The coffee tree is a shrub with a straight trunk. The plant can survive for about 50 to 70 years. Flowers and beans appear during the third year, but production is only profitable from the fifth year onwards.

In the 18th century botanists, classified coffee as a member of the Rubiaceous family. Today, there are around 60 recognised species of coffee tree, yet just two dominate world trade. Coffea arabica, popularly known as Arabica, accounts for 75% of production worldwide. The remaining 25% is primarily Coffea canephora, commonly known by the name of its most widespread variety: Robusta.

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What’s in a coffee?

Most coffee you drink will be a blend of beans from one or both of the two most well-known coffee species. Each has distinct attributes, and you can learn to distinguish between the two by taste.

Arabica

Said to originate in Ethiopia, and to have been used there for over a thousand years. The beans do best at altitudes of 900-2000m (3000-6500 feet) where the slower growing process concentrates their flavors.

The coffee has a refined flavor and contains about 1% caffeine by weight. Because of its delicate nature, a bush yields only 450-700g (1-1.5 lb) of green coffee per year. This is the coffee that speciality roasters search for. Arabica accounts for about 75% of the world production yet because the Arabica tree is susceptible to disease, frost, and drought, it requires very careful cultivation in just the right climatic conditions.

Robusta

Discovered in the Congo in 1898, Robusta beans come from a high yield plant that is resistant to disease. It does best at lower elevations and has more aggressive flavors. It contains about 2% caffeine.

The Robusta plant bears more coffee cherries than an Arabica shrub and typically yields 900-1400g (2-3 lb) of green coffee per year. The plant is used for the lower grades of coffee that are sold in the market. Although generally not found in gourmet coffee shops, Robusta beans are often used in the processing of soluble (instant) coffees and popular commercial blends.