Coffee is a fruit. Most of the coffee in production today – around 70 percent or more – is cultivated from the coffea arabica species of plant. This plant is commonly known as Arabica. Grown between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the coffee plant grows cherries that contain seeds.
Coffee seeds take a long journey from seed to cup. The coffee sitting in my cupboard is in its final form. It is roasted. There is only one step that it needs to take before its journey is complete: my coffee needs to be brewed into a cup. I often forget about just how much work is involved in getting coffee to my house. I see coffee as a package that comes through my postbox every so often. But it is actually a complex agricultural product.
Planting the Trees
Coffee trees take about three to five years to grow, which means that it takes a long time for coffee plants to be ready to produce fruit. This is why disease can be so devastating to a crop. If a crop is destroyed, it can take years to replace it. Coffee trees grow fruit throughout the year, which is usually picked during one or two main harvests.
Coffee trees grow at different times of the year depending on their country of origin. Most farms that grow speciality coffee plant Arabica, which is less bitter and contains more subtle and delicious flavors than Robusta. Arabica may be delicious but it’s also more difficult to grow. It needs to be grown between 1,000 and 2,000 meters above sea level to attain the flavors we expect; the higher, the better. It needs to be grown at higher elevations because at lower elevations it is easier for pests to harm the plants.
Harvesting the Cherries
Coffee cherries are harvested during one or two main harvests, depending on the farm. The crop from the first harvest is usually valued higher than that of the second harvest, or the “fly crop.” Cherries can be picked either by hand or using mechanical pickers.
Most speciality coffee is picked by hand. This is because machines cannot distinguish between a ripe, underripe, and overripe fruit. A skilled picker is able to look and feel a bean and make a call as to whether it is ready. If beans are picked when they are under or overripe, they can have a big impact on the quality of the resultant crop. Care is taken to remove outlier beans but it is wasteful to remove beans from the tree before they are ready.
Harvest is the busiest time for coffee farmers. Farms look for all the labour they can get during harvest to make sure they can pick all the fruit. Many farms employ seasonal pickers. It’s not guaranteed that all the same pickers will go to the same farms year-to-year. Farms often rely on their own family to get involved with either picking or another stage of the coffee production process.
Processing the Cherries
Shortly after the cherries are picked, typically within a few hours, the coffee is sent away for processing.
There are three main ways in which cherries are processed: the wet, dry, and honey processes. In the wet process, beans are soaked and then underripe beans and foreign objects are separated from the crop. Then, the outer skin is removed from the bean using a depulper. The beans soak in fermentation tanks before being washed and then finally dried. The fermentation removes the mucilage from the beans.
In the dry process, whole cherries are washed and then immediately put on drying racks to remove moisture. The beans are frequently raked to ensure that no mould grows. The mucilage is left on the beans which is said to give them a sweeter flavor.
The honey process is a mix between the two and has many variations. In the honey process, some mucilage is left on the beans before they are put out to dry. The honey process skips fermentation. Beans are washed and depulped like in the washed process and then they are put out to dry on raised beds. The beans are raked, like they are in the dry process, so that the beans will dry evenly.
Processing can happen either on a farm or at a processing mill. The processed coffee will have a green hue. Once a coffee is ready, it is left to rest for about 30 to 60 days. This is said to give the coffee time to achieve just the right moisture level – between 10 and 12 percent moisture in total – before it is shipped. Then, any parchment skin is removed from the coffee.
Most coffee is stored in 69kg bags, although some countries store their coffee in different sizes of bags.
The Next Stages
All throughout the process from farm to cup, the coffee is losing weight. A bag of fully processed coffee will be significantly lighter than what was picked on a farm.
This is because processed coffee does not have any skin, mucilage, or other outer parts: it is just the green bean, maybe with some chaff left that has not been removed from the coffee. The roasting process reduces the weight of a bean even more. This is why 10kg of picked beans does not translate to 10kg of roasted coffee.
I’ve spoken about what coffee farmers to do turn their coffee from a seed into green cherries. In my next post, I’ll talk about how roasters find crops, how coffee is imported, and the remaining stages of the journey that turn the coffee beans from a crop into the roasted coffee that is delivered by the postie.