where do coffee beans come from: red cherries on coffee plant
Coffee Basics,  Types of Coffee

Where Do Coffee Beans Come From?

where do coffee beans come from: red cherries on coffee plant

Every day starts with a cup of coffee. At least for us – and about 62% of adult Americans — it does. While we mindlessly pour ourselves another cup, we started wondering about appreciating coffee from a deeper perspective. What’s the bigger journey of the coffee that kicks off our mornings? Sure, our coffee beans come from the local coffee house or grocery store, but where do coffee beans come from, really? Here, we dive deep into where coffee beans come from with the aim of making each cup a more nuanced and enjoyable experience.

Where Do Coffee Beans Come From?

where do coffee beans come from: beans on a map

Before we answer the question “where do coffee beans come from”, we have to address what they really are. 

Fun fact: coffee beans aren’t actually beans. Coffee beans are seeds. They grow inside bright red cherries that grow on the coffee plant. The scientific name for the plant is Coffea. The coffee plant is a large bush that can grow several feet tall. Most coffee farmers trim the coffee plants to around 5 feet tall to make harvesting easier. The plants feature dark, waxy leaves with smooth margins and even veins along with white flowers and red cherries.

Thinking about getting your own coffee plant and harvesting the cherries to make homebrew? Get ready to be patient. Coffee plants take around one year before they start producing flowers. It takes another four to six years for the plant to start producing cherries that contain those prized beans. Most plants take around 10 years before they start producing beans in an amount large enough to support commercial production. Coffee plants live anywhere from 30 to 60 years, 

Coffee beans develop different flavors depending on where they are grown. High-altitude and volcanic soils change the flavor profile compared to coffees grown at lower altitudes and in sandy loam. Farmers also pick the coffee cherries at specific times as harvesting too early or too late can alter the flavor profile.

Once the green coffee beans are harvested, they are dried and roasted to produce the beans we brew into a delicious mug. Coffee roasters use either a wet or dry method to roast the beans. The dry method involves laying the beans on mats and drying them in the sun. The wet method removes the pulp and parchment layer on the bean before drying. 

The History of Coffee

Pinpointing the exact birthplace of coffee is difficult. One legend says that a goat herder named Kaldi in the Ethiopian region discovered coffee when his goats ate the berries and had increased energy. The goat herder studied the bean and eventually experimented by brewing it into the beverage we enjoy today. While this is just a legend, it’s a fact that coffee consumption has been around for hundreds of years.

In the 15th century in Yemen and the Arab region, coffee was used as part of religious ceremonies. In the 16th century, coffee arrived in Italy and Central Europe. By the 17th century, coffee production started in India, and coffee shops began popping up in England. Once the 1800s came around, Brazil was already the leading producer of coffee — a title it still holds today.

Today, there are millions of farmers, coffee producers, and roasters playing a part in the process that kicks off our mornings — brewing a delicious cup of coffee. 

Where in the World is Coffee Grown? 

coffee cherries harvested by hand

Coffee beans are grown all across the globe — from Africa and Southeast Asia to South America. Most of the world’s coffee comes from “the bean belt”. This is an area located between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. That’s because the equatorial climate is particularly well-suited for growing coffee plants.

Almost three-quarters of the world’s coffee production occurs in five countries including Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. Other countries also produce coffee in smaller quantities. You can even find small coffee growers on the fringes of the coffee belt in places like the Central Coast of California.

The Effect of Elevation on Coffee Beans

where do coffee beans come from: high elevation coffee in mountains

Each coffee tastes different depending on where it’s grown and how it’s roasted. Elevation, soil type, and climate all play a part in the taste of a cup of coffee.

At high altitudes, the growing process is slower. The beans contain more complex sugars that lend to richer tasting notes. The elevation and slope also create better water drainage, meaning the beans are denser and flavors are more concentrated. Many high-altitude beans are grown in volcanic soil, which is rich in nutrients, further deepening the flavor of these coffees.

High-altitude coffees tend to offer deeper and more nuanced flavors. They are generally darker roasts and have higher acidity with tasting notes of berries, cocoa, and fruits. Countries that are notable for growing coffee at high elevations include Kenya, Guatemala, and Papua New Guinea.

Lower-altitude coffees are less dense, making them ideal for light or medium roasts. They boast earthy flavors that are mild and mellow. Since these plants are grown at lower elevations, they experience more heat and less rainfall so they grow more quickly. That means they also produce beans more quickly than high-altitude coffees. These coffee trees are more susceptible to disease and drought so farmers often choose hardier plant varieties. 

Arabica Versus Robusta Coffee Beans

man roasting coffee beans

There are two main types of coffee plants: arabica coffee and robusta coffee. Within these two types, there are many varieties grown all over the world. Each one offers a different flavor, price point, and coffee-drinking experience.  

Arabica Beans

Arabica beans (Coffea arabica) are considered the better bean when it comes to flavor and quality. These beans are known for nuanced and bright-tasting notes. They offer sweet and citrus hints thanks to higher acidity and high-elevation varieties have nutty and chocolate notes.

The beans themselves are larger than robusta beans and are oval-shaped. They also have a deep center crease. While better in taste, these beans are more difficult for farmers to grow. They are delicate and require specific growing conditions to thrive and produce beans. That also means increased production costs, making arabica beans pricier than their robusta counterparts.

Arabica coffee beans are generally grown at high altitudes. Low altitudes lead to disease and heat can damage these delicate coffee trees. Latin America specializes in high-altitude arabica coffee, with Brazil as the leading producer of these beans. You’ll also find high-altitude arabica coffee plants on the slopes of volcanoes in Hawaii and mountainous regions in Africa and Asia.

Robusta Beans

Robusta coffee plants (Coffea canephora or Coffea robusta) are hardy so they are able to withstand disease and drought more easily compared to arabica beans. Farmers at low altitudes and in regions where disease has decimated arabica plants often turn to robusta plants for more reliable production. This type of coffee bean is grown in Africa and Asia, with Vietnam and Indonesia being the larger producers.

Most robusta beans are grown from sea level up to around 3000 feet and have more caffeine compared to arabica beans. The higher caffeine content is what helps protect the plant from pests and disease.

Robusta beans have lower acidity content compared to arabica beans. That produces a less sweet-tasting profile, but stronger tasting notes. Instead of citrus, you’ll find earthy, woody, and tobacco notes. The strong flavors make these beans well-suited for espresso.

Uncover the Joys of a Cup of Java

Now that you know the answer to “where do coffee beans come from”, you can enjoy your next mug of coffee with renewed appreciation. The climate, growing methods, and different types of coffee plants all result in different tasting experiences for coffee drinkers. For high-quality beans, look for specialty coffees or coffee blends made using arabica beans. 

Looking for new ways to discover the joys of coffee? Continue browsing our blog for tips on choosing the best coffee for your tastes. You’ll find country guides that break down the unique characteristics of coffee from around the world as well as tips for the best coffee brands and coffee roasters. 

After chasing down everything there was to know about tea on the Cup & Leaf blog, I'm now exploring the world of coffee. From different types to countries with the best brews and everything in between, I'll be your guide on this coffee discovery.