coffee beans

A history of coffee

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by Jemma



Coffea Arabica is a an evergreen shrub that can reach up to 12 metres tall, though it is often trimmed to facilitate picking, and takes around 7 years to fully mature. The plant possesses foliage of broad, glossy, dark green leaves. It’s small, white flowers are not produced until 2-4 years after the shrub is planted. They are highly fragrant and often said to resemble the sweet smell of jasmine flowers. Over-flowering can lead to an inferior harvest of coffee beans, so the tree is often pruned to prevent this.

Coffea arabica with flowers in bloom. Image taken from
Coffea arabica with flowers in bloom.
Image taken from
Coffea arabica flowers.  Image taken from
Coffea arabica flowers.
Image taken from

Once Coffea Arabic reaches around 4-6 years old it begins to produce berries. These oval-shaped berries are drupes, meaning that they have a fleshy exterior surrounding the seeds. Most berries contain 2 seeds, which are frequently called coffee beans. It takes approximately 7-9 months before the berries ripen from green to yellow to red in colour. Since the berries can ripen at different times, it is possible for a single tree to possess both ripe and unripe fruit at the same time. For this reason, hand harvesting is vital for collecting good quality beans. After the plant begins to produce fruit, it can stay productive for over 30 years.

Ripe and unripe Coffea arabica berries. Image taken from
Ripe and unripe Coffea arabica berries.
Image taken from


The origin of Coffea Arabica is unclear, although it is believed that the plant was the first species of the genus Coffea to be cultivated for its beans. According to legend, cultivation began in Ethiopia after goats were seen mounting each other. Apparently they had become energetic after eating the leaves and fruit of the coffee tree. An herbal tea made from the plants leaves is still drunk in Ethiopia today.

Coffee beans Image taken from
Coffee beans
Image taken from

Early uses of the fruit did not actually involve the beans being drunk by themselves. African tribes originally crushed ripened berries and then mixed with animal fat, which allowed them to shape the mixture into balls that could be carried into battle for energy. Any early drinks would have probably been made with the juice of fermented berries rather than the beans themselves.


Coffee beans were soon exported to Yemen, who began to cultivate Coffea Arabica and spread the plant throughout Arabia. Coffee similar to how it is drunk today, i.e. with the plant’s beans, started to be served in coffeehouses by the middle of the 15th century. Coffee was then traded with Venetian merchants, who in turn introduced it to the European market. The drink steadily grew popular in Europe and in 1645 Venice opened its first coffeehouse.


At first, Arabs tried to keep monopoly on coffee trade. They boiled or dried any beans that were to be exported so as to prevent the seeds from germinating. However, their attempts were unsuccessful. Smugglers soon took seeds that had not been treated from the region and grew them elsewhere, particularly in India and Sri Lanka. Soon Dutch plantations in Java overtook the Arab nations as the leading exporter of coffee.

Materia Medica jar containing Coffea arabica beans
Materia Medica jar containing Coffea arabica beans

To distinguish between the competing beans, Arabian coffee was called Mocha (after the port on the Red Sea from where it was shipped) and beans from Dutch plantations became known as Java coffee. A drink that included both types of beans was, therefore, called Mocha Java. The Dutch managed to dominate the coffee market until the mid-19th century, when plant diseases and political disturbances ended their monopoly. However, trade continued from other plantations that had already become established around the world. The most notable was Brazil, which soon became the primary exporter of the bean.


There was a dark side associated with the high demand for coffee: its role in the slave trade. Between 1511 and 1886, millions of Africans were sold as slaves. Though they were primarily used as labourers in the sugar industry, a large number of slaves were used for the cultivation of C. Arabica. The use of slaves meant that, despite it being a labour intensive plant to harvest, coffee prices remained relatively low.


Today, the plant is still tended and harvested by hand. It has become an immensely important industry that employs around 30 million people worldwide. Coffee is now one of the world’s most popular beverages and is drunk is almost every country.

Dried coffee berries in small Materia Medica jar
Dried coffee berries in small Materia Medica jar

There are two species of coffee plant that are commercially grown: Coffea Arabica and Coffea robusta. Arabica is the more subtle of the two as it contains less caffeine. It is also the more expensive variety that accounts for around 75% of the world’s coffee production. The higher caffeine content in robusta gives it a harsher and bitter flavour compared to Arabica.