Saturday, 13 November 2010


One of my favourite things.
Amongst the commonest plants in the Mata Atlantica region nowadays is the coffee bush. It has been like this for centuries, in the old days local magnates ruled over huge plantations in the states of Sao Paulo, Minas and Espirito santo. A characteristically colourful description of one such estate by Rudyard Kipling can be found here.....

Coffee appears to be native to the Ethiopian highlands, but it was soon spread through the arabic world, where it was used to make "kahveh". A taste for coffee developed fairly late in the west, but when it did demand exploded, with Coffee houses such Lloyds in London becoming very popular. Lloyds incidentally was near the Thames and so a popular haunt of sailors and shipping investors, from this grew the famous shipping insurers, Lloyds of London. Anyway, increasing demand led to plantations in various colonies, for the British, India and Sri Lanka, for the Dutch Java, and for the Portuguese, Brazil.

Coffee plants are evergreen shrubs, with dark glossy leaves. There are two main types, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora var robusta, which give arabica and robusta coffee respectively. By far the better quality comes from Coffea arabica, but it requires conditions similar to those of it's Ethiopian ancestors, high slopes above 600m, as well as being vulnerable to disease. In contrast, robusta is, well, robust, being very disease resistant as well as able to grow even down to sea level and having 40-50% more caffeine. The tradeoff is that the quality is not so good, very bitter, and it is mainly used for instant coffee which doesn't command such a high premium.

Coffee plants grow for about 5 years before producing any berries, from which coffee is made, although they will fruit for another 15 years after that. Because of this they are often intercropped with short lived species in the early years, such as banana. There are varieties of coffee like any other crop, but it seems that the soil and growing conditions are more important. Not surprising when you realise that over 800 different compounds contribute to the taste and flavour of coffee and the proportions of these vary with how and where the plant is grown. And with how the berries are prepared, but I will talk about that another day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting!