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From Coffee Bean to Cup - the journey of the coffee bean

coffee beans coffee production

So, you want to know where coffee beans come from? Then now's your chance to find out a bit more about it.

This is the first part of a series of posts on the journey of the coffee bean from the farmer all the way through to the point where it ends up in your cup as a lovely, tasty cup of coffee.

Let's start with a simple fact that you may or may not know. The bean we refer to is not a bean at all. In fact it's the seed of a cherry. To be more specific, the cherry of the coffee tree (coffea arabica to be precise).

ripe cherry fruits of the coffee plant

Growing & Harvesting the Coffee Bean

Coffee cherries are ripe when they turn red and can then be harvested. The problem with harvesting the fruit is that they don't all ripen at the same time, even on the same branch of a tree.

This means that, unfortunately for the farmer, all cherries have to be picked carefully by hand. It's a time-consuming, laborious and therefore expensive process. The cost of harvesting represents about half the overall annual costs of a farm.

Coffee requires a specific set of conditions in order for it to grow. These conditions are generally found only in the Tropics where there is plenty of rainfall and sunshine. Although the plants need a lot of rain, they don't like it too hot. In fact, the coffee tree likes the temperature to be fairly constant throughout the year. They actually also like a bit of shade.

You therefore find most coffee plantations at a reasonably high altitude, where the conditions are cooler. However, it must not be too cool - the trees die if the temperature drops below freezing point.

New coffee trees are grown from seed in nurseries and are ready to harvest their first fruit after 3 to 4 years. They then continue to bear fruit for between 20 and 30 years. The coffee cherry takes about 6 to 8 months to ripen so there can only really be one harvest per year.

Depending on their location in the world, of course, harvesting occurs at different times of the year. North of the Equator - in Ethiopia and Central America, for instance - the harvest takes place between September and December. South of the Equator the main harvest is in April or May. Equatorial countries, such as Colombia, can harvest fruit all year round.

Processing the Coffee Bean

As I said earlier, the "coffee bean" as we refer to it is actually the seed of the cherry. It's a pretty big seed, though. It takes up most of the size of the cherry.

a coffee cherry split in two, showing the seed and pulp

This is the cherry split in two so you can see the size of the coffee bean inside. The outer part (red) is the pulp, which is removed whilst processing the bean. The inner part (grey) is what makes our lovely cup of coffee.

There are generally two methods to process the coffee bean. The dry, or natural, method and the wet (washed) method. The whole aim of both methods is to remove the cherry pulp and get the overall moisture content of the bean down to about 12%.

The Natural Processing Method

This was the original way of processing the coffee bean and is still carried out in parts of the coffee growing world today, particularly where there may be a shortage of the copious amounts of water required for the wet method.

The natural method involves spreading the coffee cherries out in a thin layer to dry in the sun. To prevent the cherries from rotting or getting mouldy, they are frequently turned. It is therefore a very labour intensive process but doesn't require as much machinery or any water.

Once dry, the outer husk of skin and fruit is removed mechanically in a mill before being stored ready for export.

The Washed Processing Method

This is the more mechanical method of processing the coffee bean, and is therefore more expensive. However there is less chance of something going wrong during the process resulting in a coffee bean that is generally worth more, with fewer defects.

After picking, the coffee cherry has its outer skin and most of the flesh removed using a machine called a de-pulper. It is then moved to a water tank where the rest of the flesh is removed by fermentation. The remaining flesh can then be easily washed off.

The coffee bean is then dried out, usually in the sun, by spreading it out on brick patios or raised drying tables.

Alternative Methods

Some producers utilise other methods that are hybrid approaches of the two main methods described above. These methods include:

  • Pulped Natural - mainly used in Brazil. Here the final washing is not performed before the beans are dried. Intended to reduce the amount of water utilised.
  • Honey - very similar to the pulped natural process and mainly used in Central American countries. Uses even less water than pulped natural through careful controlling of the de-pulping process.
  • Semi-Washed - mainly used in Indonesia where the coffee is de-pulped and then dried to about 30% moisture content. It is then hulled and the naked beans are subsequently dried again.

Storing and Shipping the Coffee Bean

When they leave the mill, the coffee beans are usually still covered with a layer of parchment. The moisture content is now low enough for the beans to be stored without risk of rotting. At this stage the coffee is stored at rest (in reposo) for up to sixty days to mature.

Shipping is obviously a costly exercise. In order to reduce the costs of shipping, the final layer of parchment is removed from the bean in a dry mill to reduce the weight as much as possible.

It is then examined for defects and graded/sorted, usually according to size. Checking for defects is another time-consuming, and therefore costly, process but results in a much higher quality coffee bean.

coffee sorting in Ethiopia Photo credit: Pressicko.sk

 

The coffee is then bagged into either 60kg or 69kg jute bags before being transported from its country of origin in shipping containers. Transporting coffee by sea is still the cheapest and most environmentally friendly method of shipping. However, it does take time and risks the coffee being exposed to heat and moisture during the journey that may affect its quality. It can be a risky, and somewhat frustrating, business!

So if you wonder why high quality speciality coffee is much more expensive, now you know why.

If you want to try out some of our coffee beans, then please visit our shop. You'll notice the difference in quality compared with the cheaper varieties bought from the supermarket. The coffee is only roasted once we receive your order, so it will be as fresh as possible when it arrives at your door.

Watch out for the next post on the coffee roasting process and the final one on brewing.



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