Coffee break for botanists

What goes into a bag of roasted coffee? Espresso blends on the market often comprise an assortment of beans from different varieties, growers and countries. It goes without saying that the concept of botanical variety is somewhat vague. An yet, the taste of coffee in the cup is a combined effect of the terroir, meaning the land it comes from, and – especially – from the cultivar, that is to say, from its genetic base.

Thanks to European regulation regarding the traceability of food, in the future it will probably be easier to recognize the composition of the various blends on the market: while we wait for a clearer picture of reference for identifying varieties, let’s try to outline a sort of mini-botanical license for coffee.

Coffee is part of the Rubiaceae family, a group of cosmopolitan Angiosperms native to the tropics, distinguished by simple leaves and hermaphroditic flowers. The genus Coffea includes about a hundred species of which only a few are commercially relevant, specifically Coffea arabica, canephora – synonymous with Coffea robusta – and Coffea iberica.

If in a general sense varietal range means the combination of the different traits expressed by a species, there is also a more restricted meaning of the term variety, which is commonly used to indicate a determined genetic type and often a specific cultivar, that is, a variety grown and obtained through genetic improvement methods, a concept that is completely different than the notions of hybrid and eco-typical.

Technically the coffee fruit is defined as a cherry or drupa, so it’s a meaty fruit with two semi-spherical seeds: the beans. Although on plantations the plant doesn’t grow much higher than two and a half meters, in its natural habitat it can reach and even surpass eight meters.

Photo by Juan Camilo Trujillo