I once had a mock debate with a tea-loving friend of mine about the superiority of either coffee or tea. Their central argument was essentially that ‘leaf water’ (aka tea) was far more appealing to the rational individual than ‘bean water’ (aka coffee). Though all was in jest, her point reveals a common and widespread misunderstanding about coffee.
Coffee is not a bean. There, I said it. And if that comes as a surprise, you are in good company. The term ‘coffee bean’ is an understandable mix-up between plant species, one that perhaps stems from a culture and society that has long imported coffee from distant places rather than see it grow on their own home soil.
So if it is not a bean, then what is it? Well, coffee is a flowering plant belonging to the genus Coffea, of which only a few produce what we would roast and brew as coffee. The coffee ‘beans’ are in fact the seeds of the plant which are encased in a fleshy fruit which the industry calls the 'coffee cherry'. And if you’re wondering, by chance, if coffee is a cherry, it’s not: that is yet another misnomer!
One delightful benefit of this knowledge is the awareness of another delectable treat produced by the coffee tree which is cascara, the flesh of the coffee cherry. Though tart, somewhat akin in flavor to a cranberry, it makes for a delicious beverage or snack. If that has piqued your interest, try out a refreshing cascara iced tea at Level Ground Coffee in Saanich or pick up a bag of cascara tea from Drumroaster Coffee in Duncan.
I am left to wonder why our terminology developed to be so strangely inaccurate. I would hazard a guess that it was a potent cocktail of selective histories, mis-translations over international borders, and enthusiastic marketing agencies getting carried away with ideas that were not wholly accurate. Nevertheless, sip your next cup of coffee confident that it isn’t ‘bean water’ in your cup, but fruit water!
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About the Curator
Joshua Gillingham is an author, board game designer, and coffee lover from Vancouver Island. He curates the Vancouver Island Coffee Tour. For questions or comments about VICT, map updates, or roaster openings and closures, send him a note via the community contact form.