The History of Tea & Coffee
The tea plant is a flowering evergreen shrub. It belongs to the Camellia family and the correct botanical name is Camellia Sinensis.
There are two subspecies: sinensis (originally from China) and assmica (originally from Assam). They are called Thea sinensis or Thea assamica.
Chinese tea bushes (Camillia sinensis var, sinensis) were discovered over 2000 years ago. This tree can grow up to 4m and has small, fine leaves. The tree is cold resistant and grows slowly. The plant does not produce prolifically but the tea has a very fine aroma.
Assam (Camillia sinensis var assamica) was discovered in the 1820's in Northern India. The tree is a tropical tree and can reach heights of up to 20m. It grows quickly and has bigger leaves and produces a stronger flavour than the Chinese tree.
There is a third tea tree, which is considered artificial or hybrid. This tree is a cross between the two original plants. Tea farmers had tried to combine the weather resistance and the fast growth from the Chinese and Assam trees respectively. Nearly all the tea we drink today comes from hybrid plants.
The tea plant is reproduced by cuttings (a twig with one leaf and one bud.) They are grown for 6 to 18 months (depending on location and weather) in a nursery before being planted into a field. 15 - 20 thousand plants are required for a one hectare tea field.
The bushes need to be pruned regularly and after two to three years of grwoth and constant pruning the plant reaches a height of just on a metre with a density of twigs and leaves. Farmers can now begin harvesting or plucking the tea for consumption. The tea leaves are picked between spring and autumn, and depending on location, weather and the sort of tea leaves can be picked weekly or bi-monthly (basically every 7th or 14th day).
Similar to the production of wine, the final taste and quality of tea is influenced by contributory factors: climate, soil, altitude, conditions, how it is picked, when it is picked and how it is processed. Tea leaves grow slower at a high altitude. A combination of cool air and humidity promotes the desired slow growth. The higher a tea bush is grown the more flavour it has and the finer its quality. Celyon and the finest Darjeeling (the world's most popular and famous teas) are grown in high altitude 1500 metres above sea level.
Coffee is a member of the Rubiaceous family (Gardenias, Quinquina, Garence), it has a lot in common with Jasmine. The plant was first classified in 1753 and there are now about 60 different species, each having different varieties. However, there are two main types: Arabica and Robusta.
The coffee tree is a shrub with a straight trunk, which can survive for about 50 to 70 years. The first flowers appear during the third year, but production is only profitable from the fifth year onwards. 18th century botanists classified Coffee as a member of the Rubiaceous family. Of around sixty different species of coffee tree, two alone dominate world trade - the Coffea Arabica, or, more simply, Arabica, which represents 75% of production; and the Coffea Canephora, which is commonly known by the name of the most widespread variety: Robusta.
Here is a list of the three most wellknown coffee plants, all related:
Arabica (Coffea Arabica:from Ethiopia, known from prehistoric times)
Arabica beans do best at altitudes of 3,000 to 6,500 feet where the slower growing process concentrates their flavors. They have a much more refined flavour and contain about 1 percent caffeine by weight. Because of its delicate nature, the tree yields only 1 to 1.5 pounds of green coffee per year. This is the coffee that specialty roasters use. It accounts for about 75% of the world production. Because the Arabica tree is susceptible to disease, frost, and drought, it requires very careful cultivation with just the right climatic conditions.
Robusta (Coffea Canephora: from Congo, discovered in 1898)
Robusta beans come from a high yield plant that is resistant to disease. It does best at lower elevations and has harsh flavours. It contains about 2 percent caffeine. It bears more coffee cherries than the Arabica plant. It yields 2 to 3 pounds of green coffee a year. This plant is used for the lower grades of coffee that are sold in the market. Although generally not found in gourmet shops, robusta beans are often used in the processing of instant coffees and popular commercial blends.
Liberica (from Western Africa, of no great importance in coffee trade)
is the third recognized commercial variety, it is also hardy and low-altitude. It is a minor crop of coffee from Africa and is similar to Robusta.
How the Coffee Tree Grows
The coffee tree grows on varied soils - volcanic, siliceous clay, alluvial and peat and sand. Like the vine, soil gives a particular character to the same botanical species and different "vintages" arise. Soil must be deep (roots are 1 to 2 metres) and acid (pH 4.5 to 6). Important growing factors are:
- Avoiding excessive cold and heat
- 1200 - 1500mm of rain per annum
- A few hours of light per day
- No strong winds
- Altitude: the higher the better
Coffee grows between 28 degrees North and 30 degrees South; so growing areas include Central America, Caribbean, Brazil, West Africa, East Africa and Yemen, Madagascar, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Coffee Tree Flowers
The flowers are white with 5 or 6 petals. The pistil that emerges from the cupule is tipped with delicate stigmas. The shape and scent resemble those of Jasmine, and it is for this reason that the coffee tree was called "Arabian Jasmine" in the 17th century.
The flowers form glomerules, or little tufts made up of 8 to 15 elements, at the base of the leaves. They produce the same number of berries, commonly known as cherries because of their colour. The flowers last only a few hours and wilt as soon as fertilisation has taken place: however, others quickly replace them. As a result, it is not uncommon to find leaves, flowers and berries on the tree at the same time. One tree can produce over 30,000 flowers in a year.
Coffee Tree Leaves
The coffee tree is an evergreen with spear-shaped leaves, which are green and shiny on the upper side. As with all Rubiaceous plants, the leaves grow in pairs on either side of the stem and they are stipulated - that is to say, the two foliaceous organs are to be found at the base of the leaf stalk. The leaves of the Robusta trees are much larger than those of the Arabica.
The Coffee Cherry
The cherry is the name usually given to the fruit of the coffee tree. Botanists prefer to call it the "drupe". Green to begin with, the berries ripen over several months, becoming successively yellow, then red, garnet red, and finally almost black.
The ideal time for harvesting is when the berries are red. Inside the drupe, protected by the "mesocarp" or pulp, lie two small beans separated by a groove. These must be extracted and roasted before they can be used for consumption.
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