What is Coffee?


Sounds like a silly question, but if someone would ask you – “What is Coffee” what will you tell them? “A Cup of Excellence”, “Magic in a Cup” – I think that explains it pretty well, but let’s talk about what coffee really is.

According to the Oxford Dictionary – Coffee (noun) is “a hot drink made from the roasted and ground beanlike seeds of a tropical shrub.”

I’m sure it is safe to say that most people would probably recognise a coffee bean if they saw one, but I wonder how many people would recognise a coffee tree if they saw one.


Coffee trees are normally kept short to aid in harvesting but they are capable of growing to over 9 meters high. The leaves on a coffee tree grow opposite each other in pairs and white blossoms, as well as green and red (ripe) coffee cherries, grow along the tree’s branches. Coffee trees are capable of growing in a wide range of climates, but they prefer a rich soil and mild temperatures, with frequent rain and shaded sun.  It has been estimated that there are anywhere from 25 to 100 species of coffee plants.


In the commercial coffee industry, there are two important coffee species — Arabica and Canephora, more commonly called Robusta.

Coffea Arabica is descended from the original coffee trees discovered in Ethiopia. These trees produce a fine, mild, aromatic coffee and represent approximately 70 percent of the world’s coffee production. The beans are flatter and more elongated than robusta. It is also lower in caffeine. Arabica grows best at high altitudes in rich soil.

Robusta is grown in Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil as well as in Central and Western Africa. Robusta makes up about 30 percent of the world market. Robusta beans are rounder and smaller than an arabica bean. Coffee made with robusta beans has a more distinctive taste than coffee made with Arabica beans. It also has more caffeine. Robusta is primarily used in blends and/or for instant coffees. Robusta prefers a higher temperature than Arabica and can thrive on lower ground; it is also much heartier than Arabica


The coffee cherry has an outer skin called the exocarp. Beneath the exocarp is the mesocarp, a thin layer of pulp. This is followed by a slimy layer called the parenchyma. The beans themselves are covered in the endocarp/parchment. Inside the parchment lies two beans (side-by-side), each bean is covered separately by a thin layer of membrane/seed skin called the spermoderm or ‘silver skin’, as it is referred to in the coffee trade.

In about 5% of the world’s coffee, there is only one bean inside the cherry. This is called a peaberry and it is a natural mutation. Some people believe that peaberries are sweeter and more flavourful than standard beans.


This is just a short version of what the process from farm to cup can look like. There is a lot more to the process and it also differs depending on the farm, the buyer, the seller, the roaster, etc

The cherries are normally hand-picked on the coffee farm before it gets sorted.

The seed then gets separated from the fruit. Some farmers allow the fruit to dry first before the seed is separated from the fruit, while others remove the seed much sooner – this has an impact on the flavour of the finished product.

The dried seeds are called beans. After the ‘beans’ are dried, the un-roasted product is called ‘green coffee’. Green coffee is classified into 5 different grades, the highest being termed “Specialty Coffee”.

The dried beans normally get sold to an exporter. An exporter sometimes blends the beans from different processing mills before he bags and ships them.

An Importer imports the coffee into the consuming country and sells it to a Roaster.

The roaster then roasts the beans (this is a very important step and plays a huge part in how the coffee tastes).  The roaster might also blend beans from a variety of crops and regions.

The retailer then sells the coffee to consumers. The consumer buys the coffee, grinds it (if not done by the retailer), and only then can he/she finally make a cup of delicious coffee.

Photo by unsplash-logoJakub Kapusnak


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