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Arabica and robusta

Coffee has long been a hot favourite – but where does it come from? 

Coffee is believed to originate from Ethiopia, where the effect of these little beans has been known since as far back as the ninth century. Around five hundred years later, in the 14th century, coffee then made its way to Arabia, most probably through slave traders. This led to the creation of the first ever café in what was then Persia. These coffee houses rapidly spread from Turkey to all the corners of Europe.

Coffee came to Germany primarily via its ports. It’s not surprising, then, that Germany’s first cafés were in Bremen and Hamburg. But coffee only became widespread as a drink for everyone in the 19th century, as it was starting to become much easier to trade coffee. Rapid industrialisation and the advent of steam navigation revolutionised transportation. Improved communication also made it easier to transmit stock exchange prices, while new technical devices simplified the roasting and preparation procedures for the popular drink.

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Where is coffee grown?

Anyone who has tried to grow coffee themselves will know that this plant has its own will and is very sensitive. It only grows in very specific conditions that are found only in a small area of the world, known as the “bean belt”. Here, the expression “a delicate little flower” takes on a whole new meaning: fussy coffee plants require a climate that alternates between wet and dry, with no frost. The bean belt is located between the latitudes of 23 degrees north and 25 degrees south and meets these requirements perfectly. In this belt around the equator, coffee is primarily grown in Brazil (around 45% of global production) and East Africa (approx. 25%), as well as Central America and parts of Asia.

The first general level of classification for coffee varieties is to sort them based on the country where they are grown and to name their origin. This could be a country, region, farm or the cooperative that supplies the coffee.

Most plantations are harvested once a year. However, it is possible to have two harvests in some growing regions. On average, a coffee shrub produces just 450 g of green coffee per year. Depending on what is harvested, the beans may be sold as “single origin”, in other words coffee from just one origin, or as a blend. Blends are created in order to achieve a particular flavour profile that cannot be found in single origin beans alone. 

 

All about the coffee plant

The coffee plant is an evergreen plant of the genus Coffea. Coffee trees grow to be between 6 and 12 metres tall, while the shrubs on a plantation reach up to 3 metres in height. What is special about the coffee plant is that it can bear fruits and flower at the same time. Unripe fruits are green, while ripe coffee cherries are a bright red. The coffee bean is in fact just the seed of the coffee plant, not the fruit. There are an incredible 80 different types of coffee plants. However, the most economically significant of these are limited to the following three:

  • Coffea arabica
  • Coffea robusta 

 

Arabica and robusta: a comparison

The much-loved arabica bean comes from the highly sensitive arabica plant, which requires a mild climate of between 15 and 25 degrees with absolutely no frost. It grows at altitudes of 400 to 1200 metres. It takes around 6-8 months from pollination until arabica is ready for harvesting.In contrast, the robusta plant is much hardier – just as its name would suggest. It can grow at lower altitudes of 0 to 900 metres, is more resistant and has a higher yield than its delicate sister arabica. It can tolerate higher temperatures than arabica, but is equally vulnerable to frost. Robusta coffee cherries take a little longer to ripen than the arabica plants, at around 9 to 11 months.In terms of appearance, the arabica bean has an elongated form with a flat face. The robusta bean, meanwhile, is rounder and the notch in the centre of the bean is virtually straight. So next time you’re holding a coffee bean, you’ll be able to say exactly which type it is.The arabica bean is said to have a finer and more complex flavour due to its demanding growing conditions. The robusta bean tends to be coarser, spicier or even earthier in flavour than arabica. 

 

What gives coffee its flavour?

Although all coffee plants ultimately belong to the same genus, Coffea, they can end up having highly individual flavour profiles. These are influenced by a whole range of factors, for example:

  • the climate,
  • the altitude,
  • the soil quality,
  • the growing techniques
  • and the processing method.

Coffee’s economic significance

After crude oil, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world. It is even traded on the stock market. In terms of quantity, arabica makes up the majority of the coffee trade at around 70%. Robusta makes up the remaining 30%. Around the world, some 25 million people are directly involved in the cultivation, transportation, processing and sale of coffee.