Let's go back to basics and answer the simplest of questions, what is coffee? It is a fruit, called a cherry, and it grows on trees. The two main species people are familiar with are coffea robusta and coffea arabcia. We use coffea arabica which makes up most of the coffee grown around the world. It is sensitive to things like climate and altitude which distinguishes it from coffea robusta, the species which tends to be grown at lower altitudes and is more disease resistance making it substantially cheaper to produce and therefore often of poorer quality. It is most commonly found in the nemesis of the speciality coffee world, instant coffee. Coffea Arabica is the one for us!
coffee trees growing in Peru
Many different varieties of coffee are grown within the arabica species, details noted on our labels under varietals. (Varietals refer specifically to the varieties grown on one farm, for example.) Varieties like Bourbon is a natural mutation of Typica which occurred on the island of Reunion, at the time known as Bourbon hence the name. It is a higher yielding crop than Typica and has a distinctive sweetness which makes it prized and desirable.
Caturra, another varietal is a mutation of Bourbon. discovered in Brazil in 1937. Again yields are relatively high and cup quality is considered good. It is commonly grown in Colombia and Central America and tends to be a low growing or dwarf bush making it easier to harvest.
Maragogype, one you may have tried if you have sampled La Colombia our current natural coffee, is another mutation of Typica and was first discovered in Brazil. It is often considered desirable due to the unusually large size of the bean. The coffee is often referred to as "elephant" or "elephant bean" coffee due to its size. It is huge!
And so the list goes on... Each variety of coffea arabica will bring its own special flavour, attraction to the farmer due to things like yeild and growing suitability, and, as with grapes in winemaking, things like terroir and climate will play a part. Different varieties yield different quantities and colour of fruit (typically red, yellow or orange) and they grow in different ways -some in clusters, some more spaced out down the branch - which then has an impact on harvest.
Coffee growing demands investment which is why this is such an important part of the work Falcon, our importer engages in. It involves not only money but time. A coffee tree can take three years to begin fruiting properly so patience, skill and care are required.
Most coffee producers will have one harvest during the year, hence our instance on seasonality in the coffee we buy. We want to be roasting the best coffee available at any time of the year so seasonality ensures this.
First the tree flowers with gorgeous white blossom similar to jasmine flowers.
coffee flowers in Ethiopia
Then the cherries form. They can take up to nine months to ripen ready for harvest, and not every cherry ripens uniformly. This is where the skill of the farmer and the pickers is vitally important. S/he can either pick them all regardless of ripeness and loose some of the crop or send pickers back and forth through the trees picking only ripe fruit and leaving the unripe to naturally ripen. Every cherry is harvested when it is perfectly ripe then.
ripe coffee cherry in Guatemala
Lady picking coffee by hand in El Salvador
Growing exceptional coffee is labour intense, involves patience and great skill and investment, financial and otherwise. It is why we pay more for green beans and make sure that every coffee farmer has been paid well for his hard work. We won't ever compromise on this. And all of this happens at the simple stage of growing.....processing and turning that bean into a great cup of coffee involves skill. More on that is coming up!
For more information, check out James Hoffmann's The World Atlas of Coffee - it is a great read if you want to know about your daily cup of joe. Wouldn't' be without it!