In our article about coffee-growing countries, we explained where coffee comes from. But how exactly does it grow? We are going to take a look at what kinds of coffee plantations exist today and whether you can also grow coffee at home.
Do you know how melons, star fruits or mangoes grow? Neither do we. However, we know a lot about coffee cultivation. We know, for example, that coffee grows in more than 85 countries, is happiest in equatorial regions and loves a balanced mix of light, shade, humidity and heat.
Coffee is ... well, what is it?
First, coffee is not a bean but a plant. Over the course of several years, this plant grows into a impressive tree. This tree bears the cherries that contain our famous beans. People often refer to them as coffee bushes because the tree is cut back considerably to allow a better harvest, thereby losing its volume. So much about the plant in general.
To be precise, there is, of course, no such thing as the coffee plant – there are many different species, and several different varieties of each of these species. Around 99 per cent of the beans that are used for coffee are either Arabica or Canephora, which is also called Robusta. And each variety prefers a different cultivation method.
Garden cultivation: welcome to the wild, wild east
Garden cultivation is probably the most natural way in which coffee can grow, because it does so just as it wants to: in the wild! The prime example is Ethiopia in East Africa, which is not referred to as the birthplace of coffee for no reason. Here, the coffee grows wild in the forest or on very small plantations next to houses where it can grow naturally.
The varied flora and fauna means that it is hardly attacked by pests, because the insets keep each other in check as part of the circle of life. The biggest downside is that the trees are hardly or only slightly cut back and industrial fertiliser is not used, which means that the yield is relatively low. With so-called mixed cultures, such as the additional cultivation of fruit, farmers can increase their yields.
Shade cultivation: for coffee plants that burn easily
Contrary to the more robust Canephora, the Arabica plant is not fond of the sun. It is for this reason that it is not grown alone in most countries, but rather between other plants – so-called shade trees. Avocado trees, banana trees or the Poro, a classic shade tree in Costa Rica, are ideal for this purpose.
These trees are not only there to protect the Arabica plants from the sun – they also prevent soil erosion and provide natural fertiliser with their leaves. However, the plants grow more slowly in the shade, so the yield is also smaller with this method. However, the slower growth also ensures a higher quality, as the cherry has more time to develop its full sweetness. And this, in turn, has a positive impact on the stone – the coffee bean.
Sun cultivation: the heat isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
In sun cultivation, the opposite applies: due to the direct sunlight, the cherries grow very quickly, which results in a high yield. The plantations can also be located very close to one another because there are no other trees in the way.
This type of monoculture, however, also has its disadvantages: due to the lack of biodiversity, the coffee plants are more prone to pests, require fertiliser and have to deal with soil erosion. For this kind of cultivation, the heat-loving Canephora plants and some new Arabica crossbreds are used.
Terrace cultivation: Botox for the coffee tree
Terrace cultivation is a very unique method. As the name suggests, the coffee trees are grown on terraced slopes that resemble the inside of an amphitheatre. What’s special about this method is that the trees are cut back every three years.
And while the time between harvests is longer, the yield is far bigger. This is because cutting back the trees rejuvenates them – it encourages blossom growth and thus the production of coffee cherries.
Cultivation at home: bringing Africa into the living room
For cultivation at home, however, you don’t need terraces or avocado trees – and you don’t need to move to Brazil. You can also grow coffee at home if the seed is planted in a warm environment with a high level of humidity and sufficient light, and is watered regularly. You just need to know how to trick the coffee plant into thinking it is near the equator.
We have managed to do precisely that and are already cultivating coffee plants in Zurich. It will only be a few years until the office plants produce their first coffee. And in the meantime? It’s time for a cup of Café Royal.