According to the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) the coffee plant can be considered both a medium-sized tree and a shrub depending on the species as well as the cultivar. They can stand up to 25 ft. tall but if pruned, naturally taller varietals can be dwarfed - most commonly to facilitate hand picking. As a result, most specialty coffee plants tend to be on the smaller side of the spectrum.
The fruit is a 2-seeded "drupe" fruit, commonly called the coffee cherry. Like peaches and olives, drupe fruits have an outer fleshy part surrounding a hard shell; in this particular case the seeds are the coffee beans. Despite having a sweet and delicious taste, if you squeeze open the coffee cherry you will find that there is hardly any fruit or pulp at all - most of the drupe is filled by the two slippery seeds.
When it comes to varieties most of us have a hard time telling if there is a difference among them - one could argue that all of them are coffee and should taste like coffee. Botanically speaking the proper way to dissect the subject and open your mind to the wonderful nuances is:
Family -·- Rubiacea is known as the coffee family and has 6,500 species worldwide. Flowers usually have both male and female sex organs.
Genus -·- The genus Coffea has about 100 species, only a few of which are commercially relevant.
Species -·- Arabica makes up approximately 70% of the world's coffee production. There are adjacent species not so common in specialty coffee that include Canephora (Robusta variety, widely popular in Brazil) and Liberica. Of all of the Coffea species, only Arabica is self-fertile, and therefore can be self-pollinated. The Arabica species also have lower caffeine contents than Canephora one, and is also more prone to diseases.
- Variety -·- This form of classification outlines differences between plants that retain most of the characteristics of the species, but differ in some way. Among the most relevant in the specialty coffee industry are:
- Gesha or Geisha
- Red/Yellow Bourbon
- Blue Mountain
- SL-28 and SL-14
Cultivar -·- A cultivated variety that is produced by horticultural or agricultural techniques and not found in natural populations. Most of the varieties we work with in the specialty coffee industry - like Bourbon and Typica - are actually cultivars.
- Hybrid -·- Created by crosses between two different species of the same species, hybrids may occur through naturally or selective breeding. For example, Catuai is a hybrid of Typica and Bourbon.
We hope this approach gives you another perspective into the specialty coffee world, proves useful when making decisions, and provides relevant data needed when choosing the kind of coffee you like the most. Enjoy.