Arabica Coffee Enjoyed Today and for the Past Few Millennia

Learn the origins and history of the gourmet bean

Coffee beans
In terms of dollars traded worldwide, only oil is traded more than coffee. Like oil, coffee's Arab and East African origins run deep. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The arabica coffee bean is the Adam or Eve of all coffees, in that is likely the first type of coffee bean ever consumed. Arabica is by far the dominant bean used today, representing about 70 percent of global production. 

History of the Bean

Its origins date back to about 1,000 BC in the highlands of the Kingdom of Kefa, which is present-day ​Ethiopia. In Kefa, the Oromo tribe ate the bean, crushed it and mixed it with fat to make spheres the size of ping-pong balls.

The spheres were consumed for the same reason that coffee is consumed today, as a stimulant.

The plant species Coffea Arabica got its name around the 7th century when the bean crossed the Red Sea from Ethiopia to present-day Yemen and lower Arabia, hence the term "arabica."

The first written record of coffee made from roasted coffee beans comes from Arab scholars, who wrote that it was useful in prolonging their working hours. The Arab innovation in Yemen of making a brew from roasted beans spread first among the Egyptians and Turks, and later on found its way around the world.

Taste

Arabica is considered the merlot of coffee, it has a mild taste, and to coffee drinkers, it can be described to have a sweetness, that is light and airy, like the mountains it comes from.

"Arabica is a medium-to low-wielding, rather delicate tree from five to six meters tall that requires a temperate climate and considerable growing care. Commercially grown coffee bushes are pruned to a height of 1.5 to 2 meters. Coffee made from arabica beans has an intense, intricate aroma that can be reminiscent of flowers, fruit, honey, chocolate, caramel or toasted bread. Its caffeine content never exceeds 1.5 percent by weight. Because of its superior quality and taste, arabica sells for a higher price than its hardy, rougher cousin,"​ wrote well-known Italian coffee grower Ernesto Illy in the June 2002 issue of Scientific American.

Growing Preferences

Arabica takes about seven years to mature fully. It grows best in higher altitudes but can be grown as low as sea level. The plant can tolerate low temperatures, but not frost. Two to four years after planting, the arabica plant produces small, white, highly fragrant flowers. The sweet fragrance resembles the sweet smell of jasmine flowers.

After pruning, berries begin to appear. The berries are dark green like the leaves until they begin to ripen, at first to yellow and then light red and finally darkening to a glossy, deep red. At this point, they are called “cherry” and are ready for picking. The prize of the berries are the beans inside, usually two per berry.

Gourmet Coffee

Gourmet coffees are almost exclusively high-quality mild varieties of arabica coffee, and among the best-known arabica coffee beans in the world. The gourmet growing regions include the Jamaican Blue Mountains, Colombian Supremo, Tarrazú, Costa Rica, Guatemalan, Antigua and Ethiopian Sidamo. Typically, espresso is made from a blend of arabica and robusta beans. The robusta species of coffee of beans makes up the 30 percent difference of global coffee bean production.