From bean to brew

Coffee is an essential part of the day for many people around the world. Whether they prefer a mug of strong black coffee, an Espresso, Cappuccino, Frappe, or Turkish/Greek Coffee. But did you know that the coffee bean, the world’s second most traded commodity, (second only to petroleum) has to go through a four step labor intensive process before it reaches your mug?

There are two main species of coffee cultivated for commercial use:

Arabica coffee

This is of the highest quality having a good flavor and fine aroma. However, this makes it expensive. It is the oldest species of coffee known and is the most cultivated. Accounting for about 74% of the beans grown worldwide. It is grown in high mountain areas of Latin America, East Africa, Arabia and Asia.

Robusta coffee

This is a lower quality coffee higher in caffeine with a bitter earthy taste. It is easier to grow than Arabica making it cheaper to produce and therefor buy. It’s this type of coffee that you’ll often find in supermarkets own-brand instant coffee. It is grown in lowland areas in Western Africa, Southeast Asia and Brazil and was first discovered in the 1870’s growing wild in the Congo.

Nescafe mix the two types of coffee together making for a low-cost blend which has some flavor – Better than the Robusta on it’s own yet nothing compared with the pure Arabica coffee.

Growing and harvesting coffee

Coffee is actually a fruit that grows on the coffee plant. A shrub, which has dark green oily leaves and small white scented flowers, which only grows in hot climates. Coffee beans are the two seeds found inside the cherry of the coffee plant. They are green in color, only changing to the brown coffee bean that we know, after roasting.

It is grown in tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world covering 80 countries and 4 continents with Brazil being the leading producer with 28% of the total world output of coffee and Columbia following in second place, producing about 16%.

Coffee seeds are planted at the beginning of the rainy season with 20 seeds in each hole. Though it is likely that only 10 of those will survive to grow into a healthy coffee plant. They are transplanted several times as seedlings before finally, after 6 months growing time, the plants are put in the coffee plantation. Although it will be another 4 years until the plants are considered mature. They are often planted alongside food crops such as rice, corn and beans for the first few years or with Guamos trees to protect them from strong sunlight.

Arabica coffee trees require constant care from farmers and specific conditions to thrive making it is a very labor intensive process. The coffee trees need just 2 hours of direct sunlight a day with a high humidity and lots of mist and cloud. The temperature needs to be between 60-70°f with an even rainfall of 6 inches per month. The trees also need to be fertilized and protected from pests and leaf rust, an infectious mold which causes the leaves to turn black and drop off.

In countries such as Brazil and Mexico the mature coffee trees blossom over a six to eight week period. After the white flowers which resemble a Jasmine tree have dropped, the berries develop. When ripe and therefore ready to be picked, the berries are bright red and resemble a cranberry.

In countries located along the equator, such as in Kenya and Columbia, a coffee tree can have blossoms and ripening fruit and mature coffee cherries on the branch all at the same time.

Harvesting continues year round in Columbia while in other countries the main harvesting season lasts for about 4 months for Arabica coffee and slightly longer for Robusta.

Trees grow to a height of 10 metres or more but are usually cropped to a height of three meters so that the fruit can easily be reached and removed.

In some parts of Africa, usually Uganda and Zaire plus Ethiopia, wild coffee grows in the wilderness with wild coffee trees growing up to 10-15 meters tall!

On average coffee trees can produce coffee for 20-25 years with around 2,000 beans a year which makes roughly 1 kg of raw coffee per year.

Picking coffee

There are several methods to pick the berries which contain the coffee bean…

Hand-Picking or Selective Picking:

High quality, Arabica beans are always hand-picked to ensure only high quality, ripe red berries are picked. If a berry is not perfect and at the peak of maturity it is not picked and left to ripen to pick later.

Mechanical Picking:

On large plantations in Brazil which produce Robusta coffee harvesting machines are used which shake the berries off of the trees.

Strip Picking:

In Africa and Indonesia, where Robusta coffee is harvested, pickers take all of the berries, ripe and unripe plus leaves off of the branch in one sweeping movement with there hand. The berries land on the ground on a cloth from which the harvest is later gathered.

Processing coffee

There are two types of processing, dry processing and wet processing. Each method varies slightly depending on the country and plantation although dry processing is used mostly for Robusta coffee whilst wet processing which is more labor intensive and expensive is used for processing the high quality Arabica bean.

Dry processing:

This is an old method mostly used in countries where water is scarce such as in Brazil, Africa and Indonesia.

It is a simple technique, less labor intensive than wet processing and more natural; the freshly picked berries are left to dry in the sun for several weeks either being left on the tree to dry naturally or if picked, laid out on concrete patios 5-6 cm deep.

The berries need to be dried evenly and are moved every 40 minutes to prevent them from laying on the wet surface too long. This is usually done by manual labour though a drying machine can be used to speed up the process.

Wet processing:

Wet processing is used mostly in countries in Central America where fresh water is plentiful. It is a fairly expensive process but makes for a better quality coffee.

First the berries are soaked to remove any impurities. The unripe ones sink while the ripe fruit floats to the top to be processed further. The skin and pulp is removed by machine although it can be done by hand.

The coffee beans are fermented in large water containers for two days; this is so that any remaining fruit flesh will dissolve and also to remove the thick sticky film layer surrounding the coffee beans.

Next the beans are re-washed, hulled and spread outside to dry. They can also be dried in a machine powered by wood, gas or solar panel.

Roasting the coffee beans

Once the green coffee beans have been picked, processed and dried they must be roasted to bring out the flavor and aroma.

Roasting lasts for 3-12 minutes and changes the bean both physically and chemically. Once the temperature inside the bean reaches 392°f (200°c) they decrease in weight and increase in volume causing the bean to become less dense. During this time the bean will caramelize changing from an olive green color to the brown color that we know.

Once roasting is complete and the beans are cooled and sorted the coffee can be ground and brewed… Then it’s time to sit down and relax with a cup of coffee!


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  3. Coffee: From Bean to Brew | Mike Cooper – YouTube

Image Credit

  • yelp.com