The coffees emerged from the African continent – Ethiopia and Republic of Congo (then a Belgian colony) – way back, borne on the waves of trade and commerce, and of course an addiction for the magic brew which gave clarity of thought. The ‘original’ arabica coffee, as one may call it, emerged from Ethiopia during what some think was the 6th century, and went to Yemen to be cultivated for export and to a lesser extent, local consumption. In the 1500-1600s coffee was exported up from Yemen to Turkey, from where coffee fever took hold of Western and Northern Europe (the average Fin consumes 12kg of coffee per year; the most coffee per capita in the world). From there, coffee was brought to the United States; at the same time, it is thought that arabica was smuggled to India.
A route through which Latin America received arabica was through the Caribbean. Seeds had been brought to Martinique, an island in the Lesser Antilles volcanic island chain, from Paris by French colonizers, where it was cultivated using slave labor in the 1700s. From Martinique, Coffea arabica was brought to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, México, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guyana and today’s coffee giants of the Americas, Brazil and Colombia. Brazil also received the bourbon variety of arabica from the French, which brought it from plantations in Reunión – also maintained with indentured and slave labor up to the abolishment.
The route that robusta (C. canephora) took from its native Republic of Congo in the late 1800s and 1900s is a little less well known. This may be because robusta coffee is much less valued on the higher-value specialty coffee market for its bitter, astringent taste; instead it is used in instant coffees which cater to an entirely different market. Many coffee retailers advertise that their beans are 100% arabica for that added sense of luxury and promise of a better taste. Although that is not to say that robusta doesn’t sell outside of instant coffee – it is added to arabica in certain coffee brands for that oomph, that extra kick of caffeine and the presentation of the espresso shot.