The best-loved drink of Italians comes from an African plant of significant height, of which there are about 80 varieties: the coffee plant, these days grown in many countries in tropical areas, after its wide proliferation starting from the 15th century. But what does it look like and where do we get that pleasant and intensely-flavored brown powder from? Let’s discover what this shrub is like, how it is grown and in which countries.
Coffee plant: the origins and characteristics
The coffee plant (genus Coffea) is an evergreen shrub belonging to the Rubiacee family, originally from eastern Africa, more specifically Ethiopia. Its ideal habitat is somewhere between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, that is, the tropical regions of Asia, Africa and America: these regions have soil that is rich in humus, nitrogen and potassium, and guarantee a temperature of between 17° and 30°C and annual rainfall of between 1,200 and 2,000 ml.
The leaves have a vivid, intense, dark green color, with a slightly wavy edge and a shiny and fleshy surface; this plant can grow to a height of 12 meters in its natural habitat, while in the plantations these shrubs are expertly pruned and never grow higher than three meters: any higher than this and harvesting would become much more difficult. Furthermore, the pruning is fundamental for maintaining the plant clean and free from obstruction, so that the fruits and the whole plant can have suitable levels of ventilation.
The fruits of the coffee plant, like cherries
The coffee plant flowers several times throughout the year, after every rain; the little white flowers give way in the space of just a few days to fruits, which look similar to cherries, acquiring a color between green and red depending on how ripe they are. The transformation from flower to fruit takes about 9 months, and therefore it is quite common to find fruits at different stages of ripening on the same plant, according to the rains, and this alternation contributes to the beauty of the plant.
The cultivation of the coffee plant
In the climate present in Italy, the coffee plant can only be grown ornamentally and reaches a maximum height of 2 meters, but in its natural habitat, this shrub produces fruits and seeds, which then become that dark, perfumed powder from which we extract the well-known drink.
Here are the various phases of cultivation of the coffee plant, on medium- and large- scale plantations:
- The process is started by sowing selected beans; coffee plants are delicate and, for the first year, are kept inside greenhouses (or nurseries), and then later transplanted.
- The plants are fertilized to ensure optimum growth and appropriately pruned so that an adequate amount of air can circulate among the leaves and fruit. In this way, the coffee plant will grow lush and healthy.
- After flowering, which happens with the rains, the fruits begin to grow on the plants which will then be harvested at the appropriate moment of ripeness, and then later dried to obtain the seeds.
Harvesting the coffee plant fruits: picking and stripping
The quality of the coffee does not only depend on the variety, but also on the extent of homogeneity in the harvesting the fruits: if the beans are picked while still unripe, there is a risk that they will give a flat and astringent final taste to the drink, whereas if they are too ripe when they are harvested, there is the risk that the resulting coffee will have a rancid and quite unpleasant taste.
Harvesting by hand, known as picking, is the solution which allows fruits to be selected one by one, leaving the ones that are not ready to be picked on the plant. With this method, it is possible to obtain a top quality product, even if the cost is higher because it requires more manual labor. A specialist worker, based on the characteristics of the plantation, may be able to pick up to 120 kg of drupes a day.
Manual stripping, on the other hand, is a harvesting technique where all the fruits are removed from the plant, regardless of their level of ripeness: in fact, the drupes are selected only later, by hand or by using floatation, which consists of immersion in a tank of water to eliminate the dry or over-ripe fruits.
On the big plantations however, mechanical means are used to do the harvesting: more specifically, large, wheeled machines suitable for working on flat land.
Arabica and Robusta: the main varieties of coffee plant
There are around 80 different varieties of Coffea plant, but in the world there are two that supply almost 99% of the total production: Arabica and Robusta. The first is considered the most precious quality coffee, although the plant is more delicate and suffers particularly if the climactic conditions are not ideal. Its habitat is usually at an altitude somewhere between 800 and 2,200 meters. The Robusta variety, discovered more recently compared to the Arabica, thrives more at lower altitudes, and has the advantage of great adaptability and resistance both to parasites and inconsistent weather.
Now that we know what the coffee plant is like and what its fruit looks like; the moment has come to allow ourselves a good cup of coffee, like the Ethiopia single origin, with its notes of bergamot and black tea leaves.