Coffee has been consumed by humans for thousands of years. And unlike other drugs that may bring the DEA rappelling down from helicopters, it’s perfectly legal to grow. All it requires is patience.
There are over a hundred species of Coffea, and all but one contain caffeine. (The species C. charrieriana is the only naturally uncaffeinated species discovered so far.) But when it comes to drinking coffee, there are really only two species you need to know.
Coffea arabica is thought to be the first species of coffee to be cultivated, grown in Ethiopia for over a thousand years. It’s a low-growing, slow-going plant, and it can be fussy. So, of course, it produces the tastiest beans. Most specialty coffee comes from C. arabica plants.
Coffea canephora, sometimes called “robusta,” came along later. It grows faster and more easily (you could say it grows “robustly”). It’s cheaper to grow and the beans have more caffeine, but are generally more bitter.
I recommend getting yourself a C. arabica plant. They can be found surprisingly easily. I’ve spotted them for sale in the garden department of my local hardware store, but I live in San Francisco. If you can’t find one at a local plant shop, there’s always eBay, where they’re cheap.
Get an actual plant, not seed. Growing from seed is easy if the seeds are fresh, but you never know how old a seed is if you buy it online. And just in case you were thinking of trying it, a roasted coffee bean won’t grow – that’s like trying to grow a corn plant from a piece of popcorn.
Once you have your coffee plant, the good news is, they’re pretty easy to grow. Like any houseplant, all they need is a little light, water, and nutrients.
Light: Coffee is a shade-grown plant, usually planted under bigger trees, so it’s happy to grow in your house, so long as it’s near bright, indirect light. A great place is a few feet away from a bright window (not directly in the window, where the leaves might burn). If you don’t have one of those, you can always put it under a full-spectrum lightbulb. I’m growing some under fluorescent lights on a timer. (My neighbors were so disappointed when they found out what my drug crop of choice was.)
Water: Coffee is grown in wet climates, so don’t let your plant dry out. If you see the leaves droop or get brown and crinkly, the plant is too dry. Keep the soil damp, but not soaking wet. I prefer the kitchen sink watering technique: put the plant, pot and all, in the sink, and give it a thorough watering. Let it sit and drain for a few minutes, and then put it back where it was. This gets the soil thoroughly soaked, and lets all the excess drain away, so the plant isn’t sitting in water.
Nutrients: Put your plant in a nutrient-rich soil. In the beginning, that will be enough to feed the plant. But all potted plants need feeding, and coffee is no different. Try to find a fertilizer with “micronutrients,” which will include trace elements the plants want. Don’t fertilize too much! If you see brown around the edges of the leaves, you may be over-fertilizing.
As the plant grows, you’ll need to transplant it into larger pots. A good rule of thumb is, you should only be watering once a week. If you water the plant on Monday and the soil is bone dry on Wednesday, you should repot it into a larger container that will hold the water longer.
Once you have a happy, healthy plant, just keep doing what you’re doing for a few years. Like I said, this requires patience. But in the meantime, you have a beautiful houseplant, and something to talk about when guests come over. Tell them it’s the slowest cup of coffee you’ll ever brew.
Coffee plants blooming in Guatemala. Photo by Ryan Brown.
When the plant is big enough (usually a few feet tall), if it’s happy, it’ll flower. The flowers are small, white, and smell amazing – kind of like a citrusy Jasmine. They pop up from the stems, below the leaves. They only last a few days, so enjoy them while they’re open. In nature they’re pollinated by bees, but C. arabica is self-fertile, which means you don’t have to bring any bees in your house – the plant should set fruit on its own.
Coffee “beans” are the seeds in the center of the coffee fruit, referred to as a “cherries,” because that’s what they look like. The cherries spring from the flowers, starting out green and slowly ripening to red. But don't hold your breath – it can take upwards of eight months for cherries to ripen.
Coffee cherries from unripe to overripe. Huila, Colombia. Photo by Ryan Brown.
Coffee cherries ripen at different rates, even on the same branch, so there’s a skill to picking them at just the right moment. That’s why coffee is such a labor-intensive crop. They should be red and firm, soft but not easily squished.
Once they’re ripe, you can make new plants or make coffee. To make new plants, just remove the seeds from the fruit (there are usually two in each cherry) and plant them in a good seed starting mix. You can even just thumb a few into the soil of the original plant. Be sure to taste the ripe fruit – it’s a rare treat and packs some caffeine, too.
But to make coffee, you’ll need to clean the fruit off, let the seeds dry, remove the papery parchment layer, and roast them up. There are various home roasting techniques you can read about online. Or you can buddy up to the roaster at your local cafe. If you happen to be in LA, drop us a line, maybe we can help. Our roaster is always up for a challenge.
Once it’s producing, a happy Coffea arabica plant will produce about a pound of finished coffee beans a year, which would cover the average fiend for about a month, depending on brew technique. A plant in your home, however, is unlikely to produce that much. Luckily, Tonx is here to help the rest of the time.