Felipe Osborne Shea


Most of us would have a problem if we had to do without our morning, and afternoon, and evening cup of coffee, or tea, or chocolate. These drinks are an integral part of our culture. We could live without them but it would take some time for us to adapt to alternate stimulants. (Try a hot cup of caffeine-free Pepsi with your toast and eggs.)

What did the Romans open their eyes with in the morning? What kept Michelangelo awake as he worked late at night painting the Sistine Chapel? Whatever it was, it was not coffee, tea or chocolate.

Coffee, tea, and chocolate (the drink) all entered West European culture within a time span of less than fifty years. The first coffee house opened in London in 1652 and in Paris in 1672. Cacao, the bean, had been imported to Europe since the early 1500s but it was about 1660 that the powdered bean was mixed with vanilla and sugar to make the chocolate we know. Tea was brought from China by the British about 1650. The price was so high that it was a hundred years before safe seas and fast China Clippers would permit it to replace coffee in the British cup. The early history of each of these three drinks has been lost. Mythical accounts of their discovery abound.

The original source of the coffee we drink was probably Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia. There it can still be found growing wild. From Abyssinia, coffee is presumed to have entered Arabia in the 1200s. Wars and the resultant conquests helped spread the bean. Taxes and religion tended to retard the beanís progress. Nevertheless, coffee was being drunk in Istanbul in 1554, in Cairo in 1570, and in Venice in 1590. Once coffee became popular in West Europeó there were 3000 coffee houses in London by 1700ócolonization rapidly spread its cultivation throughout the tropics. By 1725, coffee was being grown from Java to Brazil.

Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu claimed credit for introducing the first coffee tree to the New World. Sent by the French government to Martinique in 1723, he boarded his ship with two seedling coffee trees. He has written how, when water became short, he shared his tiny ration with the trees. One tree survived and by 1977, there were 18,791,680 of them on Martinique alone.

(Numbers like that bug me. Who counted those trees?) De Clieu told a good story which I consider only slightly mitigated by the fact that coffee was being cultivated in Haiti in l7l5 and in Surinam in 1718.

Species and Supermarkets

About 60 species of the genus coffea (Rubiaceae) can be found in the Old World tropics. Of these species C. arabica accounts for 75% of world consumption and C. canephora (which I will refer to as robusta) accounts for 24%. C. liberica, the only other species growing on my farm, and three or four others make up the remaining one percent.

Arabica coffee is what you find in U.S. supermarkets. There are many cultivars of arabica such as Puerto Rico Select, Bourbon, Caturra, Paca and Moca. Hawaii favors the cultivar Kona. The difference in these cultivars is in the height and shape of the tree, the shape of the leaves, the yield of berries, the time to first fruiting, the ease of picking, and the resistance to disease. All these characteristics can vary greatly within one cultivar depending on sun, soil, rainfall, fertilizer and the farmer. An expert can identify a cultivar by looking at a tree. Few experts would try to name the cultivar by looking at the bean. Once processed, all these cultivars yield arabica coffee beans.

Grown in full sun, a typical arabica tree will reach ten feet in time and 15-foot trees are not uncommon. Trunk diameter reaches three inches (but one of my older trees has a six-inch trunk). The fruit is borne on the lateral branches. The elliptical leaves, four to eight inches long, are paired and the pairs are spaced one to three inches apart. The surface of the leaf is undulate and the edges crispate. Each leaf pair creates a node where one to ten small white flowers bloom. Flowering is not simultaneous. Normally the blooming starts in late December and occurs in spurts every three to four weeks until May. The biggest spurt is in late January or early February.

Arabica coffee trees are customarily planted in hedge rows. Spacing depends on the cultivar and the preference of the grower. Reasonable spacing for the cultivar Paca is four feet along the rows and six feet between the rows. Puerto Rico Select is a bigger tree. Reasonable spacing for this cultivar is five feet along the row and eight feet between rows. If spaced too closely, picking becomes difficult and the pickers knock off berries as they harvest. Wide spacing encourages weed growth. Take your choice.

Ninety-five percent of the blooms of arabica coffee are self-fertilized before the flower opens. These flowers last only a few days. The fruit takes six or seven months to mature and results in an oval red berry about 3/4 inch long. The berry consists of the red skin inside of which you find the pulp. The pulp surrounds the "parchment" which is a thin shell of hard material that contains the coffee bean. The coffee bean, which is actually the seed of the fruit, is covered by a very thin and transparent membrane called the silver skin.

Berries and Beans

Traditionally, the coffee berry is hand picked. As the flowering of the trees is uneven, and individual berries mature over a period of months, the ripe berries must be extracted from "knots" which contain ripe, green, and green immature berries. (Wine enthusiasts will appreciate the term beerenauslese.) Arabica coffee berries do not hold well on the tree. If not picked within about a week of becoming ripe, they fall.

To maximize the yield of ripe berries, which result in first-grade coffee, three to six passes must be made through the trees during the harvest season. Toward the end of the season it becomes uneconomical to pick only the ripe berries. The pickers are then sent out to strip the branches. This stripping results in a mixture of ripe, mature green, and various degrees of immature berries.

Most berries contain two beans, The beans face each other and are flat-faced. A few berries, generally those at the ends of the branches, may contain only one bean that is shaped something like a pine nut. These "shell" beans are said to have a superior flavor. Where labor is cheap they can be separated out and sold at a premium price. An occasional berry will contain three "two- faced" beans, I have noted this particularly in the Paca cultivar. I am not a bean counter. In one place, I have read that it takes 1700 beans to make a pound of coffee and in another, that it takes 1700 berries (3400 beans) to yield a pound of coffee. One of those authors confused beans with berries.

Many Factors Affect Quality

Coffee beans are processed in two ways. One is by whole-berry drying. The berries are either dried in the sun or in special machines. Once dry, the husk (the skin, dried pulp, parchment and silverskin) is removed and the bean is ready for roasting. In Puerto Rico mature green berries, which have little pulp, are dried whole; all coffee is considered second grade if it is whole-berry dried.

The second method of processing coffee is the wet process and is used for ripe berries. First the berries are "pitted" to obtain the bean in its parchment which has some pulp sticking to it. Fermentation, about a twenty-four hour soak in water, is used to remove the pulp from the parchment. The beans are then dried in the parchment. As the parchment retards the deterioration of the bean, it is not removed until roasting is imminent.

There are many factors that influence the quality of the dried coffee bean. Weather is a prime factor. Uneven rainfall can arrest the development of the bean. Hot sun can burn the beans. A sudden rain shower can fall over beans being dried in the sun. A dry spell can leave fertilizer toasting on the surface.

Frost affects quality in two ways. It will, of course, damage the berries and wilt the leaves. The berries will not mature. In addition, frost implies a short growing season. Even when frost damage is minimal, cool winter weather shortens the growing season. The berries do not reach maturity and the resultant coffee is designated "harsh." Nobody likes to sell harsh coffee. In the coffee trade the euphemism used for harsh coffees is "Brazils." Where there is no winter seasonóthe Caribbean and Central America, for instanceóthe coffee produced is designated "mild." The terms "harsh" and "mild" refer to the quality of the flavor and not to the intensity of the flavor. "Mild" coffee can be brewed to yield either a weak or a "knock your socks offí cup.

Roasted At Last

Roasting is the last link in the chain of coffee production, but it is a very big link. By "big link" I refer to the size of the companies that roast coffee. Well-roasted coffee implies the beans are heated uniformly to the desired degree of roast. If the heating is not uniform the tips of the coffee tend to burn and the beans have been "tipped."

The art of roasting coffee has long been mastered. The color of the bean indicates the degree of roast and you will rarely find whole-bean coffee that is not uniform in color. Big companies have big budgets. As with any big company (producing autos, soap, television shows or coffee) a balance is always struck between producing a better product or spending more on advertising to convince the public that they are consuming a better product.

The degree of roast affects the flavor. Desired degree of roast seems to depend on nationality. Americans prefer a light roast. The "American roast" leaves the beans light brown to brown. The darkest roast is the "Italian," the beans being heated until they are almost coal black. With the "French roast," the beans are heated till they are quite dark and the oil of the bean has been brought to the surface making them shiny.

More than one person has asked me, "Whatís that?" when I showed them a handful of green coffee beans. Green coffee beans donít look that much different from large dried split peas with a slightly green tinge. Roasting coffee beans reduces the moisture content of the coffee beans but at the same time it puffs them up to two or three times their original volume. Roasting also gives coffee its flavor and aroma.

Roasted coffee, left exposed to air, deteriorates rapidly in quality. Ground coffee deteriorates more rapidly still. Coffee drinkers should note the difference in about a week. Canned coffee that has been vacuum packed or nitrogen flushed will hold its flavor quite well for months.

Flavor is a matter of taste and tastes are acquired. As with wine, people should drink coffee that tastes good to them, not coffee that they are told tastes good. Most people from coffee-producing countries prefer a dark roast and a strong cup. I will guess that this preference stems from the economic status of the small coffee grower. Coffee roasters cost money. Almost every family has a heavy metal kettle. Poor growers "toast" their coffee by heating it in a kettle while constantly stirring. This not only tips the ends but tends to burn the entire surface of the bean.

In my "barrio," the tradition is to add about a half-cup of sugar per pound of coffee beans just before removing the kettle from the flames. My neighbors say that the sugar brings out the flavor I suspect that they really like a burnt sugar component in the flavor of their coffee. One thing for sure, the melted sugar makes the beans glisten and more attractive to me. Possibly the sugar coating also protects the beans from exposure to air. Other neighbors tell me that whole-berry dried coffee has more flavor. Wine connoisseurs are known to appreciate a "touch of the wood." Maybe my neighbors appreciate coffee with "a touch of the berry."

What Price for a Name?

As we are on the subject of flavor, let me project a little of my natural skepticism about the seven, ten, and fifteen dollar-a-pound coffees I have seen in specialty shops. In San Francisco I once counted 38 "different" coffees for sale in only one shop. These coffees had imaginative names such as Super Java High Mountain, Surinam Swamp Grown, Angola Moonlight Picked, and Turtle Fertilized Virgin Kissed. Maybe so, but give me one hundred pounds of any one coffee bean, a little sugar, a little chicory, a little cinnamon, a clove or two, and I will produce no less than twenty roasts that look and taste different. This, and I am an amateur. For fifteen dollars a pound I will find a neighbor that will provide you with a Dark Side of the Moon Grown-LGM picked beans. I recommend that all such exotic coffees be consumed with a grain of salt.

Arabica or Robusta?

While the production of Coffea arabica dominates in the New World, Coffea canephora, almost universally called "robusta," dominates in the Old World. The reason for this may be that robusta is resistant to coffee rust (Hemileia vastatrix), a plague that can devastate a planting of arabica. For this and other reasons, except for price, robusta is probably the favorite species of coffee growers.

There are other differences between arabica and robusta. While it is not obvious to the naked eye, arabica has 44 chromosomes, robusta only 22. Robusta is self-sterile and needs pollen from another coffee tree to produce. Robusta berries need 10 to 11 months to ripen making this species unsuitable for frosty climates. Important for the grower is that the berries hold well on the tree, at times drying on the branch. The berry doesn't have to be picked immediately or lost. In general, robusta will produce 50% more coffee per acre. Important for the consumer is that robusta has more than twice the caffeine content of arabica (about 2.3% as compared to 1%).

In shade the robusta tree will reach for the sky and can pass 30 feet. Hand-picking on steep slopes makes height undesirable in a coffee tree. Therefore robusta trees are cut back to encourage multiple trunks. Where seedling trees are transplanted from a nursery, they can be planted at an angle of 20 to30degrees. This will cause multiple trunks to rise from the base. For this reason the typical mature robusta tree is 10 to 15 feet tall. A large trunk, below where it forks, can have a ten- to twelve-inch diameter.

The leaves of robusta are much like the leaves of the arabica, but larger, They are elliptical, undulate, and crispate. Typical leaf size is about ten inches long. Some leaves are as much as twelve inches long. The leaves are paired and form a node every three to five inches along the branch. Looking at an arabica tree in bloom from a distance one can get the impression that a light snow has fallen and stuck to the branches. Because of the larger spacing of robustaís bud nodes, and the fact that all flowers on a branch tend to bloom at once, a robusta tree in bloom looks like someone has stuck snowballs along the branches every few inches. (Southerners may substitute white pompons for snowballs.)

Robusta coffee constitutes about a third of my production. Iplantedrobusta because it begins to ripen in December just as my arabica harvest tapers off. This reduces my peak demand for pickers by extending the harvest from August to January. Specifically, I can get by with two pickers instead of the three I would need if I only planted arabica.

Because robusta trees are self-sterile, every berry is the result of a cross with another tree. This fact is not widely known in Puerto Rico. Local farmers, nursery owners and government experiment stations keep gathering berries from their favorite trees and then canít understand why the offspring are so varied. In countries where robusta is better understood, propagation is by cuttings. Care must be taken to plant cuttings from more than one tree. An acre planted with cuttings from only one tree results in a self-sterile acre.

The above explains why, from tree to tree, my robusta berries vary from small (the size of a green pea) to almost as large as the 3/4-inch arabica berry. The run-of-the-mill robusta berry has little pulp and in Puerto Rico is whole-berry dried. Once roasted, ground, and in the cup, robusta can be just as good to drink as arabica. The problem is that robusta is widely considered to be a second-grade coffee and, as such, receives second-class treatment all along the production chain. Almost every year I pick and wet-process some of my biggest and best robusta berries. This first-class treatment renders first-grade coffee.

Puerto Rico is coffee country. We like the kick from caffeine. Thatís why government regulations here permit the addition of 10% robusta to "arabica" coffee. It jacks up the caffeine content. Wisely, the government doesnít monitor the roasters too closely. Some of our coffee is jacked up a bit more than can be explained by the regulations.

Liberica for Caffeine Lovers

Liberica coffee (Coffea liberica) is the only other species of coffee with which I am familiar. This species is a real tree that can produce a trunk 12 to 76 inches in diameter and attain a height of 40 to 50 feet. If not cutback severely, harvesting becomes an acrobatic feat. I have four leaves of liberica before me. Two of the leaves are elliptical, the biggest measuring 13 by 7 inches, and two are oblanceolate, about 12 inches long. The leaves are leathery. Also on my desk is a leaf of Coccoloba uvifera.

Except for the shape and reddish tinge of the veins of the latter leaf, the leaves are very similar. As with the other coffees described above, the leaves are paired and create nodes along the branch where flowering occurs. The flowering of liberica resembles that of robusta but the berries are about the size of arabica. The berries ripen in May and June. This makes it inconvenient for coffee processors as they have to activate equipment that was been shut down following the robusta harvest. Processors donít pay much for liberica beans.

Liberica is no-doze coffee. The caffeine content can reach 3%. Many of my neighbors praise its flavor. (Maybe they are too stimulated to make a fair comparison.) The little liberica produced in my neighborhood is either allowed to rot, consumed at home, or processed to be mixed with arabica to jack up the caffeine.

Coffee Can Have Diseases

About one hundred years ago, coffee rust was detected in East Africa. This fungus caused extensive damage to plantings of arabica coffee. The spores of the fungus are easily transported by clothing, coffee sacks, animals and the wind. In the one hundred years since first detected, coffee rust has marched across Africa, leaped the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, and headed north, country by country, to Central America from whence it island-hopped across the Caribbean. The plague was probably brought to Puerto Rico by hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

Coffee rust can be fought with fungicides but the cost is prohibitive. This has led to the cross-breeding of arabica and robusta coffees (the arabustas) with the goal of combining the favorable characteristics of the arabica with the rust-resistance of the robusta. One of the better arabustas, the variety Catimore, has been planted extensively in countries infested with coffee rust.

The How-To of Roasting

I have described the toasting of coffee. I can only suggest a means of roasting green beans to those of you who may acquire some. I would start with a Dutch oven. Then I would crumple several layers of heavy aluminum foil and arrange them on the bottom to even out the heat. Next, I would cut

a piece of window screen and make a container for the beans to lay over the foil. I would not add the beans until this contraption is quite hot. Add the beans and lift the lid to stir every minute or so. When the beans are almost as brown as the coffee you buy, lift the screen and beans out and cool them rapidly. Roasting or toasting should take no more than 15 to 20 minutes. Then come the most important steps: Admit defeat gracefully, throw out the charred mess, go down to the store and buy a pound of your favorite brand.

Arabica, robusta or liberica, coffee is used widely in folk medicine. Drinking hot coffee is considered to cure headaches. A little lemon peel added to the coffee will make this cure even better. Coffee stimulates the heart and increases blood circulation. It also helps bring people out of fainting spells. Coffee is imbibed extensively to counteract sleepiness and less extensively to cure asthma caused by nervousness. Powdered green coffee beans, applied to arthritic joints, relieve the pain. And, coffee beans burned in a sick personís room will purify the air.

Let me close with a warning to coffee drinkers: Caffeine is addicting. For sensitive people, withdrawal from their daily caffeine kicks can be devastating. Fierce headaches, vomiting and diarrhea can put these sensitive people in the hospital. The most frequent sufferers from caffeine withdrawal are those who pick up the coffee habit at work but do not continue the habit at home on weekends. If these people drink Pepsi or Coke during the weekend, or are offered a cup of tea, they will be saved. If there is only 7-Up or Perrier in the refrigerator, they may spend Sunday under an ice pack.


The literature on coffee is extensive. A complete bibliography would surely run to volumes. Try "All about Coffeeí by William H. Ukers, The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, New York, 1922. If you are only interested in brewing coffee, The Coffee Brewing Center of the Pan-American Coffee Bureau New York, had published 128 papers on this topic by 1972.

The best advice, as always, is to visit your library and talk to a librarian about your special interests.


FeIipe Osborne Shea was professor of mechanical engineering at Cal State Sacramento. Now retired, he has a 40-acre farm in Puerto Rico where he grows many rare fruits in addition to coffee.


Coffee in California

David Silber

There are a lot of good reasons to grow your own coffee bush, not the least of which is the opportunity to make your very own "café de la maison." A treat for the eye is a lush coffee bush with its dark-green, glossy leaves decorated by clusters of bright red cherries. Early in the season the plant is covered with dense clusters of small, pure white flowers which emit a jasmine-like fragrance.

Most coffee plants that are sold are destined to become houseplants, grown solely for their attractiveness. In milder areas Iíd consider using them as an ornamental hedge; they are self-fruitful.

Do they grow in Southern California? Yes, but they are frost-tender when young. Nonetheless I have seen specimen-sized fruiting plants in Northridge (San Fernando Valley), at the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia, in West Los Angeles, and at the ranch of member George Emerich (Fallbrook) where heís growing five, 10-foot tall, beautiful, 7-8 year old specimen bushes. Itís evident that the plant is widely adapted to Southern California conditions.

Small coffee plants are available from some rare fruit nurseries or occasionally at full-line nurseries. If you purchase a 10í plant, expect to grow it for 2-4 years before the first flowers appear. You should succeed in growing it by following a few horticultural tips.

Young plants should be grown in 50% shade for the first two years, after which they may be located in full sun. But beware, the leaves will scorch if we get a hot Santa Ana wind. The best exposure would be full sun until 11 a.m. and then shade or dappled light the rest of the day. The planting site must be sheltered from strong winds, which will tear off leaves and break branches. Itís best to container-grow the plant for a few years before planting out. I recommend a well-drained potting mix, especially one designed for growing azaleas and camellias.

At my nursery (Papaya Tree Nursery) I maintain my container coffee stock in good growing condition by feeding with cottonseed meal every six weeks, supplementing that with Fertal-M or Fertal-Fe which I use as a soil drench to maintain a soil pH of approximately 6 and also to supply iron, zinc, manganese and copper. MiracleGro Miracid is another fertilizer option.

Itís important though to emphasize that coffee is a light feeder and is sensitive to excess soil salinity. So, Iíd use half the normal strength fed every two weeks. Coffee doesnít like to have its roots go dry, so water frequently and consistently.

When planting out I suggest incorporating plenty of compost and some peat moss as well into the planting site. This combination will give a good start to the coffee plant. After three months, begin feeding using an acid-type fertilizer; remember to go easy. George Emerich said he doesnít feed his bushes at all.

Berry harvest occurs sometime in late summer as a result of a spring bloom. A mature plant will easily supply four pounds of coffee cherries. These cherries may be eaten fresh; they are mildly sweet with little flavor, but watch out! I understand that the juice is loaded with caffeine. My wife Tina roasted some California homegrown coffee beans in a frying pan on top of the stove. She used a low flame and continually stirred. The process took 20 minutes. The result was judged excellent when we served some coffee brew at a meeting of CRFG members.

David SiIber reports from time to time on his

growing experiences. His Papaya Tree

Nursery is located at 12422 El Oro Way in

Granada Hills, CA 91344.