Coffee bean growing

For a tree grown in over 70 countries, from Indonesia to Brazil, it's curious how narrow a range of conditions is required to produce quality 'beans' and how relatively small the total output is.

The word 'beans' is deliberately in single-quote marks, since the thing that gets roasted and ground to make the drink isn't really a bean at all, it's a seed.

In particular, it's the seed of a fruit that grows on trees that can easily reach twenty feet or more. Some wild varieties grow to over 45 feet or 15m. Most of those seeds come in a pair, though there is a variety that produces only one (the peaberry). The berry resembles a cranberry, with a sweet pulp covered by a membrane called a silverskin.

In a band around the equator from approximately 25 degrees north or south, comes the overwhelming majority of the world's coffee output. Temperatures of between 60F (15C) and 70F (21C) are best as is rainfall of six inches per month or more.

Loamy, good-draining soil is needed and also helpful is high humidity - plenty of mist and cloud at the high elevations, over 3000 ft (915m) for the good stuff. At these elevations the oxygen content is lower, so the trees take longer to mature.

The robusta, or coffea canephora, goes into making the majority of coffee because it can be grown at lower altitudes and is more disease resistant. But it's the high-altitude coffea arabica that forms the base of a gourmet cup.

Diffuse light and moderate winds are helpful, both of which are sometimes produced by deliberately growing in the shelter and shade. By contrast, wine grapes like hot sun and lots of it.

Once planted, the tree takes about five years to mature to first crop and even then a single tree will only make enough for about two pounds (1 kilogram) of coffee.

Those two pounds equal about 2,000 beans, (correct or not, it's the standard term), usually hand-picked by manual laborers. Manual they may be, but ignorant they are not. Coffee bean harvesting is a skill developed over time, where the picker learns to select good beans and discard the bad. Bean by individual bean. That's only one reason coffee is high priced.

The trees have broad, dark green leaves and produce a flower that resembles Jasmine. Some - in Brazil and Mexico, for example, - blossom over a six to eight week period. In countries that lie along the equator such as Kenya and Colombia, though, a tree can have mature berries growing alongside still ripening ones. That's part of what makes picking such a specialty.

Blossom to harvest may cover a period of up to nine months depending on the weather and other factors and the cycle will be carried out for the life of the tree - about 20-25 years. With the best cultivation technology, a good harvest will be between 6,600 lbs (3,000 kg) and 8,800 lbs (4,000 kg) per hectare. (One hectare is about 2.47 acres.)

From these inaccessible regions, where conditions are harsh, the berries are brought down and processed to make up the world's second largest commodity (by annual dollar volume).

So, the next time you savor that brew, give a thought to the long journey it traveled to reach your cup. It might make that high price seem less steep.

Coffee bean producers around the World

From its origins in Ethiopia, where the main coffee production is still from wild coffee tree forests, coffee consumption has spread throughout the world. But because of its requirement for ample sunshine and rain, the plants from which beans are produced grow only in tropical or sub-tropical regions.

From a narrow band centered on the equator of around 23 degrees North to 25 degrees South comes all of the world's source of the liquid that a Turkish proverb calls 'black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love'. As a commodity, coffee - from beans grown in over 70 countries - is second only to oil in dollar volume.

Brazil remains by far the largest coffee bean producer with an average output of 28% of the total. Even world-renowned Colombia is a distant second at only 16%, with Indonesia less than half that at 7%. Mexico, the fourth largest producer is half again at 4%.

Coffee trees produce the best beans in high altitudes but have adapted to a variety of areas.

In Brazil, the plantations cover huge areas and employ hundreds of workers to tend the plants. In Colombia the rugged mountains and poor economic conditions mean transportation to processing centers is still largely carried out by mule or Jeep.

While Colombia has the tree-lined mountains, Hawaiian producers plant on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano. The black volcanic ash is rocky, but perfect for the plants where the intense afternoon sun is softened by tropical clouds. Frequent island showers provide the ample rain needed.

Indonesia is composed of thousands of islands, where coffee has been grown since the Dutch colonists introduced it in the 17th century. Though other countries have greater technology, no one exceeds the helpful warm, damp micro-climates found here. Hundreds of one to two acre farms on the largest islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi combine to secure the country's third place position.

Plantations in Mexico, by contrast to Brazil, are primarily small farms but with over 100,000 of them the total still makes the country a serious factor on the world market. Most are located in the south, in Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas with the special Altura beans indicating their origin in the high altitudes.

Vietnam in recent years has rapidly been challenging Indonesia's position as the Tonkin area recovers from decades of stagnation. First planted with arabica trees in the mid-19th century by French missionaries, the small plantations now produce robusta, one of the two main types of plant.

Africa, Kenya and the Ivory Coast, though smaller producers are world-famous for the dark, large beans grown there. In the foothills of Mount Kenya grow some of the largest in the world which go to produce a well-known fruity coffee. The Ivory Coast holds its position as one of the world's largest producers of robusta, often used in espresso blends.

Whether the Brazilian Liberdade, the Costa Rican La Fuente, the Indian Monsoon Malabar or the Tanzanian Peaberry, coffees from around the world continue to find eager consumers everywhere.