It is widely believed that coffee is a native of the Ethiopian rain forest, which lies in eastern Africa in the southern part of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean on its northern side. But, that was over hundred years ago. In present times, there are over 50 countries across the world where coffee is cultivated on a substantial scale. Some of these are Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guatemala, Vietnam, Indonesia and Yemen besides Ethiopia, of course.
A common fact that many people, including regular coffee drinkers, do not know is where coffee comes from. These same people may say it comes from plants, but little knowing that these are actually trees!
Yes, that is true! Coffee grows on trees, though these trees may not always be tall as many coffee farmers prefer to keep their trees short because it is easier at harvesting time to deal with shorter trees. Just like the climate in the original country where coffee was first grown, the South American rainforest area too, provides similar shade as required for the optimum yield in coffee plantations.
Thus, it can safely be said that the best coffee in the world is that grown near the equator, as it requires tropical environment to produce best results. Apart from shade, coffee trees need a fair bit of water, and sun though no special soil conditions. In some areas, coffee farmers may use fertilizer to increase productivity but doing so may be detrimental for the environment.
However, national coffee boards of the above mentioned countries which are top producers of coffee beans reveal that the best beans come from coffee trees planted in tropical plantations at high altitudes, which typically have rich soil. This is why countries along the equatorial zone have the best coffee plantations.
However, as mentioned earlier, location, including altitude, is not the sole criteria governing the quality of coffee. Its flavor as well as its quality is dependent on other factors too, such as the plant variety used, the chemical composition of the soil it is grown in, amount of rainfall experienced in the region and the availability of sunshine.
It is a vital combination of the right mix of these complex components along with the manner in which the cherries are processed post-picking that determines the quality of coffee one receives from a particular region and sets the distinction of coffee obtained from different countries. Sometimes, due to the complex nature of these variables, the coffee obtained from the same plantation may also yield different quality and flavor.
A little known fact about coffee beans is that these are actually berry seed, and very small in size, therefore referred to as cherries. Each berry will typically contain 2 green coffee beans but sometimes these may be mutated. After these berries turn red, it means they are ripe for picking and this is the ideal time for harvesting them, as opposed to ‘strip picking’ which some farmers indulge in to save on labor, but this early picking before coffee berries ripen causes the coffee obtained from them to be of an inferior quality.
However, the time invested in harvesting ripe coffee berries can be considerable, taking up to 7 days or more for a farmer to single-handedly pick coffee for filling a 100-pound bag of beans, by hand. Now, when one thinks of nearly 7 million tons of this brown concentrate, being produced annually, one can well imagine the number of laborers required on coffee plantations to pick enough berries to meet this demand!