Coffee growers and coffee lovers have reasons to worry about the world’s caffeine supply. Coffee is susceptible to fungi, like Hemileia vastatrix (“coffee rust”), which damages the leaves, and to Colletotrichum kahawae, which destroys the fruit. It also succumbs to the coffee cherry borer, a small beetle that lays eggs within the coffee berries’ seeds, which we call coffee beans. And it doesn’t do well with weather flukes, like heat waves, droughts, and unusually heavy rains—all of which not only stress the plants, but can help pathogens take hold.
But the issues aren’t limited to extreme weather events or pest attacks. The perils also lie within the coffee plant itself. Even though an average coffee shop may boast more than a dozen varieties, with diverse origins and tastes, most of our beans are produced by the same plant species, called Coffea arabica. First found in Ethiopia, C. arabica became the most cultivated variety (it still is today). As legend has it, the plant was first discovered by a herd of curious goats that liked to eat the berries off the plant. The goats, people noticed, became incredibly energetic afterwards. Following the goats’ clues, humans began to brew the berries into an energizing drink. And in the early days, coffee was used as a mystical sacrament, playing an important role in religious ceremonies as men and women sipped it from a shared bowl they passed around.
Early on, C. arabica wasn’t a cultivated crop, more of a nature’s bounty that people and animals foraged for. It was likely first domesticated in Yemen, which managed to hold a monopoly on its production for over two centuries. Eventually, the coffee beans made their way out into the world—and spread quickly. Around 1690s, the Dutch East India Company brought some beans to Europe. Planted in the Amsterdam Botanical Garden, the beans grew and produced fruit. From there, the plants were sent to Suriname, in South America. A few years later, the English brought them to Jamaica, and the French to Martinique. In about the same timeframe, C. arabica arrived in Sumatra, Ceylon, and the Philippines. In Brazil, coffee cultivation commenced around 1774. […]