Where do coffee babies come from?

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<Coffee for the Average Josh, Part 1 of 10>

Before Mr. Coffee drip-dropped this morning’s pot, or your favorite barista handed you your latte …  

Before 12-ounce bags stocked grocery shelves, or your local roaster supplied the neighborhood drive-thru …

Before the beans were roasted brown or even came to town …

Where do coffee babies come from?

When we are wide-eyed and just entering the world of coffee, it’s a question we seldom ask. Maybe hot dogs taught us not to meddle in origin stories.

So we sip along in blissful naivete. For all we know, the Great Coffee Stork visits expectant baristas each morning, pecking at the drive-thru window with a bag tagged “Joe.” (Unfold the bundle and — voilà! — a piping-hot, ready-to-pour pot.)

As with most stork fables, the truth is a bit seedier — as in coffee seeds (or beans) that gestate hundreds of miles from your café inside the cherry of a cantankerous plant.

Arabica, Robusta and their 120 (mostly Madagascan) cousins

The brown-black brew we enjoy today is part of a genus of flowering plants called coffea. Grown in tropical climates, only two of the 120-plus coffea species have truly been commoditized. (True story: Most of the rest can only be found in the wilds of Madagascar, where a giraffe named Melman and a zebra named Marty are still working on preparing them for market.)

Let’s focus on the two that may have actually made their way into your mug:

1. Coffea Arabica (aka the Spoiled Diva)

This fussy tree boasts a thin trunk with lots of branches to support blossoms and fruit. It only grows at elevated altitudes, is susceptible to getting the sniffles, and expects to be treated like a fragile heirloom. And we oblige! People fawn over Princess Arabica. The beans she produces are used for the most sought-after brews in the world and are why you’ll often hear coffee marketers boast, “100% Arabica.”

2. Coffea Canephora (aka the Hardy Peasant Boy)

This species is better known by its nickname, “Robusta,” a term that reflects its greater resiliency. It yields more coffee for cheaper, is resistant to pests and disease, and grows in lower altitudes and higher temperatures. It’s also known for its distinctive “kick,” described as “eww bitter,” “burnt rubber,” or “smells like potatoes,” depending on your favorite internet commentator. Also part of that kick: Up to twice the caffeine as Arabica, making it the favorite of late-night diners and early-morning instant coffee (which typically is Robusta — plus just enough Arabica to take the edge off).

Left to my own mnemonic devices, this is how I keep the two straight:

  • Arabica Cadabica — tastes like magic.
  • Robusta Combusta — tastes likes scorched earth.

But before we deliver an elitist snub to Robusta, we would do well to trace some lineage. A March 2020 article in “Nature Research Journal” links Arabica’s genetic roots to a single plant. This “parent” plant is itself the result of a “speciation event” (science talk for when plants … you know …) between coffea eugenioides and coffea canephora (Robusta).

That’s right, our hardy peasant boy has been unmasked as a long-lost leading man, with every right to return every Arabica coffee snob’s taunt with a simple retort: “Who’s your daddy?”


Next: Growing up on the farm

This is the first in a 10-part series, “Coffee for the Average Josh,” releasing Fridays this fall. Get your fix of Coffee 101 by signing up to receive an email when the next post drops.  

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