We know coffee as the miraculous, delicious, and essential beverage that has been a staple part of hundreds of millions of individuals' diets all around the world. As much as we drink it, though, it comes as a bit of a surprise that many of us don't actually know what coffee is. Sure, we know it comes from the coffee bean, but what precisely is that bean? Is it a vegetable? A legume?
As it turns outs, beans aren't so much beans as they are seeds. In fact, coffee trees are practically unrecognizable to non-coffee experts, growing beautiful white flowers and producing tiny red fruits called coffee cherries. What does that mean for coffee beans, though? Because coffee beans grow inside these cherries, that means they're classified as fruits too!
Surprised? You might be wondering how that little red cherry ends up in your mug as a dark, bitter drink. Keep on reading to learn exactly how your daily cup of coffee is actually a fruit. We've broken it all down for you, from planting to your first sip.
Everything You Need To Know About the Coffee Tree
As you probably already know, you purchase your coffee in the form of beans, whether you buy them whole or ground. These beans grow on Coffea trees from the Rubiacecae family. There are over a staggering 120 different species of Coffea, including the two you have probably heard of the most: Arabica and Canephora, or Robusta.
These trees are often grown from seed, typically in Africa or Asia, and reach anywhere from 9ft – 11.5ft in height. They also grow highly aromatic flowers that can vary between startling white to a reddish-pink. After approximately 3 – 5 years, some coffea species, such as Arabica and Robusta, will begin to produce small red and purple fruits, which have been classified as either berries or drupes. More commonly, though, we call them coffee cherries.
The Coffee Cherry
The fruit of the coffee tree is pretty interesting. They are small and sweet, and it turns out that they contain quite a bit of caffeine as well. The flesh of the fruit, though is small, with the stone or “pit” taking up more room within the cherry to make the fruit worth eating on its own.
Coffee cherries grow more abundantly the older a coffee tree becomes–which can actually be as old as 100 years in certain species. Once the coffee cherries start appearing, they take about 9 months to become ripe enough to harvest.
Almost always harvested by hand, coffee cherries can either be carefully selected using a number of criteria to ensure they are only being picked when absolutely perfect, or they can be “strip-picked” from the limb all at once. After being picked, there are two different methods by which the cherries can be processed that allows manufacturers to separate the seed from the fruit.
The first method if the “wet” process that involves lots of specific equipment. During this process, the good and bad fruits are first separated, and then a machine will strip the skin of the fruit away from the seed. The husks are discarded, while the seeds are then soaked and fermented in order to remove any remaining pulp or fruit. This method is the more expensive, time-consuming and risky of the two, as seeds run the risk of over-fermenting and producing unpleasant smells and flavors.
The more traditional and less expensive method of processing is called the “dry” process. This process is much less complicated, as it involved spreading the coffee cherries out on brick or concrete under the sun. They are turned regularly and take about four weeks to dry, after which they are stored until they can be milled and hulled cleanly by a machine.
The Coffee Bean
Finally, we arrive at the good part. Once the coffee cherry has grown and been harvested and processed, there are typically two little seeds inside. Those familiar with the look of whole coffee beans know that they are typically round and oval-shaped with one flat side. Inside each cherry typically resides two of these beans, flat sides pressed together.
Every now and then (about 5% of the time), a coffee cherry will produce a single matured, completely round seed instead of two. This particular bean is called a “peaberry” and many believe that these special seeds have a stronger and more potent flavor. Peaberry coffee is highly coveted for this reason, and can be found most often in Tanzanian and Kona coffees.
The other 95% of the time, though, both seeds are fertilized and grow together, creating the iconic flattened look we are all used to. When first processed, coffee beans are considered “green”–meaning that they haven't been roasted. Some manufacturers have utilized the green coffee bean as well, selling “green coffee extract” as a supplement that has been known to especially help with weight loss.
Most often, though, they are sent to be roasted. It is within this last step that we see the coffee bean evolve into its final form, and go from what could probably be distinguished as a fruit pit into the “bean” we see in the grocery store.
The final appearance of the bean is extremely deceptive. Fruits are often vibrant, juicy, and sweet. However, coffee defies all expectations by providing a completely unique taste and experience that no other fruit–pit, seed, bean, or otherwise–can provide.
See more: HOW MANY BEANS ARE IN A CUP OF COFFEE?
1. If coffee is fruit, is it nutritious and healthy to consume?
The short answer is, yes! Trends in food and wellness tend to give us a skewed idea of facts when it comes to our favorite foods. Unfortunately, it has become a common believe that coffee isn't great for you, resulting in many people cutting back or removing it from the diet altogether. Health concerns range from anxiety to blood pressure to _____.
However, coffee is actually excellent for most individuals if consumed in a moderate and healthy amount. Just like the rest of the world's most popular superfood fruits, such as blackberries and blueberries, coffee is packed full of antioxidants that can fight cancer-causing free radicals. In fact, coffee is most Americans' #1 source of antioxidants. It also provides various other significant nutrients, such as magnesium, potassium, and niacin.
According to US Dietary Guidelines, moderate coffee consumption cannot be conclusively connected to any major diseases. Instead, it has been known to protect against Type 2 Diabetes, diminish the risk of heart disease, prevent Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, help eye conditions, relieve stress, and even combat depression. In other words, don't let any wellness trend make you feel guilty about drinking a cup of coffee a day–or even 2 or 3. After all, it's as much a fruit as any nutrient-dense berry!
2. Why have I never seen coffee cherries in the grocery store?
Unfortunately, whole coffee cherries aren't sold to consumers and are only sold and distributed to coffee-producing companies. There are a couple reasons why this is, and also a few alternatives if you really want to know what that coffee cherry is like.
To put it simply, coffee is one of the largest markets in the world, with hundreds of millions of people purchasing and drinking it every single day. There simply isn't the interest or market for the entire cherry as there is for the bean inside it. After all, the cherries aren't very large and the bean makes up the majority of the inside, leaving not much to consume.
However, some companies will save the cherry during dry processing. After sun-drying and removing the bean, you are left with what is sort of like a skin. These are called cherry dusks, or cascara. These dried husks are actually available in some supermarkets or can easily be found online, and they are most often used to make a special kind of caffeine-rich tea.
3. Can I grow my own coffee cherries?
It's the age of DIY, and many of us have taken to growing our own essentials, whether that be vegetable produce or common herbs. However, growing fruit is a little more challenging. It isn't impossible, but the chances of an individual growing a full-sized coffee tree in their backyard is extremely slim. Coffee trees require a lot of specific environmental circumstances in order to flourish and produce enough fruit for even one pot of coffee.
Firstly, coffee trees typically require very warm and humid environments, with some even needing tropical settings. In addition to that, coffee trees do best in areas with high elevation without cold temperatures, which very few areas can achieve.
That being said, many individuals have adopted coffee plants as houseplants, where they will typically grow to be about 6ft tall. They make beautiful evergreen additions to any indoor home decor. However, it is extremely rare that these plants will flower indoors, and they can only produce a small handful of fruits with careful and dutiful hand-pollination. So, while you may be able to grow the actual plant, it's unlikely you'll be providing your own coffee any time soon.