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Seed to Cup

Have you noticed that more and more people are starting to show signs of interest in the origins of the coffee they are drinking?

This new-found interest is the direct result of the Specialty Coffee movement and how the coffee industry is becoming a more sophisticated one.

Coffee lovers like us, these days have access to higher quality coffees and so, we are starting to distinguish the kind of coffee we like, and that is why we start asking; where does this coffee come from? What is the type of bean? Is it an Arabica or a Robusta?

Originally from Ethiopia and Yemen, coffee now spans the globe: Africa, Asia, South America, Central America, and even California.

Each growing region produces different coffee because of differences in climate, soil, plant genetics, water, bacteria, and a variety of other variables. Even two farms right next to each other can produce wildly different tasting coffee.

Great coffee farms monitor their crops carefully, adjust fertilizers, adapt water cycles, prune plants, and rotate fields every couple decades.

Farmers are scientists, but they’re also caretakers who nurture their plants to good health.

2-5 years after being planted, those coffee plants start producing little cherries. Inside these cherries are two coffee seeds (green coffee beans).

Farms employ trained seasonal workers during harvest season to collect ripe cherries. For millions around the globe, these periods of harvesting put food on the table. All the flavors, aromas, sugars, acids, and other tasting elements are created at the farm. The next stage, processing, allows farmers to manipulate those flavors to achieve their target result.

Let’s take a moment to look at this complicated process and embrace the journey of the coffee bean from the moment it has been grown and harvested to the moment you pour your very first cup.

Planting

A coffee bean is actually a seed. When dried, roasted and ground, it’s used to brew coffee. If the seed isn’t processed, it can be planted and grow into a coffee tree.

Coffee seeds are generally planted in large beds in shaded nurseries. The seedlings will be watered frequently and shaded from bright sunlight until they are hearty enough to be permanently planted.

Planting often takes place during the wet season, so that the soil remains moist while the roots become firmly established.

Harvesting the Cherries

Depending on the variety, it will take approximately 3 to 4 years for the newly planted coffee trees to bear fruit. The fruit, called the coffee cherry, turns a bright, deep red when it is ripe and ready to be harvested.

There is typically one major harvest a year.

In countries like Colombia, where there are two flowerings annually, there is a main and secondary crop. In most countries, the crop is picked by hand in a labor-intensive and difficult process, though in places like  Brazil where the landscape is relatively flat and the coffee fields immense, the process has been mechanized. Whether by hand or by machine, all coffee is harvested in one of two ways:

Strip Picked: All of the cherries are stripped off of the branch at one time, either by machine or by hand.

Selectively Picked: Only the ripe cherries are harvested, and they are picked individually by hand. Pickers rotate among the trees every eight to 10 days, choosing only the cherries which are at the peak of ripeness. Because this kind of harvest is labor intensive and more costly, it is used primarily to harvest the finer Arabica beans.

Processing Cherries

The Dry Method is the age-old method of processing coffee, and still used in many countries where water resources are limited.

The freshly picked cherries are simply spread out on huge surfaces to dry in the sun. In order to prevent the cherries from spoiling, they are raked and turned throughout the day, then covered at night or during rain to prevent them from getting wet.

Depending on the weather, this process might continue for several weeks for each batch of coffee until the moisture content of the cherries drops to 11%.

The Wet Method removes the pulp from the coffee cherry after harvesting so the bean is dried with only the parchment skin left on.

First, the freshly harvested cherries are passed through a pulping machine to separate the skin and pulp from the bean.  

Then the beans are separated by weight as they pass through water channels. The lighter beans float to the top, while the heavier ripe beans sink to the bottom. They are passed through a series of rotating drums which separate them by size.

After separation, the beans are transported to large, water-filled fermentation tanks. Depending on a combination of factors -- such as the condition of the beans, the climate and the altitude -- they will remain in these tanks for anywhere from 12 to 48 hours to remove the slick layer of mucilage (called the parenchyma) that is still attached to the parchment.

While resting in the tanks, naturally occurring enzymes will cause this layer to dissolve. 

When fermentation is complete, the beans feel rough to the touch.  The beans are rinsed by going through additional water channels, and are ready for drying.

Drying the Beans

If the beans have been processed by the wet method, the pulped and fermented beans must now be dried to approximately 11% moisture to properly prepare them for storage. 

These beans, still inside the parchment envelope, can be sun-dried by spreading them on drying tables or floors, where they are turned regularly, or they can be machine-dried in large tumblers.

The dried beans are known as parchment coffee, and are warehoused in jute or sisal bags until they are readied for export.    

Milling the Beans

Before being exported, parchment coffee is processed in the following manner:

Hulling machinery removes the parchment layer (endocarp) from wet processed coffee.  Hulling dry processed coffee refers to removing the entire dried husk — the exocarp, mesocarp and endocarp — of the dried cherries.

Polishing is an optional process where any silver skin that remains on the beans after hulling is removed by machine. While polished beans are considered superior to unpolished ones, in reality, there is little difference between the two.

Grading and Sorting is done by size and weight, and beans are also reviewed for color flaws or other imperfections.

Beans are sized by being passed through a series of screens.

Exporting the Beans

The milled beans, now referred to as green coffee, are loaded onto ships in either jute or sisal bags loaded in shipping containers, or bulk-shipped inside plastic-lined containers.

Roasting the Coffee

Roasting transforms green coffee into the aromatic brown beans that we purchase in our favorite stores or cafés. Most roasting machines maintain a temperature of about 550 degrees Fahrenheit. The beans are kept moving throughout the entire process to keep them from burning.

When they reach an internal temperature of about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, they begin to turn brown and the caffeol, a fragrant oil locked inside the beans, begins to emerge.

This process called pyrolysis is at the heart of roasting it produces the flavor and aroma of the coffee we drink.

After roasting, the beans are immediately cooled either by air or water. Roasting is generally performed in the importing countries because freshly roasted beans must reach the consumer as quickly as possible. 

Grinding Coffee

The objective of a proper grind is to get the most flavor in a cup of coffee. How coarse or fine the coffee is ground depends on the brewing method.

The length of time the grounds will be in contact with water determines the ideal grade of grind.

Generally, the finer the grind, the more quickly the coffee should be prepared.

That’s why coffee ground for an espresso machine is much finer than coffee brewed in a drip system. 

Lastly, we brew, and enjoy!

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