Cultivating Coffee

The two most common sources of coffee beans are coffeea Arabica, also known as Arabica and coffea canephora, more commonly known as Robusta. About three-quarters of coffee cultivated worldwide is Arabica, as Robusta tends to be bitter and have less flavour. Robusta trees are however more resilient to diseases and can be cultivated in lower altitudes and warmer climates, where Arabica does not thrive. Coffee’s energising effect was likely first discovered in the northeast region of what is now Ethiopia by a goat keeper as his animals munched on the coffee berries.

The record of the first coffee being cultivated took place in Arabia and the first evidence of coffee as a beverage appears in the middle of the 15th century in the Yemen. Coffee consumption and cultivation from there spread to India and then to Italy, which opened its doors to Europe and the rest of the world. Coffee plants are cultivated in over 70 countries, primarily near the equator in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Arabica takes about seven years to mature fully and thrives with 1.0 – 1.5 meters of rain. It can tolerate low temperatures, but not frost, and it does best when temperature hovers around 20 °C.   It is usually cultivated at altitudes between 1,300 – 1,500 m but there are farms as low as sea level and as high as 2,800 m.

Coffee seedlings in nursery at Finca El Hato
Eight months later, the coffee plants ready to be replanted
Growing Coffee Plants

It all begins with hope, care and attention. The traditional method of planting coffee was to bury 15 or so seeds in a hole at the beginning of the rainy season and hope for a coffee tree a few months after.

This however only happened to about 50% of the seeds, the rest were lost. A more modern and effective technique of growing coffee is to raise seedlings in a nursery and then replant them outside six to twelve months after to ensure a strong and stable plant.

2 year old coffee trees
Coffee Tree
Coffee plants shaded by Gravilea, a local Guatemalan tree

The coffee plant itself is a shrub-like tree that is pruned back  to less than 8 feet in height and every four to five years the tree is pruned nearly to the ground. Amazingly the life of a coffee tree (in terms of good coffee production) can be 30 years!

Unlike Robusta, Arabica coffee prefers to be grown in light shade. This creates a human planted forest of trees to shade the coffee, like in the picture shown below. This helps the flora and fauna to thrive without being disrupted by the growing of a crop.

 

Coffee flowers at Finca La Esperanza on a sunny day
Flowering time in Atitlan
All of Finca La Esperanza in bloom on the same day! How fantastic!

When the trees are between two to four years old, they start to produce small, white and highly fragrant flowers. Oh the smell of coffee farms in bloom, what a childhood memory. I can still smell this sweet fragrance; a combination of jasmine flowers with bright lime. The lucky flowers that open on sunny days result in the greatest numbers of berries. Flowers only last a few days, leaving the coffee plant only with thick dark green leaves. Then, the real magic happens: the berries begin to appear. The coffee cherry matures for about six to eight moths on the branch.

During this period they are susceptible to damage from weather, rain (or lack thereof), hail and insect damage. During this time, farmers are carefully taking care of their plantation and hoping for the best possible environmental conditions. The cherries are first green and as they ripen they change from green, to yellow to light red and finally a deep glossy red. At this point they are ready for picking. To obtain the best coffee, the cherry must be ripe when picked, which is why all quality coffee is harvested by hand. At any given time a branch may contain ripe and unripe fruit so picking is done several times on the same trees.

 

Coffee cherries hiding under the tree
Coffee cherries at their peak maturity
Coffee cherries on the tree at Finca El Hato

One coffee tree produces about 1 pound of roasted coffee per year