What Exactly is Coffee?

Hey everyone,

I know a good amount of people drink coffee, but do they really know what exactly coffee is?  To be honest, I did not even know what it was or where it came from when I first started working at Black River Roasters.  The owner, Chris Merton, gave me some books to read about coffee and I thought it would be good information to pass on to you.

First, let’s start off by breaking down the coffee plant.  The word “coffee” comes from the Latin name of the genus Coffea.  The genus is a member of the Rubiaceae family, which includes more than 500 genera and 6,000 species, most of which are tropical trees and shrubs.  All species of Coffea are woody, but they can be small shrubs or tall trees more than 32 feet high.  The leaves range in color from yellowish to purple.

There are only three coffee species that have commercial significance in today’s world market – Arabica, Robusta, and Liberica.  They yield from three to twelve tons per hectare (2.5 acres).  Each cultivar requires a specific number of trees to create descendants.


In 1753, the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, identified Coffea arabica, which gives us Arabica beans.  The original plant discovered and cultivated for today’s coffee beverage, likely originated in present-day Ethiopia.  Arabica beans are used for more than 70% of the world’s coffee production.

Although Arabica naturally contains the least amount of caffeine, it possesses the finest, most desirable flavors.  The taste can range from sweet-soft to sharp-tangy.  Arabica coffee is often described as smooth and mellow.

Arabica trees typically grow between 12 and 20 feet high, and require cool subtropical climates with lots of moisture, rich soil and shaded sun.  They grow best at higher elevations between 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

There are two varieties of Arabica: Bourbon and Typica.  From these two varieties other sub-varieties, known as cultivars, are derived.  Many people consider coffee produced by Bourbon to be the world’s finest, quality-wise.  The problem is that they require significant space and care, are disease-prone, and are trees, which take longer to bear fruit and have a shorter life cycle.  Bourbon yields roughly one-third more beans than Typica and its cherries ripen faster, but they are more fragile.  Typica is often considered the original coffee type, has a cone shape and grows at a slant.  Although it grows well and taller than most other varietals, it tends to have lower yields.

Which cultivar a coffee farm plants depend on the farm’s terroir, climate, and disease resistance first, with productivity and yield considered second.  Quality follows last, if at all, because a coffee that won’t grow is not a good crop.

Additionally, since Arabica plants are difficult to grow and more prone to disease, they require more hand cultivation and yield smaller harvests per acre, making the beans much more expensive.


Robusta beans come from Coffea canephora coffee plant, which is hardier and a lot easier to grow than Arabica, requiring much less attention by farmers and it's less affected by climate changes.  Coffee growers once believed that Robusta would be Arabica’s best replacement since it has twice the caffeine content as Arabica and is highly disease resistant.

Robusta coffee trees are shorter, making their fruit easier to pick, and they require less space between trees, allowing more to fit on one plot.  They can also be grown at much lower elevations than Arabica beans.  In terms of care and feeding, Robusta quickly came a world commodity.

However, Robusta offers none of Arabica’s flavor distinction.  Some compare Robusta’s flavor to burnt rubber! There are good Robustas, but they are comparable in quality to low-grade Arabica.  Robusta beans are used for most everyday and instant coffees.


In the 1870’s, as leaf rust diseases spread through Arabica coffee fields, author Francis Thurber predicted that Liberica (Coffea liberica) would replace Arabica.  His prediction never came true.  Liberica’s flavor did not match the best Arabica coffee, and its per-plant yield was disappointing next to Robustas.  Meanwhile, hardier Arabica variants such as Caturra replaced more vulnerable Bourbon growths.

Today, Liberica thrives in Southeast Asia, but it has no real market penetration in the United States or Europe.

In Summary…

Arabica beans are far superior to Robusta and Liberica.  Black River Roasters only uses ultra-premium coffee beans (Arabica!) from small-yield cooperatives and estates.  One Arabica varietal that we would highly suggest you try is our Organic Papua New Guinea coffee.  

The Timuza Coffee Cooperative represents about 260 small-holder farmers of the Kamano tribal group, located southwest of Kainantu in the hamlets surrounding Namura town. The soils are are a mix of black & brownish red loam, with predominately traditional typica grown under casuarina and albizia shade trees. Average farm size is 1.4 hectares per family, with adjacent gardens for cultivation of food crops such as sweet potato, taro, and cassava. Farmers have received training and assistance in financial management, gender equality, coffee husbandry and standards for processing through local partners. The harvest takes place from April through September, with selective harvest of ripe cherry, manually pulping, fermentation in traditional bilum bags, washing, and full sun-drying. In 2016, Timuza placed 1st in the National Cupping Competition.

Try a cup of our Organic Papua New Guinea or any of our coffees today, as they are from the finest quality of Arabica beans from around the world!