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Coffee cherries

Grown in many countries in America, Africa and Asia, although coffee cherries have a delicious sweet pulp, they are mainly harvested for their kernels: coffee beans. The two main shrubs that produce coffee cherries throughout the world are coffea arabica and coffea robusta. Every year, over 120 million sacks’ worth of coffee beans are harvested, i.e. over 8 million tonnes.
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© Shutterstock / Idea tank

A history of coffee around the world

The discovery of coffee, the kernel of the coffee cherry, seems to have taken place in Ethiopia before the year 1000. Coffee was only exported much later, in the early 16th century, to Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, then Europe. Coffee harvesting is currently still the main economic activity of some communities in the ‘coffee belt’ area (on either side of the equator) in Africa and America.

Growing and harvesting coffee cherries

The coffee bush, a shrub in the Rubiaceae family, has long, dark green leaves and beautiful white flowers with a scent similar to that of orange blossom or jasmine. The coffee cherry is the fruit of the coffee bush and consists of the fruit pulp and two coffee beans wrapped in a silvery film and a husk (envelope). Coffee bushes from the age of three or four are ready to bear fruit. The berries reach maturity after nine months and have a dark red colour. A shrub can yield between 2.5 and 10 kg of fruit per harvest, giving between 0.5 and 2 kg of beans. Coffee bushes are mostly grown in the shadow of other plants, such as banana trees, which protect them from the sun and wind.

Coffee cherries are generally harvested by hand. There are two techniques for separating the two beans from the fruit: the dry process (unwashed coffee) and the wet process (washed coffee). The dry process entails leaving the berries to dry in the sun, while the wet process uses mechanical and liquid processes. The coffee beans are then separated from their husk and sorted so that only the green beans are selected. These are then generally roasted (heat at 180°C to 220°C), then packed for consumption. The fruit pulp is used as fertiliser, livestock feed or as an ingredient in essential oils.

There is a third, very particular method of harvesting the beans. Indonesian civet cats enjoy eating ripe coffee cherries, but do not digest the coffee beans. The latter are retrieved from their stools and are used to make Kopi Luwak, a mild, lightly fermented coffee with hints of chocolate aroma, reputed to be the most expensive coffee in the world.

Coffee cherry products

There are over 80 varieties of coffee bush in the world, most of which are cultivated in regions with a tropical or subtropical climate. Coffea arabica and coffea robusta are the two main varieties of coffee bush. The former is cultivated at altitudes ranging between 600 and 2000 m, mainly in Central America and South America, but also in East Africa. Coffea robusta is the most resistant to heat and parasites and is grown more widely in Africa and Asia, in low-altitude tropical regions. The resulting coffee is stronger and more bitter.

Legends old and new

Legend has it that circa 850, Ethiopian monks discovered the existence and above all the effects of coffee through their goats. These animals seemed very agitated, even after nightfall. The monks discovered that they had been eating unknown berries and tasted them themselves. They were disappointed by their bitterness and threw them in the fire, thus releasing the enticing aroma of coffee.