If you have the time and motivation to be browsing a coffee website then chances are you are at least a minor contributor to the 163 million bags of coffee consumed every year. However, what many of us avid coffee lovers may not know is the fascinating and painstaking journey that the unassuming coffee bean goes on to produce that perfect cup of brew.
Our aim in this article is to both inform you of this fascinating journey and to raise awareness and thankfulness for the millions of coffee farmers whose hard labour leads to your morning coffee!
What is Coffee?
So what is coffee? Well the short answer is that what we know as coffee beans are actually the dried, processed, and roasted pits from two main types of fruit trees.
The first of these is the Coffea Arabica tree and represents about three quarters of the coffee cultivated globally every year. Specialty Coffee almost exclusively comes from the Arabica. This tree is an evergreen shrub that grows best in higher and warmer climates and that is often cultivated to around three feet wide and six to eight feet tall. Because of its need for warmer temperatures it is especially grown through parts of Latin America, Central and East Africa, India, and Indonesia. It is also cultivated in hilly terrains with Brazil being the notable exception.
The other widespread coffee plant is the Coffea Canephora plant (more popularly known as Robusta). Robusta tends to be larger than Arabica and can grow up to 10 metres tall. Robusta can be grown between sea-level and around 800m so tends to be cultivated in more manageable terrains. Robusta is mainly grown in west and central Africa, South East Asia, and Brazil. While quality does of course vary from farm to farm Robusta tends to be of a lower quality than Arabica (although some attempts are being made to manufacture high end Robusta). Hence, it is generally produced for a more popular market and often ends up as the dreaded instant coffee. Also interestingly, Robusta coffee has about twice as much caffeine in it than Arabica.
Both Arabica and Robusta grow fruit the size of small cherries which usually contain two small seeds that become our coffee beans. Sometimes however these cherries contain only one pit which is then called a peaberry and usually represents around 5% of the crop.
From Seed to Roastery
The exact method of processing coffee beans does change depending on the size of the coffee farm, the given terrain, the level of technology available and the country the farm resides in. However, while there are differences most of these farms will still broadly follow these steps.
The very first step of the process is the planting and nurturing of coffee seeds. These seeds are planted in shaded nurseries where they are carefully watered and observed until they grow to around 18-24 inches in height. Interestingly when the plant first breaks out of the soil it looks like a small roasted coffee bean attached to a stalk! This initial germinating and growing period usually lasts 6-12 months after which the new plants are sturdy enough to be planted on the coffee farm. This planting often takes place during the wet season so there is plenty of moisture in the soil.
After the initial planting of the coffee trees the waiting game begins. It usually takes three to five years for these newly planted trees to fruit properly! This means that especially for smaller or start-up farms, the planting of these trees is a long term investment and not something they can quickly or easily leave. These trees are further endangered through a variety of pests and diseases, the two most common of which are leaf rust and the coffee berry borer.
After the initial three or so years the coffee plant will begin to produce either one or two harvests per year depending on the country. The coffee cherry starts out green and typically darkens to a dark red colour as it matures and ripens. This dark red colour (for most coffee plants) is the indicator that the fruit is ripe and ready for harvest.
What really complicates the harvesting process is that coffee cherries ripen at different times even on the same coffee tree! This means that the coffee farmer has a difficult choice between picking all the berries from a tree at once (which is far easier but leads to a high percentage of unripe beans being harvested) or picking them selectively (which is more labour intensive but tends to lead to a better crop). These two styles of harvesting are rather appropriately named strip picked and selectively picked.
Strip Picking can be done either by hand or mechanically with specialized machines. However the high and hilly terrains of most coffee farms prohibit access by machinery with the notable exception being portions of Brazil. Strip picking makes for a far quicker harvest with more cherries picked. However, the disadvantage of this method is that many of the cherries won’t yet be ripe and so will never actually be exported as edible coffee beans.
The more widespread and traditional form of harvesting is known as selective picking. In this method pickers will rotate among the coffee trees every eight to ten days picking only the berries that are evidently ripe. On many coffee farms this is a very communal and family orientated event where extra workers will be brought in and work hard until the harvest time is over. This method makes for a far more consistent and quality harvest and so is mainly used for Arabica trees. However the downside is that is it incredibly labour intensive and relies on a sufficient amount of motivated workers to be efficient (a downside that is becoming more and more of an issue as workers in many coffee producing countries are being drawn to the urban centres). A coffee tree can yield a harvest of two to four kilograms of cherries per harvest.
It is also important to note that various coffee professionals see the harvest as the high point in terms of the coffee quality. Every consequent step is simply about preserving the flavour and quality of these harvested beans.
Once the beans are harvested it is time for the cherries to be processed. This step has significant effect on the final flavor of the beans and must be done as quickly after harvest as possible. The way a given harvest is processed is often governed by the size of the farm and the resources and technology available. There are two main ways that the cherries are processed; the natural or dry method and the washed or wet method.
The natural process is the traditional process and is still widely used around the world. In this method the cherries are spread in a thin layer often over huge concrete pads or drying tables that are sometimes covered to prevent rain. The cherries are then regularly raked to prevent fermentation or mould and to ensure an even drying process. This drying process can take anywhere from three to five weeks and requires little or no machinery although bigger farms may use machine dryers to speed up the process. The aim is to bring the cherries to a moisture content of less than 12.5%. This process can produce unpleasant flavours in the final bean and so is more widespread for a lower quality coffee bean. It can also be used to produce a high quality of bean with often fruity flavours but becomes very labour and time intensive to do so. Once dried the outer husk and dried fruit is removed mechanically from the bean.
The washed or wet method differs in that the order is reversed and the flesh is removed before the bean is dried. In this method the harvested ripe cherries are put through a ‘depulper’ to separate the flesh and pulp of the cherry from the bean which is covered in a thin layer often called the parchment. The beans are then moved to a clean or fresh water tank where the rest of the fruit is removed via fermentation. The exact method of how much water, how much agitation, and how long depends on the given farm and its altitude and access to water. After fermentation the coffee bean is washed and then dried on either brick patios or raised drying tables. While this method requires more machinery it is generally considered a superior method and is regularly used for specialty coffee. The washed process tends to produce a cleaner cup of coffee with more acidity and complexity.
For either of these methods once the beans are dried they are still covered in a thin layer of skin called the parchment and are ready to be milled. At this point the beans are dry enough to be stored without fear of rotting.
Milling and Grading
The dried coffee beans are usually stored for a period of time before the parchment is removed for exporting. This ‘hulling’ process is done through a dry mill which gently removes the parchment layer as well as any additional pieces of the fruity flesh for beans processed via the natural method. It is at this point that beans can also go through an additional polishing method which is sometimes considered superior but does little to alter the final flavour of the beans.
Following this the coffee is graded by both size and quality before being exported. The beans are passed through a number of sieves with different sized holes to separate the larger and smaller beans. Following this the beans are graded by hand on long conveyor belts where workers will pick off any beans with defects. This is both a cost and labour extensive process but significantly adds to the final quality of the beans.
Beans are also graded on quality and taste. At this point small amounts of the sorted beans are roasted and ‘cupped’ or tasted to evaluate the taste and characteristics of the beans. The aim of this process is to be exporting a uniform batch of beans in terms of size and quality for an even and optimal roast. The beans are now put into either 60kg or 69kg bags and are ready to be bulk exported, often in shipping containers.
Here is a really helpful video about what this process looks like for a coffee farmer in Columbia who is part of a coffee co-operative.
The beans are now exported from their country of origin generally to a coffee roaster who will then roast and sell the beans. The price negotiation is often shaped by what is called the C-price which is something of a global price for coffee determined by supply and demand. However, the C-price does not necessarily reflect the price of production which means that depending on the C-price some coffee farmers might be producing their beans on a financial loss. This disparity has led to a number of different trade solutions aimed at giving a fair price to the often underpaid coffee farmers.
Perhaps the most well known of these is the Fair Trade movement. The aim of fair trade coffee is to import ethically sourced beans. This basically means sustainable pricing for the beans as well as humane and ecologically friendly coffee growing methods. This is a very widespread trade arrangement which now deals with almost 800,000 coffee farmers across 30 different countries. However this trade method has been criticised as providing no incentive for farmers to increase the quality of their beans.
This is a growing trend which basically means that the roasters sourced their beans directly from the coffee farmers without any middlemen involved. The idea is that by cutting out the middlemen the coffee producers get a fairer cost. However, this is not a legal term and so can be claimed by almost anyone and can be hard to validate. Also it does not necessarily entail any long term relationship between producer and roaster.
It is important to note however that middlemen such as importers and exporters are not necessarily the ‘bad guys’ and do provide a valuable service. The most important thing here is traceability as tragically some coffee farms do exploit workers. This includes child labour, inhumane working conditions, and even conditions similar to slavery. However it is worth noting that Brazil in particular has been fighting this trend and seeking to improve conditions.
So what should you do as a consumer? The most important thing to look for here is traceability. As coffee commentator James Hoffman says in his excellent book The World Coffee Atlas :
It is fairly safe to presume that if the coffee has been kept traceable, has the producer’s name(s) on it, or at least the name of the farm, cooperative or factory, then a better price has been paid.
Also most roasters are more than happy to chat about where and how they source their beans so go have a chat with your favourite roasters.
We hope this article has been both interesting and helpful in raising awareness for the many hands involved and extensive journey the coffee bean goes on to make it into your cup of coffee!
If you are interested and want to know more about this process and what it looks like in different countries we highly recommend James Hoffman’s World Coffee Atlas which we have found really helpful and a great read!
We would love to hear your thoughts on this post and any comments or questions you may have below!