That eye-opening cup of coffee that helps wake you up and power through your day has a long story to tell. There’s so much more to coffee than just brewing it. Here’s a look at the life of a coffee bean.
Just like most plants, coffee trees grow from the seed inside the fruit of the tree. In this case, the “beans” used to make coffee are actually the seeds in the coffee “cherry”. The seeds should be planted with at least the parchment skin, though some say to plant the entire cherry. Fresh beans are better than dried beans. And, no, you can’t grow coffee trees from roasted beans.
It takes roughly sixty to ninety days for coffee to sprout. It may take a little less time if the seeds are germinated by soaking them for a day and placing them between two damp coffee sacks. Once the seeds sprout roots and stems, they are transferred to a loosely packed, well-draining soil. When the plants are large enough, they will be transplanted to the field or plantation where they will continue to grow.
Flower and Fruit
Once the coffee plant has been transplanted, it can take from three to five years for the plant to flower and fruit. Coffea arabica plants are able to self-pollinate, meaning a single plant can produce fruit on its own. By contrast, Coffea canephora (robusta) is cross-pollinated, needing multiple plants in order to fruit.
The flowers of the coffee plant are small and white with a short lifetime of only a few days. The blooms are extremely fragrant and have a scent similar to jasmine. Once these flowers are pollinated, the fruit begins to grow. There will be a small green bump left after the flower browns and falls off. This bump, known as the carpel, will grow over the next six to nine months.
As the fruit ages, it will change color from green to yellow to pale pink, then on to bright red, dark red, and finally purple. The best time to harvest the coffee cherries is when they are dark red. Only choosing the ripe fruit means the beans are fully grown and have derived the best flavor from the pulp of the fruit.
Harvesting and Processing
Depending on where the coffee is being grown, the fruit will be harvested by machine or by hand. When picked by hand, the fruit is more likely to be properly allowed to ripen. After the initial harvest, the fruit is washed and checked further for ripeness and quality. Once the cherries have been sorted, the ripe fruit is sent to processing. There are a few different methods of processing coffee cherries—dry, semi-dry, and wet. Each process affects the flavor of the beans and ultimately the flavor of the coffee.
The dry method is likely the most natural and possibly the oldest. Depending on where the coffee is grown and being processed, the climate will determine whether the fruit can be sun-dried on raised patios or if they must be machine dried. Often, even if the cherries can be patio dried, to speed the process, which can take upwards of four weeks, the cherries are machine dried after a few days in the sun. Once the cherries are dry, the fruit is husked away to leave behind the beans.
The wet method or washed process uses water to remove the fruit from the beans. The cherries are stripped of the skin and most of the pulp. The coffee is then put into a vat or tank of clean water and allowed to sit and ferment which loosens and removes most of the remaining pulp. A final rinse removes any pulp that was not removed during the fermentation process. After the beans have been cleaned, they are dried on raised patios or drying tables.
The semi-dry method is the newest of the processes and is a hybrid of the wet and dry processes. The fruit is stripped of the skin and most of the pulp. The beans are then dried on raised patios or tables in order to allow the remaining pulp to fall away.
After the de-pulping and drying, the coffee beans are allowed to rest, usually in tall silos, for a couple of months. Then they are hulled to remove any leftover fruit as well as the parchment, a protective layer of skin which covers the beans. Finally, the beans are graded, sorted, and bagged for export.
Due to the unwieldy cost of air freight as well as the detrimental effects on our environment, coffee is shipped via boat. The quality coffee is weighed into jute or burlap (sometimes synthetic) bags which are then stacked inside freight containers and loaded onto large ships. Occasionally you will see high-quality coffee loaded into wooden barrels for shipping. The lower quality coffee will be poured into a large, lined freight container, mixing beans from different growers into the same container.
When coming to the US, coffee can be on board a shipping vessel for almost a month. When it gets to port, it can wait, sometimes for days, before paperwork releases it to the distribution warehouse which purchased it. The distributors then ship coffee to roasters and coffee shops nationwide.
Depending on the roaster, once the coffee beans are delivered they may be roasted right away or they may be stored for roasting later. Most high-quality coffee roasters, like CoffeeAM, will store the coffee and roast it to order. Roastmasters will test the coffee at different roast levels to determine which gives it the best taste and mouthfeel.
When the coffee is ordered, it will be roasted and then ground, unless it is to stay whole bean, of course. At CoffeeAM, we then package the coffee into a one-way valve bag and seal it. The one-way valve allows the extra CO2 which naturally comes off the beans to vent, keeping any air from getting in and degrading the flavor of the coffee. The bags are then boxed up and shipped out the same day, delivering the freshest roasted coffee to customers.
Grinding and Brewing
The penultimate step in the coffee process is brewing. Depending on how the beans are delivered, I’ve included grinding in this section. Whole beans will need to be ground first, obviously. Grind will be determined by how the coffee is to be brewed. If using a drip machine, a percolator, a pour-over, or a single-serve drip grind or medium grind is the best. For metal/permanent filters and vacuum coffee makers, a medium-coarse grind is preferred. French presses and some finicky single-serve refillable coffee filters do best with a coarse or French press grind. Finely ground coffee is reserved for espresso machines and is called espresso grind.
Some people are extremely particular about their coffee and weigh their coffee and water, making sure the water is the perfect temperature and is in contact with the grounds for just the right amount of time. Most of us just measure a few tablespoons of grounds into a filter, fill the reservoir with water, and hit a button. Brewing coffee can be very personal and is the last step in making an enjoyable cup.
Sometimes your coffee can end up being bitter. Often the cause of bitter coffee is over-extraction, meaning the water was in contact with the grounds for too long. This can be due to a couple of reasons—the coffee steeps for too long, the grind size is wrong, the water is too hot, or your coffee machine is dirty. On the other hand, your coffee may end up being sour. In this case, the coffee is under extracted and not enough of the good flavors have been given the chance to come out of the coffee. When making your coffee, if you are still looking for the perfect taste, try a few things and keep a journal of your efforts. With a little experimentation, you’re sure to find your Goldilocks brew.
Ah, finally we come to the best step of the coffee process. Whether you prefer your coffee black or with lots of additional syrups and flavorings, there is no wrong way to drink it. Add milk, chocolate, spices, sugar, honey, or nothing. It is entirely up to you and your individualized taste. But no matter how you take your coffee, enjoy it. We may need the caffeine from time to time, but there is no reason not to like the taste of that life-giving brew.