The coffee bean is actually the seed of the coffee "cherry" fruit, which grows on coffee trees. The plant (which looks like a tall bush or shrub) is known to grow in many countries along the equator, where the coffee bean is a major export. The climate of the United States does not allow for the growth of the coffee plant, but it remains one of the major consumers of the beverage--90 percent of the population consumes coffee daily--making the country a major importer of the coffee bean.
The coffee plant grows in Africa, Southern Asia, Central and Southern America and some Pacific Islands, where there is always hot weather and plentiful rainfall. It prefers temperatures of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with 90 percent humidity and a relatively high altitude. Countries where coffee is grown for export tend to line the equator, where there will never be frost.
The coffee plant grows year-round in this climate and has a lifespan of anywhere from 60 to 100 years, but it does not usually produce for the first 5 years after planting. Although some of these growing conditions may vary depending on the variety of the bean, none of the plants will allow for any major changes in their environment without affecting the crop.
The coffee plant produces a fruit that is called the coffee "cherry" or "berry," which is similar in appearance to the common cherry we eat but with a much larger pit. Each pit, or seed, contains two "beans," which will later be cleaned and roasted for flavor. (Some seeds will only contain one bean, called a "peaberry"; these are sometimes discarded or sold in a different coffee market.) These cherries are hand-picked, and the farming of the crop has been a business for families in many countries for thousands of years.
Caffeine, which is a legal stimulant that comes from within the bean, is what makes the coffee crop so valuable for export. Caffeine continues to be the most widely consumed drug worldwide, solidifying the significance of the plant. People of many countries rely on the constant farming and exporting of coffee beans to live; it's a part of the worldwide economic system of supply and demand.
The average coffee tree yields about 1 to 3 pounds of coffee beans per year, which requires the picking of approximately 4,000 to 10,000 beans. The caffeine, which is in the endosperm part of the seed, is meant to be the plant's natural defense against anything that might eat it, as it's meant to be toxic for small creatures. Clearly, it has had the opposite affect.
Each coffee cherry is hand-picked, and the beans are removed from the pits (the fruit is discarded as waste or used as fertilizer). There is a thin covering that coats the beans, called the silverskin; this is removed before the roasting process. The beans are roasted anywhere from 7 minutes (light roast) to 22 minutes (french roast). The lighter the roast, the more raw the bean flavor, whereas the darker the roast, the more you begin to taste the actual roast instead of the bean.
There are two major types of coffee that supply the majority of the world's coffee trade: Arabica coffee (coffea arabica), which accounts for about 75 percent of the export, and Robusta coffee (coffea canephora, but named after its robust flavor), which covers about 20 percent.
Some of the other known types of coffee are coffea liberica, coffea excelsa and coffea stenophylla, but they are rarely sold commercially. Through cross-pollination and modern growing techniques, many new and different types of coffee plants are becoming available--each producing different coffee "beans" with various flavors and different levels of caffeine.
Coffee is a valuable product because of its caffeine content, a substance that has been scrutinized for years over its various affects on the body. Although women who are pregnant and those with certain health complications should avoid consuming large amounts of caffeine, the drug is said to have little affect on people besides giving them a short burst of energy, followed by a quick crash in energy when it wears off.
Some coffee beans have been found to contain less caffeine than others, but it is the stimulant that makes the crop so valuable. Not only does this drug allow for a brief peak in energy, but it is said to speed up the metabolism to promote weight loss and also to contain healthy antioxidants that fight disease and cancer.
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