticks and leaves float while ripe cherries sink. Thus the harvest is first of all separated into 'floaters' and 'sinkers'. The floaters are skimmed off and dried for internal use while the sinkers are sent off to be hulled. This is done with the help of a machine that pushes the cherries against a grid whose holes that are only large enough to allow beans to pass while the pulp and hulls stay behind.

drying the coffee beansIn the simplest, natural form of processing the beans are then moved to the patio for drying. They must be frequently turned and moved to prevent mould formation. Another method is to ferment the beans slightly by letting them sit in water for 16-36 hours to remove the mucilage surrounding the beans before moving them to the patio for drying. Mould growth can be inhibited by using this method of processing. Once dry the beans are ready for roasting. Usually a small amount is roasted and tasted as a sample to determine the quality of the batch.

coffee roasting machine

Caffeine content:

Caffeine content varies not only by the type of bean and roast, but also by method of preparation:

According to Bunker and McWilliams in J.Am. Diet. 74:28-32, 1979

As for coffee varieties, there are too many to list. Suffice it to say that Tanzania peaberry has one of the highest caffeine contents (1.42%) while Mocha Mattari (Yemen) has among the lowest (1.01%)

For roasts, dark roasts such as Columbia Supremo dark, or Espresso roast are the most caffeine rich varieties.

Spoilt for choice

Go to an average coffee house and the choice of options offered is quite overwhelming. From single to triple espresso to cappuccino, milk coffee, iced coffee, Americano, Latte or Latte Macchiato, and what not.

cup of coffeeWhile most of these options are thoroughly modern, variety of coffee preparation has always existed, though hitherto it has been more homogenous within one culture. Turkish and Greek coffee usually resembles a small puddle of mud as finely ground coffee is brewed in a small pot together with a small amount of water and sugar. In some countries it is customary to flavour coffee with cardamom and other spices. In Yemen there is a coffee drink which is made from the hulls and bark rather than the beans, producing an entirely different kind of brew. In Sumatra on the other hand a beverage was made from roasted leaves which was preferred by the local population.

Historically it is not clear who first thought to roast the bean or to grind it up. One account tells the story of a hermit who having little else to sustain himself tried to make something more palatable by frying the beans, which however just made them hard. He is then said to have pounded them to make a soup, which resulted in some variation of the brew we know today - however, there is no real record to verify the story.

Medicinal uses:


Tannins, caffeine, theobromine, theophylline, volatile and fatty oils, sugars, polyphenol antioxygen


Mental stimulant, central nervous system stimulant, heart stimulant, anti-sudorific, anti-narcotic, anti-emetic, diaphoretic, diuretic, anti-malerial, appetite suppressant, anti-malarial, anti-epidemic, aids memory and cognition, concentration, deodorant (roasted coffee beans)

Coffee is rarely used medicinally these days, though caffeine is a common ingredient in various pharmaceutical drugs. It is usually added to counteract drowsiness in anti-histamines and to produce a sense of well-being while taking painkillers such as aspirin.

It is commonly used as a pick-me-up and mental stimulant to improve alertness and overcome tiredness. The anti-narcotic effect is useful for treating negative effects of narcotics. In traditional medicine coffee preparations were used as anti-malarial agents and to treat early symptoms of typhoid. It is also used for treating diarrhoea.

Coffee constricts the blood vessels to the head and may thus prove helpful for treating migraine headaches. It is also sometimes used as an adjunct in medications for treating asthma or whooping cough as it relaxes the respiratory tract.

Coffee stimulates secretion of hydrochloric acid and also has a cholinergic effect on the gall bladder. People who do not produce sufficient amounts of hydrochloric acid or have insufficient gall-bladder secretions coffee may aid digestion. People who suffer from stomach ulcers should avoid coffee.

In Germany coffee charcoal is used to remove toxins from the digestive system. Tolerance to caffeine varies widely between individuals. Small amounts of caffeine containing foods or beverages are not usually associated with adverse health effects. However, as tolerance builds up and use is increased negative effects can result. These include nervousness and agitation, (the jitters), raised blood pressure, raised blood cholesterol levels, insulin resistance.

But regular consumption can produce headache as a withdrawal symptom, other negative side effects include jitters, raised blood pressure, insomnia, and raised blood cholesterol levels. These quickly normalize as coffee intake is reduced or stopped, but headaches may result as a withdrawal symptom if use of coffee is suddenly stopped.

salt spring coffeeMost photographs courtesy of my friends at Salt Spring Coffee company

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