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From Seed to Cup: Sourcing, Exporting, and Roasting

Published on under the Coffee category.

A ramekin containing coffee beans, sitting on a black marble counter

Many speciality roasters visit the farms or co-operatives from which they buy coffee. This allows the roaster to get to know the crop from the people who are growing and processing it. These visits give roasters insights into a crop that cannot be found without having direct contact with a farmer or co-operative. Direct trade has become popular for this reason: a direct connection between the farmer and roaster lets the roaster learn more about their product.

I’ve read that some of the bigger roasters try to visit origin farms from which they source beans a few times a year. On these visits, a roaster can see the crop before it has been processed and can learn more about the journey the coffee takes before it ends up at the roaster. Indeed, coffee does not go straight from a processing mill to the roaster. There are steps in between.

Sourcing

Roasters and coffee companies regularly employ green coffee buyers whose job it is to travel the world and find coffee beans to buy.

To determine which coffees to buy, green coffee buyers cup coffee. Cupping is a method of evaluative tasting that lets someone determine the quality of a coffee. Green coffee buyers will get to know a farm and then try a range of different samples from that farm. The end result of their tasting is a cupping score, ranked on a scale of 0 to 100. Any coffee over 80 is considered speciality quality.

But, a green coffee buyer does not just seek coffees with a score over 80. That score only represents the quality of a crop. They may be looking for specific flavor notes for a blend. Or they may find that a coffee they taste would not fit in with their range of offerings. A green coffee buyer can only purchase so much coffee so they have to make sure that what they buy in the end is what they think will produce the best cup for their customers.

Exporting

Roasters rely on exporters to bring the coffee from the farm or the co-operative to their roastery. Exporters will source the desired coffee from a farm, which is often packaged in jute or grainpro bags. These bags are used to preserve the freshness of green coffee beans. While green coffee does last a lot longer than roasted coffee, it does not last forever.

Roasting

Green coffee beans are used to make drinks in some traditional ways of brewing coffee but most of us are familiar with coffee made from roasted beans. Who is responsible for turning the one or two seeds from a coffee cherry into a brown bean, packed with flavors we home brewers can extract? That is the roaster.

Before a roaster starts to roast a coffee, they will develop different profiles within which the coffee should be roasted. This process involves thinking about what has worked in the past and using experience to determine how best a bean will roast. Not all beans roast evenly. Peaberries (a seed from a coffee fruit that has only produced one seed), for instance, may roast quicker because they are smaller than other beans. Coffee beans are generally sorted by size at a coffee farm to make sure that all their beans are consistent but a roaster still has to know to what degree each type of bean should be roasted.

A roaster will use a small sample roaster to try out different roasts. They, alongside other members of a roastery, will taste various roasted samples to determine which one is best. This is done using the industry-standard cupping method that I discussed earlier. Cupping is crucial at this stage because it lets a roaster verify that the quality of a bean has not been affected during transport. If a bean was graded 82 on a farm and is now a 78, the roaster knows that something has gone wrong within the supply chain.

Using their tasting notes, roasters will come up with a roasting profile for the bean. This profile is a guide for how the bean should be roasted. The first profile may not be the one that’s used all the time. A roaster may roast a bean differently depending on whether it is for an espresso machine, a filter coffee, or a blend that the roaster is working on. After the roasters have a profile, they will start to roast their green coffee beans.

Green coffee beans can last for up to a year after they have been harvested. Some coffee companies, especially in Italy and Japan, leave their beans for longer because they believe that as coffee beans age they acquire unique tastes. This means that a roaster can roast beans to-order. When an order comes in, green beans are opened and then dumped into the roaster for roasting.

The Final Brew

Once a coffee has come out of the roaster and has been cooled, it is ready for packaging. A roaster will add details like the country of origin, the region of origin, the varietal and cultivar of the bean, and the altitude at which the coffee was grown, to the bag. They will add their own flare to the bag to appeal to their customers. It is only after coffee is packaged that we, the consumers, can buy coffee from a roaster.

The journey of the bean is not quite over. Coffee has to be prepared well, otherwise it will not taste nearly as good as it could. Not only that, coffee beans are forever changing, so how they taste a few days after being opened may be different to how they taste a month after being opened. But, if you take care while brewing, you should be able to extract all of the great flavors from a coffee.

Millions of people, from baristas to farmers, depend on the coffee industry for their livelihoods. Ever since I’ve started drinking speciality coffee, my idea of coffee has changed from something that comes from a jar into this very complex process that is capable of producing a delicious cup when done well. This is why it is so important that everyone in the supply chain, especially farmers, are fairly compensated for their work.

Without farmers, we would have no coffee; without co-operatives and processing mills, coffee would not be processed; we need green buyers to cup coffee and filter out the best beans that can be classed as speciality; we need importers; we need roasters to roast coffee; we need cuppers to help us understand what flavors exist in a particular cup of coffee. Coffee is complex but it’s fun to learn how coffee goes from a bean to a final brew.

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