Where Do Coffee Beans Come From?
If you’re a lover of coffee, then you know that the most delicious coffee comes from freshly ground coffee beans. Those coffee beans are harvested yearly from two main varieties of coffee trees, the coffea arabica tree and the coffea canephora tree. Arabica variations are the most popular and make up about 70% of the coffee market. They tend to be finicky and difficult to grow, but the result is a mild and aromatic coffee bean that most people love. The other popular variety, canephora, is more often referred to as robusta. It makes up about 30% of the world coffee market.Typically it has a much higher caffeine content and is used in blends or to make instant coffee.
Although there are two coffee trees that most of the world’s coffee beans come from, there are estimated to be as many as 100 different species of coffee trees. They can grow up to 30 feet high with coffee cherries (that hold the beans, which are actually seeds) and dark green leaves lining the branches. A coffee tree’s lifespan is between 20 and 30 years with cherries growing in a continuous cycle. Each cherry houses two mature coffee beans inside its many layers.
After a new coffee tree is planted, it can take up to 4 years for the tree to flower and produce fruit. From that point, it takes around one year for the fruit, or coffee cherries as they are sometimes referred as, to become a harvestable product. Once harvested, the coffee bean goes on a journey that can last for months before it makes it to a store near you. So, grab a cup of your favorite coffee and travel along with us on the journey of a coffee bean from crop to cup!
Coffee Beans Are Picked
Before coffee beans become your very own steaming cup of coffee, they have to be harvested from the coffee tree plant. Around eight months after the coffee tree flowers, you can tell the beans are ready to be picked when the cherries turn from a bright green color to a deep red color. The coffee beans themselves can be either hand picked or harvested by machines. In most countries, the land on which the coffee trees grow is steep and requires labor-intensive hand picking. Some countries that grow coffee, like Brazil, have flatter coffee tree farms and can use harvesting machines.
There are two ways of picking the coffee cherries: strip picking and selectively picking. Strip picking is when all the cherries are harvested in one go. It can be done by either handpicking or mechanical harvesting. Selective picking is more time consuming and is the process of only picking the cherries that are between half red or completely red which means they are ripe. Usually, there are eight to ten days in-between hand pickings.
Handpicking coffee cherries is a monumental amount of work. The cherries ripen at slightly varying times that causes farmers to do quite a few pickings. The most challenging aspect is plucking the ripe cherries off the tree without disturbing the unripe cherries. To many local farmers and workers, this is an art that they have learned and perfected over hundreds of years. Not to mention, it is essential to ensure a worthwhile and profitable harvest season. It’s important not to pick unripe cherries because they will result in a subpar taste, and when sent through pulping machines, can cause jams. Adversely, if the cherries have passed the point of being red and have turned dark purple or even brown, this too will create a poor quality taste and can cause pulping issues.
Harvesting by machine results in strip picking. In some places, particularly Brazil, it is seen as more cost effective to save harvesting time and just separate and discard the unripe cherries from the ripened ones. This is because Brazilian coffee beans tend to have more of a uniform maturing period than other types of coffee trees. Either way the bean is picked, it must then quickly be pulped. This is because after the cherries are plucked from the tree, they immediately begin to break down. Usually not more than 10 hours should pass between pickings and pulpings. The most common type of pulping machine uses a screen that applies pressure to ripe cherries. Because the cherries are soft, they burst under pressure, and only the coffee bean will make it through the screen. Hand-powered de-pulpers are quite common and are kept right on the coffee farm. They use a rotating burr which works to rip off the outer layers of the coffee bean. Many times these are operated simply by hand, but some farmers have developed a way to mechanize them and cut down the labor requirements. From there, the seeds are further de-pulped within a tank that removes the last of the skin.
Coffee Beans Are Dried
After pulping a coffee bean, but before it dries out, the coffee beans go through a process called fermentation. This is to enhance the flavor and body of the bean for consumption. The beans, once they are de-pulped are stored in large tanks made of cement, plastic or wood. The mucilage that remains on the beans ferments and breaks down the sugars into liquid form. This can take hours or even a few days depending on the humidity or altitude of the fermentation containers. Once the fermentation is complete, the beans are ready to be washed and dried. In the journey of the coffee bean, drying is an important step. Drying can be done either naturally under the sun or mechanically. Using the sun to dry the coffee beans can take three to five days and the beans must be monitored and often turned . Also, careful consideration must be taken to avoid contact with water.
In some cases, in a process known as dry processing, the entire coffee cherry is laid out to dry. This takes considerably longer, between two to three weeks. Once dry, the cherries have to have their dried pulp removed by what’s called a hulling machine. The result is often a heavy-bodied and very distinct coffee bean. The ideal moisture level for a coffee bean, no matter which process is used, is between 10% and 12%. Once that level is reached, the beans are loaded into sacks and ready to be exported!
Coffee Beans Are Sorted
To maintain a high quality product, all coffee beans are sorted to determine whether beans are usable or defective. There are three different ways this process occurs: by hand, by conveyor assistance or by machine. By hand is indubitably the most time consuming way, but it’s also the most reliable way. Trained professionals scour the coffee beans and remove beans with defects at sorting tables. When conveyor assistance is used, people still hand sort while a conveyor belt moves the coffee beans down a line of expert coffee bean sorters. The imperfect beans are removed from the belt in a more time effective way than by traditional hand sorting.
Machine sorting is done by a mechanical eye that spots defective or discolored beans and removes them with a sharp puff of air. The beans are moved through a chute fairly rapidly that allows a large amount of product to be processed in a highly time effective manner. This is arguably one of the most important steps in the coffee production process because it’s what makes your coffee to delicious in each cup. It makes sure the product has a reliable and consistent flavor that consumers can count on and grow to expect. One the beans are sorted, they’re ready to be transported.
The Coffee Beans Get Roasted
Roasting the coffee beans is what crafts the special taste you’re used to. It’s regarded as both art and science and professional roasters are known for their high attention to detail, sensory memories, and other sensory skills. The primary goal of roasting is to take the raw coffee beans and transform them to the height of their potential. Each batch of coffee is different and must be analyzed by the roaster.
There are four recognized levels of coffee bean roasts: Medium, Full City, Vienna, and French. The first level of roasting, medium roasts, are a cinnamon brown color and bright inside a coffee mug. The next level of roasting is a Full City roast and typically displays the most sought after characteristics of a particular region the coffee bean came from. They are chestnut brown in color and are noted for their complex and flavorful tastes. The third level of roasting is called a Vienna roast and is the color of dark chocolate. The coffee’s oils begin to come out at this stage and cover the beans creating a smooth taste and smoky, rich aroma. Finally, the last stage of roasting is referred to as the French roast. The mahogany brown colored beans are intense and have a sweet aroma. The characteristically velvety texture is a favorite internationally.
Blending coffee beans to create different flavor profiles occurs at this stage and can be done prior to roasting or after roasting to create amazing combinations and distinctive flavors. Both processes result in different products, but they can be used to create an exclusive blend.
Coffee Beans Are Transported
Every year, there are around seven million tons of coffee beans exported every single year. It’s important that the coffee be transported quickly because raw coffee beans can start to absorb other odors and flavors that surround it. Coffee bean exportation most often occurs by ship. The beans are loaded into jute bags at the farm and then eventually loaded on to shipping containers. Alternatively it is sometimes bulk packaged in plastic-lined shipping containers. Once the ship reaches the intended country, the beans can be moved by truck, plane or train depending on the exact destination and company purchasing the beans.
Coffee Beans Are Checked For Quality
Checking the beans for quality is done at every stage of the coffee bean process. The coffee beans are repeatedly tested to make sure that they meet the quality requirements. Usually, an expert taster will start by inspecting and evaluating the bean visually. They’re checking for color and overall appearance. The beans that pass are roasted and ground quickly before being infused in a controlled temperature. The tester then tests the aroma offered by the cup of coffee. And finally, after a few minutes of letting the coffee sit, the tester will taste the coffee.
The tasting process is not nearly as simple as it sounds. The taster is trained to be able to take a sip while spraying the coffee evenly over their taste buds. Expert and renowned coffee tasters can sample hundreds of different coffees a day and still be able to determine the subtle characteristics of each flavor.
Coffee Beans Are Packaged For Sale
Before the coffee beans or grounds are packaged, they are stored in a highly controlled environment. Humidity, heat, air, and light will all be watched closely to ensure quality and to avoid deterioration. Everyone knows that fresh coffee is the best kind of coffee and the right kind of packaging can ensure high-quality freshness. This is one of the most difficult decisions for coffee manufacturing companies, and many different packaging products are available for packaging coffee to be sold. The goal of any packaging is to reduce the amount of time it takes for the coffee to become stale.
Coffee Beans Reach Your Store’s Shelves
Once the coffee beans come to the end of their journey, they are ready for you to enjoy! You can peruse the coffee section of your local grocer or retailer to find a roast or blend that appeals to you. You can choose between whole coffee beans that you grind yourself or use pre-ground coffee varieties. Each one has its merits and it boils down to your personal preference. Once you make your choice and brew your perfect cup of coffee, take a moment to remember how far those beans have traveled to give you your favorite cup of coffee.