It’s a question I’ve often wondered too, where does coffee come from?
In todays world there are cafes on every street corner in most towns and cities. That is A LOT of coffee, and surprisingly most of it comes from only a couple of countries.
Before reading on, I bet you can’t guess which countries are in the top 5. If you get it right, well, you can give yourself a pat on the back.
Top 5 Countries That Produce The Most Coffee
When you think of coffee, you will probably think of countries like Brazil, or Colombia, but there are around seventy countries across the globe that produce the beloved beans.
Not all of these countries export their product, they keep them for their locals, but over 50 countries do. It’s these countries that provide the coffee shops around the planet with the highly demanded coffee bean.
But which countries supply the most coffee?
At the top of the list sits Brazil, which probably comes at no surprise. Being the leading producer of coffee, in 2019 it supplied the world with 2,652,000 metric tons. An astonishing amount. It’s around a third of the entire world’s consumption of coffee.
This isn’t anything new though. Brazil has been the top producer and exporter of coffee for over 150 years, but were not the first to grow coffee.
The Portugese that settled in Brazil were looking for a way into the coffee industry. French Guiana that borders Brazil were already producing a large amount of coffee at the time, and so a man named Francisco de Melo Palheta set off to obtain some seeds.
The French governor was unwilling to share his coffee seeds. However, Francisco being the charming man that he was, sweet talked the governor’s wife into sneaking him some. On his departure, the governor’s wife gave Francisco some flowers, and hidden in the boquet were some precious seeds. Francisco returned to Brazil and the rest is history.
Brazil has the perfect climate and geography for growing coffee. The soil, altitudes, and masses of land are some of the reasons why Brazil’s coffee industry has been a driving factor for the country’s development. It has over 27,000 sq km of land that’s used by around 300,000 coffee plantations.
A good cup of Brazilian coffee is usually medium bodied, has low acidity and includes some sweet notes.
Second on the list is Vietnam, which you probably wouldn’t have guessed. They started producing coffee in the mid 1800’s when the French introduced coffee to them. However it wasn’t until the late 1900’s that they upped their game and got serious about the amount of coffee they wanted to produce. Exporting 1,650,000 metric tons in 2019, they’ve quickly climbed to the number two spot on the list.
During the 1990’s, Vietnam’s coffee production was increasing by 20-30% every year, completely transforming the country’s economy. They started off by producing 6,000 tons, and are now getting closer and closer to 2 million tons every year.
The only commodity they export more of is rice, and so there are many people in Vietnam that rely on coffee production as a source of employment.
Vietnam coffee has evolved to become quite unique. Coffee producers over the years have been blending different strains of beans in order to make subtle changes to flavour characteristics and balance.
Often today, Vietnam serves their coffee in single cup brewers called phin. Commonly served sitting on top of a candle to keep the temperature hot, with a side of sweetened condensed milk. The condensed milk became popular due to the fact it’s easier to store in the humid and tropical climate, and therefore has become a tradition in Vietnamese culture today.
With the first two countries supplying almost half of the world’s coffee, the remaining 48 countries combined supply the rest. In 2019, Colombia exported 810,000 metric tons, making it to third on our list.
Only Arabica beans are grown in Colombia, and not just any old Arabica, but arguably the best in the world.
Armed with volcanic mineral rich soils, perfect rainfall and temperature and the various altitudes across the country, Colombia has the ideal growing conditions for the Arabica plant. Not only this, but the farmers pride themselves on harvesting the ripe berries by hand. People can tell the difference between unripe and overripe beans and the ideal bean that’s ready for harvest.
Over the recent years, Colombia has been struggling with an inconsistent climate, which has negatively affected it’s coffee production. It used to take second place, but due to this and Vietnam’s rapidly increasing supply, Colombia has dropped to third.
The very first exportation of coffee happened in 1808, with one hundred 60kg coffee bags. A priest named Francisco Romero has been attributed to cultivating the first coffee crops in Colombia.
In 2019, Indonesia exported 660,000 metric tons to put it forth in the leaderboard, even though many of us don’t see Indonesia as a large coffee producer.
The country has ideal growing conditions for the lower quality Robusta plant, and so that is what it mainly produces. There’s nothing wrong with Robusta coffee. It generally has a higher caffeine content and is often used in blends rather than as a single origin. Over 10,000 sq km are used to grow coffee, with the majority of plantations being small-scale family farms.
Indonesia is also home to the famous Kopi Luwak coffee, the most expensive coffee in the world. It has a rather unconventional production process. The coffee is harvested from the feces of the Southeast Asian cat-like animal, the Civet, creating a unique and distinctive flavour profile. Obviously it’s hard to source and time consuming to harvest, and so the supply doesn’t meet the demand which drives the price up.
Indonesia has been producing coffee since 1699 when it was introduced by the Dutch. By 1711, the first exports were sent from Java to Europe by the Dutch East India Company, making it the first place outside of Arabia and Ethiopia to cultivate the plant.
Being the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia has remained one of the largest producers of coffee throughout the world. Looking at the history of coffee you’ll see how it was discovered by a goat herder by the name of Kaldi. He realised that when his goats ate berries from a certain plant, they would become super energetic and wouldn’t sleep. So he tried them himself and voila – the discovery of the effects of caffeine.
Ethiopia produced 384,000 metric tons of coffee in 2019, topping off our top 5 coffee producing countries, and being the highest coffee producer in Africa. Over 28% of Ethiopia’s yearly exports are coffee and so a huge majority of their citizens are employed by coffee production, around 15 million people.
Thanks to the high altitudes, Ethiopia is home to some of the finest quality coffee in the world. Their most famous being the Harrar, which is grown in the Eastern regions of Ethiopia on small, independent family farms. Characterized by its wine like notes and fruity flavours, it’s certainly a coffee worth trying.
Some other famous coffees are Limu, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe beans which are all trade marked varieties of the Arabica beans, first cultivated in Ethiopia.
How Does Coffee Grow?
You may have noticed that we talk a lot about countries having ‘perfect’ climates and geography for growing coffee, but what does this mean?
What conditions are ideal for coffee to grow?
The Bean Belt
Bordered by the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer lies the Bean Belt. A strip of the planet that runs parallel with the equator that has perfect conditions for growing coffee.
A coffee tree (called a Coffea) is a woody perennial evergreen, covered with dark-green, waxy leaves that grow opposite to each other in pairs. This plant prefers rich soil and mild temperatures with lots of rain and sun, which perfectly describes most countries in the Bean Belt.
Not only these factors affect the way the Coffea grows. The different minerals and nutrients that are in the soil affect the flavours, as well as the altitude it’s grown at.
Coffea trees can grow up to 9m tall, slightly high for those poor farmers picking by hand in Colombia. In coffee plantations, the trees are normally cut back and kept in more orderly shapes to make it easier for harvesting.
The trees produce beautifully fragrant white blossoms, but once these begin to appear it’s not for another couple of years before the coffee cherries begin to mature.
Coffee trees are unique in regards to having mature and ripe fruit on their branches. They never stop producing fruit. They can simultaneously be flowering, have immature cherries and mature cherries at the same time.
There is usually one major harvest season per year which can last between four to six months. This period is incredibly labour intensive, with coffee pickers having to maneuver around the mountainous terrain.
The speciality coffee that people pay top dollar for has to be hand picked no matter where it comes from, as only ripe and mature beans can be used.
How Long Does Coffee Take To Grow?
If you take a seed, plant it and give it all the love it needs to grow, it’ll start to flower after about a year. From the point it shows its first flowers, it can be another two or three years until coffee cherries start to show.
Once this initial growing period is over, a coffee tree on average can live for forty years, with some plants living up to the age of seventy! Most don’t produce coffee for this long though. It’s in the first couple of decades that the trees really go to work on their berry production, after that their production rate slows down and the tree becomes less valuable to the farmers.
Recently farmers have moved more towards sun-grown coffee as opposed to the original and natural shade-grown method. Because of this, farmers have had to pick strains of the plant that perform well under the hot sun, which has had a negative effect on the life span of the trees.
Although sun-grown coffee has a higher production rate and therefore creates higher profits for farmers, it has a negative effect on the ecosystem and coffee quality. With the majority of suppliers and producers trying hard to become the first fully sustainable and eco friendly industry, it’s only a matter of time before we see the amount of sun-grown coffee decrease.
Arabica and Robusta Plants
Just like there are two methods of cultivating this delicious bean, there are two main species of coffee that are grown across the world. Arabica, and Robusta with the former being the most popular.
Arabica Coffee (coffea arabica)
Firstly, why is it called Arabica coffee? Although the coffee bean originated from Ethiopia, the tribes there crushed the berries up, mixing them with animal fat to eat as little edible balls of energy.
When coffee travelled from Ethiopia to lower Arabia, the beans were turned into “coffee” as we know it today. If Arabia was the first place to brew our much beloved cup of joe, then it’s no surprise as to why it’s called coffea arabica.
Arabica coffee species tend to have much larger flavour profiles than Robusta and are considered the better quality beans. The expensive, artisan coffees that are on the market today are most probably Arabica. Species like Bourbon, which is the pinnacle of coffee, is a variant of the Arabica species.
The farmers that choose to grow Arabica with care and take all the time it needs (which is a lot, many years), they are rewarded with high quality beans that satisfy the inexperienced coffee drinkers, all the way up to the connoisseurs.
The majority of South America produces Arabica coffee. For example Colombia produces exclusively Arabica to maintain that quality reputation it has.
Robusta Coffee (coffea robusta)
The Robusta coffee plant is the second most popular coffee species in the world, which comes from the coffea canephora plant.
It gets its name from the Italian word ‘robusto’ which means strong, resilient and hard. In the 1800’s, Arabica plants were hit with a complex and deadly disease called Coffee Leaf Rust. There was a certain species found that was resistant to the disease as well as other fungus’ and pests. Therefore, being named Coffea Robusta.
Robusta coffee is often used in instant coffee or for some espressos due to the much higher caffeine content. It has around twice as much caffeine as Arabica, but the flavours are of a lower quality. Caffeine has a bitter taste to it, and consequently makes Robusta coffee much more bitter.
Many roasters that want to make high caffeine content coffee, or want to lower their production costs make blends of the two. Taking the great flavours of the Arabica and the caffeine from the Robusta.
97% of Vietnam’s coffee production is Robusta, as well as Indonesia choosing it as their favoured species. Countries that use lower altitudes to grow their coffee tend to favour the Robusta variety as Arabica prefers the higher altitudes.
So there you have the top coffee producing countries in the world plus a few facts on the coffee plant itself.
Next time someone asks you where their coffee comes from, you’ll be able to narrow it down depending on what species it is.
Armed with your new knowledge, you can head over our coffee bean reviews to figure out which one you’ll try first.