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Understanding the botany behind coffee growing

Here at DRWakefield, we are not just focused on sourcing and selling the best beans possible to our roasters, but we also take an active interest in the people and processes behind the physical growth of our coffee.

DRWakefield head trader Santiago Barahona has extensive work experience in agricultural development as an agronomist and takes a keen interest in the botany behind coffee growing, shedding some light on the subject in a recent interview.

Santiago talked us through the ideal conditions for growing both Arabica and Robusta varieties of coffee, while also explaining how creating hybrids can be beneficial for producers and the industry alike.

What exactly is botany?

Botany is the study of the science behind plant growth, taking into account factors such as structure, genetics, ecological conditions, classification and other biological attributes.

In the coffee world, this is an important area for traders and roasters to be aware of, as any changes in these factors and conditions could affect (both negatively and positively) the end product significantly, altering its cupping profile and quality.

Ideal conditions for coffee growing

Arabica and Robusta varieties naturally grow well under different conditions in terms of geographical area, altitude, climate and rainfall to ensure the best possible yields and quality are produced.

Santiago explained that Arabica beans are typically grown in the highlands, at altitudes of above 900 m, which provide ideal conditions for this type of coffee cultivation.

By contrast, Robusta beans fare better in lower lands, with altitudes of between 500 m and 900 m providing optimum growing conditions.

In terms of Arabica, it is widely accepted that the higher the altitude the beans are cultivated in, the better the quality will be – the higher altitude and lower temperatures generally aid in creating a very hard bean with a strong and complex structure that results in full-flavoured coffees.

High altitude beans tend to grow a little smaller than their lower-grown counterparts, but size is not necessarily a reflection on quality. For instance, Ethiopian coffee is often cultivated at altitudes in excess of 2,000 m, which can result in high-quality coffees. Temperatures of between 20 and 22 degrees Celsius are also best in this situation, Santiago explained.

How can hybrids help production?

Creating hybrids – where plants are bred together to allow their genetic factors to combine for a positive effect – can influence bean production levels, by preventing coffee-related diseases and damage in the event of a drought, for instance.

However, all of the coffees that are around today stem from the original Ethiopian beans discovered centuries ago in the country's highlands.

Santiago explained that there are natural and manmade forms of hybrids, both bringing about different benefits; "Blending or cross breeding different varietals according to agronomic needs, for example, to impact on yield or disease resistance."

He provided some examples of popular hybrid varieties among roasters and consumers alike, with Bourbon beans being a by-product of Typica, which itself stems from the original Ethiopian coffee. Then, Caturra beans have been created – something that Santiago explains was a natural occurrence, taking place as plants spread and needed to find ways to survive.

Yet in recent years, manmade varieties have begun to emerge, with technology and greater education allowing for more farmers to try their hand at creating hybrids of their own.

Santiago explained: "Manmade is always based on a specific purpose." This means coffee growers can have more control over the success of their crops, especially if they can make them resistant to common diseases – such as roya fungus – and adverse weather conditions.

Despite this, he added that it can take a very long time to produce a new successful variety. With each tree taking roughly four years to be in a position to produce seeds, it can take decades to successfully cross breed varietals and produce enough to roll out into commercial production.

However, some in the industry remain steadfast in their support for traditional varieties, claiming quality and cup profiles are better than their disease resistant, higher yielding hybrids.

What does the future hold?

Santiago explained that some coffee growers are looking to create a plant that is naturally free from caffeine – something that would provide roasters with an edge in terms of the decaffeinated drinks they serve.

Yet caffeine not only has energising properties for the consumer, but also acts as a defence mechanism for the plant itself, so whether or not a successful naturally decaffeinated variety can be created, only time will tell.

Photo credit: Thinkstock/passion4nature