You know the result: a steaming cup of coffee, brewed from finely ground, beautifully fragrant dry beans. This is the final stage of a coffee bean’s journey; the cup before you holds thousands of hours of labor and miles travelled across the globe. A coffee bean’s life is the culmination of a global trade, one that begins in a farm and ends in a cup. Let’s take a journey through the life of your coffee.
Coffee beans come to us from the tropical climates of the world. They are grown in approximately 70 countries, primarily in warm equatorial regions. Arabica beans, which make up 60 percent of the world’s coffee production, have strict needs: defined rainy and dry seasons, protection from cold and frost, shaded protection from too much sun and humidity, and slightly higher altitudes. Robusta beans, the other 40% of coffee production, are hardier and will grow in a much wider variety of places, as long as they have adequate sun and water.
An evergreen growing plant, coffee trees range in size from small shrubs to little trees. It takes about three to four years from seedling to a coffee tree’s first harvest, and those are years full of hard work keeping each plant healthy. Coffee plants are susceptible to damage from over 900 insects, as well as diseases like Coffee Leaf Rust. Spraying pesticides or herbicides isn’t ideal, either, as these can damage not only the coffee plants but also the surrounding tropical ecosystems. Farmers must carefully deploy targeted methods to keep pests and diseases from spreading, as well as to keep treatments from affecting otherwise healthy plants.
Harvest is no easy task, either. Much like blueberries, coffee cherries do not ripen all at once on the branch, so specialty coffee must be picked by hand to ensure only the ripest cherries are picked. It takes nearly a year for a cherry to mature from flowering, and each plant will yield about 10 pounds of cherries a year – that’s about two pounds of green coffee beans per plant according to the National Coffee Association.
Coffee cherries are also known as “drupes” – a fleshy fruit with stony pits inside. Each coffee drupe has two seeds inside covered by a very thin layer of skin called “parchment.” The two beans are surrounded by pulp and skin, which must be removed after being picked. There’s two ways to do this: wet or dry processing.
In wet processing, the cherries are submerged in water – any unripe cherries, twigs and leaves float to the surface and are picked out. Then, the wet cherries are pushed through a screen, stripping them of the outer pulp and skin. To remove any remaining pulp, the beans are either fermented and microbes eat the remaining bits, or they are scrubbed by machine to remove any leftover pulp. The beans are then dried and ready for the next stage!
In dry processing, any twigs, debris or unripe cherries are first sorted out by hand, and the remaining ripe cherries are laid out in a single layer to dry in the sun. The cherries are raked or turned by hand to allow even drying, which can take up to four weeks. The cherries must reach the right level of dryness — too wet, and mildew or mold can form; too dry and the beans become too brittle to go through the next stages of processing.
The next step of a coffee bean’s life depends on whether it was wet or dry processed: hulling. The hardened dry cherries must have the leathery pulp removed, while the wet processed cherries still have that thin layer of parchment to be dealt with. Hulling can be done by a variety of machines that rub, shake, or mill the coffee to remove the excess fruit. After hulling, coffee beans are cleaned a final time and are finally ready to be sorted.
Sorting and grading are some of the most important steps in a coffee bean’s life cycle: these steps determine the quality of the final roast. In this step, beans are carefully sorted, either by hand or machine, then graded based on size, defects, and color. Only the finest beans are selected in this process; any beans that are too small, too large, or too damaged get discarded.
Once sorted and graded, it’s time to determine what the end result coffee will be like so the beans can be bagged and distributed to roasters around the world. To do this, coffee professionals like Q-Graders use a process called “cupping,” in which they roast and brew small amounts of beans and get up close and personal with the flavors and aromas the beans produce. The brewed beans are nosed, slurped, and prodded to determine the quality of flavor, which beans can be blended with others or stand alone as a single origin brew, and what the ultimate roasting recommendations will be for the final product.
Our finely sorted beans are now ready for production roasters! This is when the coffee we know and love gets its final flavor and aroma. Roasting the beans changes its chemical composition and releases the beans’ fragrances and oils, called “caffeol,” which is what gives coffee its rich, dark taste and aroma. Once roasted and cooled, beans are destined for a bag, then headed to the final consumer: you!
Before drinking, of course, coffee beans take one final step: grinding. The grind and brew of your coffee bean determines how much flavor will be in your coffee — too little water, and it will be overly bitter and oily, too much and the coffee will be watered down. The size and grade of the grind matters as well, but depends greatly on the brewing method. But! With the right instructions, a finely roasted bean is easy to turn into a delicious brew, and the bean’s journey is finally complete: a dark brew, steaming happily in your mug.