Around 850 CE, an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi was maintaining his livestock when together, they happened upon an unusual plant with berries. The animals began snacking, and Kaldi soon noticed a change in their demeanor. Instead of their typically calm selves, his goats were now filled with energy, prancing and frolicking across the highlands and refusing to sleep.

This piqued Kaldi’s interest, so he grabbed a bunch of the berries and brought them to a local monastery. Here, a monk came up with the idea of drying and roasting the berries and turning them into a drink, which might assist him and his fellow brothers in staying awake for prayers. As legend has it the concoction worked, and coffee as we know it was born. 

From the highlands of Maubisse 1,500 meters above sea level, a lucrative industry of East Timor thrives, that of growing coffee arabica beans for the export market. The organically grown high-quality arabica coffee beans are supplied to Starbucks which in turn packages it as Arabian Mocha Timor.

© Jürgen Freund / WWF

Today a morning cup of java is an essential part of the world’s wake-up rituals. There are various methods for brewing it, entire cafes devoted to it, and even a multitude of ways for preparing and drinking it, from spicing it with cinnamon and serving it in an earthenware mug like in Mexico to sweetening it with condensed milk as in Vietnam. But how much do we really know about this caffeinated elixir? 

How is Coffee Made? 

Although most people agree that coffee originated in Ethiopia, coffee now thrives throughout the ‘Bean Belt,’ a section of earth that lies between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. and includes countries like Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, and Brazil. 

Coffee plants grow best in moist, fertile soil that’s well-drained, and in sunlight that’s indirect—and prefer temperatures between 65 degrees and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. These woody evergreens can grow up to 32 feet tall in the wild and have green, glossy leaves. 

After about three to five years, coffee plants will begin producing small white blossoms, with small coffee cherries appearing about eight months later. They start off green, then turn either orange, yellow, or red when ripe. This means they’re ready to be picked. 

Ripe coffee fruit on a tree

© Kari Schnellmann / WWF-Switzerland


In most areas where coffee is grown, the berries are harvested only once per year: typically sometime between September and March north of the equator, and between April and August to the south. While there are plenty of places that utilize machines to harvest coffee berries, doing the work by hand is preferred—especially since not every berry ripens simultaneously and it’s easier to be selective when choosing them. 

The berry, or “coffee cherry” as it’s sometimes called, is where you’ll find the real magic: the coffee seed or “bean.” For the most part, each berry produces two beans. In the rare cases where there’s only one, it’s what’s known as a peaberry. These tinier, rounder beans by most accounts produce a sweeter, richer flavor. 


Once the beans are harvested, it’s time to remove their protective outer layers, including the skin, pulp, mucilage (a sticky, glue-like substance), and parchment. This can be done in two ways: wet processing or dry processing. 

Wet processing is the more modern method. It includes de-pulping the cherries soon after hand-harvesting (this method is essential for keeping the berries intact before processing), and then soaking them for about 24 hours until they naturally start fermenting. This way, it’s easier to remove the mucilage. 

With dry processing, the berries are laid in the sun intact and dried out over a couple of weeks. Once they turn naturally from their ripened color to brown or near-black, the dried outer layer is hulled off in one step, revealing a multitude of green beans. 

Drying coffee beans outside

© WWF-Indonesia / Des Syafrizal


The final step in coffee production, roasting is what brings out the beans’ flavor and aroma. While lighter roasts are brighter and fruitier, darker roasts tend to be richer and sometimes more bitter. 

Coffee Types

About 70 percent of the world’s coffee is arabica coffee. It’s the most diverse and dynamic coffee plant, a high-quality producer that flourishes at elevations between 3,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. With fewer sugars and fats than arabica, robusta coffee tends to be earthier. It’s also easier to cultivate and therefore less expensive. It’s often used for instant coffee. 

Thinking About Your Coffee 

If climate change continues as is, WWF estimates that half of the land that’s suitable for high-quality coffee today will be unusable by 2050. 

While arabica coffee traditionally grows in cooler mountainous climates with ample shade, climate change is leading to an increase in temperatures, and therefore less land for growing. At the same time, there’s been coffee-leaf rust, a fungus that has devastating effects on coffee plants and thrives in high humidity. 

Coffee production by the Paiter Suruí people inside the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Land. The whole process is pesticide free and integrated with the conservation of the forest. Rondônia, Amazon

© Ubiratan G. Suruí / WWF-Brazil

Coffee is grown in more than 70 countries, but nearly three-quarters of its harvest comes from five of them, including Brazil, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. This leaves small coffee farmers to do what it takes to increase their yield, from quicker-to-age sun-grown coffee, which leads to deforestation and soil erosion, to the use of pesticides. 

To make sure your coffee is as “green” as possible, WWF offers a range of Nespresso-compatible coffee capsules that are fully compostable (including the lids) and filled with a 100 percent Arabica coffee blend. 

What WWF is Doing to Support 

Knowing how much the planet’s coffee drinkers love a good cup o’ joe, WWF is involved in several programs to help coffee farmers, producers, and consumers be sustainable. 

In September 2018, we helped co-develop a framework for Starbucks Greener Stores, part of their commitment to create 10,000 “Greener Stores” globally by 2025. This includes powering stores entirely with 100 percent renewable energy, lowering water usage by 30 percent, and utilizing sustainably sourced materials and products. By April 2023, Starbucks had already certified 3,508 Greener Stores. 

WWF has also produced a working draft—open to debate and discussion—on ways coffee farms can mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, which are raising Earth’s surface temperatures, leading to longer and more severe droughts, and increasing forest fires. Suggested practices include improving their use of fertilizer and promoting agroforestry, or integrating different plants and trees among coffee farms. 

Along with WWF’s ongoing efforts to prevent deforestation and forest degradation, we’ve partnered with pulp and paper company International Paper on Brazil’s Raizes do Mogi Guaçu, a program “that sets out to restore forests in priority areas across the Mogi Guaçu landscape,” and in turn help coffee farmers

Cup of coffee on table

© Kari Schnellmann

Experiencing the World of Coffee for Yourself 

If you ever want to see where and how coffee is grown, Nat Hab offers an 8-Day Classic Costa Rica custom adventure that will take you for a tour of Cafe de Monteverde, a multi-generational coffee plantation in the country’s cloud forest where you can learn about sustainable production methods. Or head to Africa on Nat Hab’s Great Uganda Gorilla Safari to experience the fertile volcanic soil of Uganda’s highlands, which are brimming with coffee plantations.