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Upland coffee and lowland coffees

Coffee trees are evergreen shrubs of the family Rubiaceae. Coffea arabica originated in
Abyssinia; it is found in the forests of the Ethiopian uplands, where it has been picked for
centuries. The species comprises the varieties Typica, Maragogype, Bourbon, Blue Mountain and
Mundo Novo. Arabica has traditionally been seen as better quality, in view of its fine flavour,
mildness and easily recognizable smell, and also its low caffeine content. The species Coffea
canephora, which produces Robusta coffee, grows wild on the sub-equatorial plains of West and
Central Africa. Robusta, with a more ordinary taste than Arabica, has a high caffeine content.
Arabica coffee trees grow up to 5 or 6 m tall and Robusta 10 to 12 m. The trees are then pruned
to a height of 2 to 3 m. The oval leaves are evergreen and shiny. They grow in pairs, one each
side of the stem. Coffee can bear flowers and fruits of varying degrees of ripeness at the same
time.

Several times a year, particularly at the end of the dry season, coffee trees are covered in very
strongly scented white flowers that grow in the leaf axils. The flowers are pollinated by insects
and the wind. The short-lived flowers fade directly after pollination, becoming fruits after two to
three months. They are then replaced by other flowers.
The fruits are initially green and then turn yellow and eventually bright red. They are the size of
a cherry, and indeed are commonly known as cherries. They grow in tight bunches in the leaf
axils of young branches. The fruit comprises a skin, varying quantities of sweet, yellowish-white
pulp and two oval seeds, side by side. Robusta cherries ripen within eight to twelve months and
Arabica in six to eight months. Each seed is surrounded by a pale yellow sheath called the
parchment.
Brown gold
Arabica originated in Ethiopia and spread via Yemen to the rest of the world. Coffee was claimed
to facilitate nocturnal religious ceremonies by keeping the participants awake, and as such was
drunk by the Sufis of Yemen as early as the 14th century. The beans used to prepare it were
imported from the Kaffa region in Ethiopia. The beverage very quickly spread to the sacred sites
of Islam such as Mecca and Medina, and left the closed world of the Sufis for public
coffeehouses, in Baghdad, Damascus and Alexandria, and then in Constantinople, in 1554.
Yemen began to produce coffee in the first half of the 16th century, by which time the drink had
already conquered the whole of the Arabian peninsula and the Middle East. Europe was quick to
follow suit.
Throughout the 17th century, there were prosperous plantations in Yemen. After growing rich
from the spice trade, the town of Mocha on the Red Sea thrived on the coffee trade, becoming
the world’s largest export port. Until the 18th century, coffee, which came from the countries of
the Levant, was very costly and highly coveted. The sultan of the Ottoman Empire found a
radical way of protecting his monopoly: before shipment, all the bags were inspected and the
coffee beans blanched to prevent them germinating and being grown elsewhere. However, in the
17th century, the Dutch managed to obtain a few beans that they planted in India, Ceylon and
then Java. They also opted for a monopoly, and imposed the death penalty for anyone trying to
export plants from their colonies. However, they did give one plant to every botanical garden in
Europe. In 1714, the representative of the Dutch East India Company gave some coffee trees to
Louis XIV. The young plants were acclimatized at the Jardin du Roi in Paris (now the Jardin des
Plantes), and were the ancestors of the first plants grown in the French colonies in the Americas,
particularly Martinique, from where coffee spread to Latin America.

Arabica and Robusta do not require the same type


of care

Each species has its own ecology. Arabica likes cool climates without frost, and prefers mountain
ecologies. It is thus found in the uplands of East Africa (where it originated), the volcanic areas
of central America and the Andean slopes of South America. However, some of the main
production zones, such as Brazil, are not high-altitude areas.
Robusta prefers low altitudes and hot and humid equatorial-type climates, where cocoa and
banana also grow. The main production zones are the plains of West Africa, Vietnam and
Indonesia.

Arabica varieties are grown from seed as they are self-fertilizing. The species is thus classed as
autogamous. The seeds can only germinate for a short time (a few months after harvesting).
They germinate within two months or so, and are transferred to the nursery at the “little soldier”
stage, where they remain for around nine months before being planted out in the field.
Robusta is traditionally grown from cuttings, as it is allogamous: the progenies of a given coffee
tree fertilized by pollen from outside are very heterogeneous. The best coffee trees are
propagated by planting half-stems with leaves in cutting trays. Once the cutting has rooted, it is
transferred to the nursery for a few months before being planted out. In vitro plantlets can also
be produced.
The Robusta surge
Arabica can adapt well to tropical climates tempered by altitude. However, it will not grow on the
plains of equatorial and subtropical zones, which are either too hot or too humid. At the end of
the 19th century, the discovery of Robusta in the Congo opened the way for coffee growing on
lowland areas. The name Robusta is far from a misnomer: the variety is more vigorous and
disease resistant, and also higher-yielding. It was not until the early 20th century that colonial
Robusta plantations really took off. The spread was halted by the Second World War and
resumed in Africa after the wave of independence, supported by the new governments and with
strong support from smallholders, particularly in Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire. Robusta did not
restrict itself to Africa. It also spread to northern Brazil and Asia: Indonesia, India, the
Philippines and then Vietnam, which is now the world’s second largest coffee producer.
Arabica is planted at densities of between 3 000 and 10 000 plants per hectare. It begins to bear
after two to three years. Flowering is triggered either by cold or by a dry period. In the event of
a very marked dry season, the trees may flower once or twice a year. In the cold and constantly
rainy climates of mountain areas, coffee trees may flower four or five times, if not more, over
several months. Fruit set (the time the fruits take to ripen) lasts six to ten months. Annual
upkeep is restricted to pruning, weeding, fertilization and sometimes phytosanitary treatments
against pests and diseases.

Robusta is grown in a similar way to Arabica. However, it is often grown in the open, at lower
densities (1 000 to 3 000 plants per hectare). The fruit set time is shorter.
A hectare of Arabica or Robusta, managed appropriately and set up with selected material,
produces between 6 and 7 t of cherries, which means 1.2 to 1.3 t of commercial coffee after
processing. When coffee prices are very low, growers invest very little in their coffee plantings.
They let shade trees grow and restrict themselves to weeding. Under these conditions, a hectare
of coffee trees produces between 600 kg and 1 t of cherries, ie 100 to 200 kg of commercial
coffee. Large, intensively managed plantations in the open can produce good yields for around
30 years. Coffee trees grown under shade and with little upkeep produce less but can last 50 to
70, if not 100, years.