Coffee requires very special climatic conditions to thrive, and it only grows in tropical areas with a steady supply of rain and sunshine. Even so, from its origins in Ethiopia, where most of the beans are still harvested from wild plants, coffee production has spread around the globe. The main producing areas are centered on the equator, in a slim band twenty five degrees to the north and south. Over seventy nations produce the beans, and the commercial value of coffee today is astonishing.
Almost a third of global production occurs in Brazil. Columbia is the second largest producer, although it is perhaps the better known for producing fine roasts. Coming in third is Indonesia, followed closely by Mexico, where a smaller bean produces a very distinctive taste. Although coffee beans can thrive at any altitude, the best quality beans are often produced in higher areas.
Brazilian coffee production is characterized by large, highly ordered plantations that provide work for thousands of workers. Coffee growing in Columbia, on the other hand, tends to be done at higher altitude, in smaller areas located in rugged mountainous terrain. Poor economic conditions mean that getting the beans from their point of origin to the processing plants often makes use of mules, or possibly jeeps for richer coffee farmers.
Although only a small amount of coffee is produced there, Hawaii has ideal conditions for coffee production. The plants flourish in the dark volcanic ash of the Mauna Loa volcano, where hot sun and regular showers ensure the perfect environment for producing high quality coffee.
Colonization of Indonesia by the Dutch in the seventeenth century introduced coffee plants to the country that is really a collection of thousands of small islands. The humid, balmy micro-climates of this area more than make up for the lack of high tech coffee producing equipment, and farms on three of the largest islands Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi produce most of the country’s exported coffee.
A challenge to Indonesia’s supremacy in that part of the world is Vietnam, who are beginning to produce a large volume of quality coffee after years of standing still economically. Initially Arabica trees were introduced to Vietnam by missionaries from France, but the main plant grown there now is Robusta.
Robusta is also produced in large quantities in Africa, particularly the Ivory Coast area. Africa is a relatively small coffee producer in terms of volume, but the quality of certain roasts, particularly a fruity blend from Kenya, cannot be rivaled. The overall flavor of African coffee comes from the large, dark beans produced there and makes these coffees stand out from South American or Asian brews.
So next time you go to the kitchen to make yourself a cup of coffee, take a moment to consider the origins of the coffee grinds in your espresso machines or coffee makers, and the sort of conditions that were necessary to bring you the perfect cup.