It’s easy to see how orange turns into orange juice. After all, the fruit is readily available in supermarkets, many of us own an orange squeezer, and we make our own fresh juice in minutes. But where do coffee beans come from? Do coffee beans come from cherries?
The short answer is yes, coffee beans come from coffee cherries. Coffee cherries are a fruit that grows on coffee bushes in tropical climates. The coffee cherries go through a rigorous process before being turned into coffee beans.
Want to know more? Great, you’ve come to the right place. The same doesn’t apply readily to coffee, since we never get the chance to see the coffee plant or the fruit that grows on it. Furthermore, the process that goes into making a cup of coffee is way more complicated than making fruit juice.
It’s a bit amusing that the natural origins of coffee aren’t known to most of us. Many would even exclaim in astonishment “do coffee beans come from cherries?”. Well, yes. These coffee grounds you’re brewing were once inside a ripe red cherry.
Here are all the juicy details about the coffee cherry.
The Coffee Plant Is Where the Cherries Grow
The genus coffea is the scientific name of the coffee plant. It contains 120 different species, but the ones we are well-acquainted with are just two types. Coffea arabica, commonly known as Arabica coffee, and Coffea canephora, which we call Robusta coffee.
Author Note: Coffee plants are temperamental botanical varieties that grow under specific climatic conditions. Also, they like being up above sea level. At least 600 feet of altitude are acceptable for the plant, and up to 6000 feet is not bad at all.
They require a temperature between 73 and 82 degrees and prefer alternating dry and wet seasons. These sensitive plants need at least 60 inches of rainwater per year, but it shouldn’t go way more than 80 inches. Following the rain, coffee plants have to have a dry season for two to three months.
It’s miraculous that coffee plants find suitable growing conditions at all, but there are such lands. In fact, the cultivation of coffee failed entirely in so many locations, until the discovery of the ‘bean belt’.
The bean belt, also known as the coffee belt, is the tropical area around the equator. It’s a geographic zone where the climatic conditions are optimal for coffee plantations. Specifically, it extends from the Capricorn tropic to the cancer tropic, roughly 25 degrees north and south of the equator.
The main producers of coffee are Brazil, Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. In addition to these mega plantations, coffee also grows in around 70 other countries.
What Does the Coffee Cherry Look Like?
The coffee plants take different forms depending on their specific varieties. Some are small shrubs, while others grow into 30-feet tall trees. The branches prefer to extend horizontally, and the broad pointy leaves often originate opposite to one another.
The flowers of the coffee plant are a sight for sore eyes. White, delicate, and their petals are like ruffles. They are quite fragrant, and since they grow in clusters, they can spread their scent around easily. It takes the coffee plant around three years to start showing flowers.
A year after the flowers have bloomed, they become ready for pollination. They don’t show signs of fruiting for a while, as these plants take their time for everything they do. They’re not fast-growing plants, like green onions, which take 20 days to mature.
The growing fruit is often round and green, and it grows among a cluster on the branches. Slowly, its color deepens into brick red, orange, or yellow. The fruit of the coffee tree takes around a year to mature and become ripe, some species take less than that. But it’s a plant that often yields a single harvest per year.
The coffee cherries are referred to as ‘drupes’, which also means ‘stone fruit’. Unlike real cherries, coffee cherries are a bit hard to the touch and even harder to chew.
The Coffee Bean is Actually a Seed!
The coffee cherry isn’t what you squeeze to get coffee. Hold your horses, please. There’s a process to extract coffee grinds from that cherry.
If you look inside the coffee cherry, you’d find a sequence of layers separated by thin membranes. Right in the middle, there are a couple of large seeds. A little curved on one side, flat on the other side, and having a distinctive ‘slit-like’ mark. Does that ring any bells?
Top Tip: The inner seeds of the coffee cherry are the coffee beans we know and love. But even at this point, they hold physical resemblance only to the golden coffee beans in your pantry. The seeds inside the coffee cherry are bluish-green, and a little soft to the touch.
To reach the common form of the coffee beans, the coffee cherries must go through a rigorous and highly laborious process. Here are its main stages:
- The coffee cherries are often hand-picked, as only the ripe ones should be harvested.
- The harvested crop is spread in the sun to dry. This has to start right away, as sugars break down in less than ten hours.
- The drying cherries need to be raked continuously to avoid their rotting.
- Alternatively, the cherries are soaked in water.
- The cherries are de-pulped, and the seed taken out.
- The seeds go through an elaborate process of polishing, to remove all membranes.
- They are once more dried up from any remaining humidity.
- The coffee beans are further inspected and organized according to color, size, weight, and quality.
- Experts perform elaborate quality tests to rank the coffee beans.
- The green beans are packed and exported.
- The beans are roasted to varying grades and tastes.
- The roasted beans are ground finely or coarsely and offered at retail stores.
Are Coffee Cherries Edible Like a Fruit?
Supposedly, they are. But do you find them in the produce sections of your nearest market? Probably not.
While the coffee cherries have a nice taste, they also have a hard outer skin and very little pulp. That’s because the seeds take up most of the volume of the coffee cherry. It would be like biting into a peach, only to find a thin layer of fruit and the seed hitting us in the teeth.
That’s lucky for us since we favor the seeds far more. After all, they become the coffee beans we like so much.
Can You Drink Coffee Cherries?
Here’s an interesting part. Aside from the seed that we already talked about, the pulp could be used in a couple of ways.
A Fresh Glass of Coffee Cherries
It could be squeezed in the straightforward method of juicing fruits. But in that case, the seed would be damaged. Not to mention that it takes too many coffee cherries to get a decent glass of coffee cherry juice.
Let’s say that someone is that dedicated to getting that juice, so how’s the taste? People are often curious as to whether coffee cherry juice would taste like brewed coffee. In fact, it has a slight resemblance. It’s to be expected that the fruit and the seed develop similar flavor profiles.
An Arabica coffee cherry would be rather sweet, and it would have fruity or floral hints. In contrast to that, the Robusta coffee cherry would have a harsher taste, that’s rather earthy and nutty.
There’s also a caffeine content in the coffee cherry, but not in the same amounts found in the seeds, aka, coffee beans. The coffee cherry drink is thus pleasant, flavorful, and has a bit of a punch. It’s also terribly hard to prepare, so probably not worth the effort.
The Cascara Tea
There’s another approach that’s much easier wherein you could enjoy the pulp of coffee cherry. And it has a few extra perks: it doesn’t damage the seed, it’s so easy to prepare, and it’s rather tasty. Some say it has some health-boosting benefits, but that still waits to be seen.
This other approach is called the ‘Cascara tea’. The word cascara also refers to the dried up pulp and skins of the coffee cherry. This byproduct was often discarded, and some clever farmers used it as a fertilizer. However, it could be used in a much fancier manner.
Author Note: Starbucks has been using the cascara syrup for a while now to add deeper flavors. That’s probably what drew attention to the other uses of these dried-cherry skins.
The cascara tea is made from brewing these dried up skins in hot water, the same way you would any herbal tea. You could also prepare a cold-brewed cascara, if you soak the dried peels in cold water overnight.
The beverage is then filtered to get a nice clear drink in your cup, or you could use a French press if you’re in the mood for luxury.
The path from coffee cherry to coffee cup is a long one. It twists and turns along the way as well. So if you found yourself exclaiming “do coffee beans come from cherries!”, that’s perfectly normal. We’ve all been through that.
The elaborate process of planting coffee trees in suitable climates is already miraculous. Then there’s the whole handpicking, drying, pulping, polishing, and getting the green coffee beans ready for export. After that comes the roasting and grinding. Finally, coffee reaches your cup as a latte, flat white, or drip coffee.
There’s also the highly amusing part of eating or drinking the coffee cherries. While eating the fruit might not be highly satisfying, the cascara brew is gaining popularity among coffee drinkers worldwide.
There’s an even more interesting story of how coffee went unnoticed for ages until it was accidentally discovered by the goats of an Ethiopian shepherd. That was 800 years ago, and it’s a story for another time!
Stay caffeinated friends!