13.9.11

First Was Vanilla, then Chocolate
.......now Coffee



Coffee fruits or "beans"


fragrant Coffee flowers
 In the previous two blogs, I looked at two of the world's favorite food products, vanilla and chocolate, both of which have spawned global businesses. In this blog I'll look at one of the two remaining "empire" foods you CAN grow in your own garden: coffee. ( A hint for the next installation: it's an Asian Camellia).






Coffee is a curious brew of alkaloids and tannins and a smorgasbord of other chemistries with long names. Even when brewed well, it is bitter, sometimes sour, so what is the fascination with this stuff ? One of its attractions is its punch of caffeine, whose pick-me-up benefits outweigh the bitterness of the brew. Add some sweetener and a dairy product to mellow the taste and the mix becomes both highly drinkable and highly profitable. 40 years ago, if someone said they'd make a multi-billion-dollar enterprise based on a $ 5 cup of coffee with up to 6 additives, that someone would have been labeled a fool. Yet we now have exotic-sounding coffees mixed by "barristas", the coffee version of a bartender. How did all this business come about from a small tree with bright berries that were, in one television commercial, picked by a guy named Juan Valdez ?


a coffee "finca" ( farm) 

Almost every plant product which contains caffeine or one of its close alkaloid analogs has been grown commercially to a large extent. The list includes Kava Kava, Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and one of the quintessential alkaloid plants, Coca. Coffee is easy to grow commercially in low-mountain areas, where it grows best and produces the best quality beans in slightly cooler tropical conditions, usually in fairly rainy climates. It makes a handsome landscape plant here in South Florida, as well as its renewed popularity as a houseplant in many states. The fragrant white flowers are produced in abundance along the thin branches, followed by red berries containing a single large seed. The seed has a sweet white aril surrounding it, but the raw seeds have very little taste. As with chocolate, the true flavor arises after roasting. Unlike chocolate, there is very little processing involved with coffee, where the only steps needed are to dry the seeds, roast them, and grind them. 


Coffee as a landscape plant
Homestead, FL

There are several species in the genus Coffea, but the primary one used for commercial growing is C. arabica, native to Tropical Africa. A small tree to about 15 feet, it is commonly seen grown on hillsides, clipped to about 5 or 6 feet to making picking the seeds, also called "beans", easier. The vast majority of beans are still picked by hand. The beans are collected into burlap bags as has been done for a century or more, then transported to processors near big cities.


In the home landscape, these attractive trees should be grown in clusters to improve pollination, as well as make a better appearance to counteract the sometimes spindly look of a single tree. The trees appreciate bright light without a lot of hot sunlight, frequent watering, and well drained soil. A light, quarterly dose of fruit tree fertilizer will yield a solid plant with its trademark dark green foliage. In flower, the effect of a snowstorm of sugar-white flowers set against a backdrop of deep forest-green foliage is worth the effort to grow the trees. The added benefit of edibly ornamental cherry-red fruits is a luxury.



 As with many food products, there are fanciers of the art and sport of coffee. People are devoted to their favorite brand or region of coffee, and of course there are grower cartels to exploit this devotion. Hawaiian Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee are two premium types, both lauded for their excellent smooth taste and low acidity. Naturally, both are controlled by grower cooperatives who regulate supply carefully. They are not the most expensive coffees, though. That moniker goes to the exotic Kopi Luwak coffee from Java, which has the odd distinction of having its unique flavor due to the fact that the raw beans  were partly digested by an Asian Civet cat. The beans sell for over $ 300 per pound. I'll settle for some of the locally available blends for about $ 10 per pound at the local supermarket, thanks. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens                
     

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