knowledge unlocks a world of possibilities The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library About the Library Navigation Help Sitemap Terms of Use Contact Information

  AgriculturePlant CultureField Crops

icon icon

a drink made from the roasted and ground beans of the coffee tree

The United States ranks as the largest consumer of coffee, followed by France, Italy, The Netherlands, and Germany. Brazil produces more than 25 per cent of the world's coffee crop. Other major coffee-producing nations include Colombia, Côte d'Ivoire, Mexico, Uganda, Indonesia, El Salvador, Angola, Guatemala, and Ethiopia. The word coffee comes from the Arabic word qahwah.

The Coffee Plant

The coffee tree is a shrub with glossy, evergreen leaves. It is 14 to 20 feet high when fully grown, but, as a rule, coffee growers prune it to under 12 feet. Its flowers are white. The tree originally grew wild in Ethiopia, but is now cultivated in Java, Sumatra, India, Arabia, equatorial Africa, Hawaii, Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies.

coffee seedlingMost trees grow from seeds that are first planted in nursery beds. After a year, the seedlings are transplanted to open fields. A coffee tree is usually 5 years old before it bears a full crop. The common variety grows best at altitudes of from 2,000 to 6,000 feet in a tropical climate.

ripening coffee berriesThe coffee berry begins to grow while the tree is blossoming, and ripens from green to yellow to red. The average tree bears enough berries each year to make about 1½ pounds of roasted coffee.

While there are many different species of coffee tree, two main species are cultivated today. Coffea arabica (Arabica coffee) accounts for 75 to 80 per cent of the world's production. Coffea canephora (Robusta coffee) accounts for about 20 per cent and differs from the Arabica in terms of taste.

Harvesting and Preparation for Market

worker harvesting coffee beansCoffee berries must be hand-picked, because no one has yet found a way to harvest them successfully by machine. After the berries are picked, they are put through a sluice to remove the sticks, leaves, and other debris. The good berries then go to a pulping house, where machinery removes the pulp. Each berry contains two beans (seeds). Each bean has a thin parchmentlike skin, and a second covering called the silver skin. At first, the uncovered beans are soft and bluish-green, but later they become hard and pale yellow. After the pulping process, the beans are run through a series of fermenting and washing tanks. The beans are then dried and left to cure for several weeks.

roasted coffee beansOnce the beans are dried, milling machines remove the parchment and the silver skin. The beans then go to a machine called the separator, which removes sand, dust, and small or broken beans. The beans are sorted until only the largest and best of the coffee beans remain. The beans are then roasted at 900º F. for 16 to 17 minutes. Roasted beans are ground up and brewed with hot water to make the coffee.


Several legends about how man came to recognize the stimulating effects of coffee exist, but no one knows for certain how the coffee tree came to be domesticated. Before its use as a beverage 700 years ago, coffee was a food, then a wine, and then a medicine. It made its way to the Arabian Peninsula in the 1200's, to Turkey during the 1500's, and to Italy in the early 1600's. It probably came to America in the 1660's. Coffee-growing was introduced in Brazil in the 1700's.

Questions or comments about this page?

  The Robinson Library > Agriculture > Plant Culture > Field Crops

This page was last updated on 06/08/2016.

About This Site | Navigation Help | Sitemap | Terms of Use | Contact