Whether it is a business meeting or catching up with friends, chatting over a cup of coffee brings people together. Coffee helps us make it through the work day without strangling our co-workers and helps students cram for finals. Coffee is a huge part of our everyday life, but have you ever wondered where it all begins and how it makes its way to your mug?
The Coffee Tree
The coffee most of us drink starts from fertile seeds. Leaves appear four to eight weeks after seeds are planted, which indicate they are ready to be transplanted to the nursery under large shade trees for protection from the sun. Growers nurture the plants from nine to eighteen months, carefully increasing their exposure to sunlight which hardens the plants and prepares them to be transplanted to a more unprotected area of the plantation. The dark green, waxy leaves of the coffee bush grow in pairs opposite each other, and the plant reaches an average height of 24 inches. Coffee cherries, which resemble berries or grapes, grow alongside the plant’s branches. The coffee plant reaches full maturity in about five years – this gives us approximately one pound of roasted coffee per year.
It’s possible to harvest as much as 200 pounds of fruit each day during the major harvest, which usually occurs once per year. Harvesting is labor intensive, with pickers making multiple passes every 8-10 days for four to six months.
Processing the Cherries
Removing the husk and fruit is a critical step in processing the cherries, allowing the beans to dry. There are two primary methods used for processing the cherries.
60% of the world's coffees are processed using the Dry Method in which the fruit dry under the sun on cane matting or brick patios, and to prevent spoilage and ensure even drying, the beans are turned and raked several times a day. The success of this method depends on good, dry weather for 2-3 weeks.
The Wet Method is more complicated and has several variations, but generally, the harvested cherries soak in tanks filled with water to soften the outer husk and pulp and then get put through a pulping machine to remove the husk and pulp completely. The silver skin that still covers the beans is dissolved by soaking in water-filled tanks for 12 to 48 hours. They are then dried similarly to the Dry Method.
Processed coffee is stored in jute bags until ready for export. Before shipping, some beans are polished to remove any remaining silver skin. Polished coffees are traditionally considered superior, but many argue that the benefit is insignificant. After the beans run through sieves and screens with specific sized holes, which separate them into five or more grades, they are bagged into sacks marked with grade, plantation, and country of origin. Finally, they are on their way to the world markets.
The roasting process produces the characteristic flavor of coffee by causing the green coffee beans to change in taste. The beans are slowly dried to become yellow. In the second step, also known as the first crack, the bean doubles in size and becomes light brown in color. As the temperature rises, the color continues to darken to a medium brown and then with a second crack, a medium-dark brown. The darker color of coffee is directly related to the caramelization of the sucrose in coffee. Many specialty coffee shops and online coffee stores roast their own coffee beans before serving or shipping to guarantee their customers the freshest cup of coffee.
Now it’s time for brewing. Filtered or bottled water should be used if the tap produces water with a strong odor or taste, such as chlorine, but avoid distilled or softened water. One to two tablespoons of ground coffee for every six to eight ounces of water is the guideline called the “Golden Ratio.” Adjustments can be made depending on individual taste preferences.
Phew! Aren’t you glad you don’t have to do all that work to enjoy your favorite java?