What the Fruit: Coffee is Not a Bean

Question: How do you start the day? 

Answer: Coffee.


Is this true for you?  It’s true for me.  And yet, very few of us call coffee by the correct term: seed.


Coffee is actually a seed, and therefore a fruit.  After our “Fruit or Vegetable?” post, it won’t come as a surprise to find out that the culinary name isn’t botanically accurate.  


Pictured is part of the mural restoration on North 38th in Fremont. The original artist is Patrick Gabriel restored by Norma Baum.

The coffee plant is thought to have originated in Ethiopia.  While the exact geographic location is not definitive, coffee doesn’t usually grow outside of what is known as the coffee belt: between 25 degrees north and 30 degrees south of the equator.  Coffee is a small tree, not quite a shrub, and what we can quaintly call a treelet (raise your hand if you didn’t know that was a word).  This term usually applies to the widely consumed species Coffea arabica, and the less consumed Coffea canephora (“Robusta has a bitter taste that has been likened to burned rubber.” Wall Street Journal).  Arabica comprises 60-70% of global coffee production, with Robusta (Coffea canephora) as the remainder.  All species are angiosperms, which means flowers are blooming on these plants.  The flowers yield drupes, often called cherries.  Inside these cherries are seeds… and these seeds become your morning cup of coffee.  Or rather, the seeds yield your morning cup of coffee, unless anyone is out there blending seeds in water and drinking the whole concoction.

Don’t try boiling an unprocessed seed and expect your normal brew, however.  Coffee is a complicated fruit.  The picking, washing, and drying processes are essential to the end product.  Cherries must be picked off the tree and then the fruit pulp quickly removed (called the Wet Method, meaning the seeds have an additional drying step) or left on to dry (the Dry Method).  Once the seeds are reduced to 11% moisture, the next step is hulling to remove all of the fruit.  Once polished, graded, and sorted, the little seeds are ready to be roasted. 

Unfortunately, all the hard work of harvesting can be destroyed by poor roasting.  Coffee roasters shoulder much of the burden in making coffee taste like coffee rather than burning rubber.  There are some roasters that buckle under this pressure and produce something resembling dirty water.  The act of roasting, usually occurring in a machine reaching around 550 degrees Fahrenheit, should keep the seeds in constant rotation to prevent burning… but if you’ve been drinking coffee long enough, chances are you’ve been burned, because it’s been burned.  

 Is there a way to prevent an unpleasant coffee experience?  The bad news:  we are not entirely in control of our coffee, as the aforementioned processing is up to harvesting and roasting.  The good news: we can control from whom we purchase coffee and how we prepare it.  (There are internet resources better than myself for those who need help with this decision.  Sprudge is a good one, along with specialty coffee roaster websites.)  Seattle has plenty of options, with many local roasters and shops selling great out-of-state coffee.  These purveyors will likely tell you via a stamp or sticker when their coffee was roasted.  Coffee coming in bags should have a roasting date somewhere on it: “Roasted on: XX/XX/XXX.”  Not only does this inform the consumer, but also it indicates that the roaster knows when this coffee was roasted (and that they care to tell you).  Coffee might technically last a long time, but the quality of coffee peaks within a few weeks of roasting, and then begins to decline.  Remember that coffee is a fruit?  Fruit doesn’t age well, unless we’re talking about wine.

At City Fruit, we don’t harvest any coffee treelets, but we are mighty interested in the end product.  We really are The Fruit Tree People, as fruit means more than you think!  If you’re wondering what trees we do harvest, and have fruit you’d like to share with the community, click here