I suppose coffee is a bit like TVs, computers and smartphones. In some respects.
People enjoy watching shows, going online and being able to get stuff done. But they rarely give a thought to how it all works.
As long as it works, they’re happy.
The same with coffee, to a point. As long as it tastes good. As long as it hits the spot, we’re happy.
But there is a difference between our relationship with technology and the one we have with arguably the nation’s favourite brew.
Because many coffee lovers ARE interested in how their drink is made – and where it comes from.
I’m no connoisseur but I have been shown the process from farm to cup. Or mug.
Let’s start with some basics. Take a scroll with me, whether you know all of this or not.
The Coffee Bean
Coffee comes from a coffee bean.
The coffee bean is a seed of the coffee plant, which grows on bushes and trees. The trees bear red or purple fruit, known as cherries. Inside each cherry is a coffee bean.
The bean typically contains two stones. If there is only one stone, or seed – which happens in only around 10-15% of cases – it’s known as a peaberry. Or a caracol, Spanish for snail.
The National Coffee Association (NCA) can tell you more about the anatomy of a coffee cherry.
Coffee belongs to the Coffea group of plants. Within this genus, it’s believed by experts there are 25 to 100 different species of coffee plant. Which may go some way to explaining why coffee can deliver such variety of taste, aroma and flavours.
Arabica and Robusta
As a coffee lover you are most likely to have heard of two distinct species. Your favourite drink is pretty much going to come from the Arabica bean or the Robusta bean.
The former accounts for an estimated 60% of worldwide coffee production, the latter around 40%. Arabica is the higher quality product.
You can find out more about the difference between Arabica and Robusta here. [NOTE: create active link to relevant BLOG page written below]
For now, let’s see how your humble coffee bean is made.
The journey from farm to cup (or mug) is what determines the taste, aromas and flavours you experience.
The first people you want to thank for your daily brew are the hard-working farmers, on plantations and smallholdings. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, around 125 million people worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihoods. Around 25 million smallholder farms produce 80% of the world’s coffee.
Production must battle against fluctuations in the weather, disease and other factors. It can be a tough job. It’s why here at JayandCo, [NB link to JayandCo ‘about’ page] we are very picky about where our coffee comes from. We support ethical trading, where the farmer gets a fair price for his or her skills and labours.
10 Stages From Bean to Cup
The coffee you enjoy so much in your daily cup has gone on a long journey to be with you.
It may go through up to 10 stages to ensure it is the best it can be.
Stage 1 – Planting
One of the first things I learned about production is that the coffee bean is really a seed. It has to be dried, roasted and ground to create a cuppa.
Coffee seeds are usually planted in large beds in shaded nurseries. This may be on a plantation, farm or smallholding. When you see the phrase ‘single origin’ it means the coffee has been produced from a single farm or location (not a blend of coffees ‘chucked together’ from all over the place).
Seedlings are well watered and shaded from the sun, to get them ready for permanent planting. Planting typically takes place during the wet season, as the soil remains moist as the roots take hold.
Stage 2 – Harvesting
It takes three to four years for a newly planted coffee tree to bear fruit. The timing depends on the variety.
Usually, there is just one harvest per year. However, countries like Colombia have two. There, they have a main crop and a secondary crop.
Coffee in many countries is grown on slopes, sometimes on hills at higher altitudes in mountainous areas. This means the crop is picked by hand in a labour-intensive and often tricky process. However, in places like Brazil where the landscape is relatively flat and can host vast fields, the process is mechanised.
Coffee is harvested in one of two ways.
Strip Picked: Cherries are stripped off the branch one by one. Either by hand or machine.
Selectively Picked: Only the RIPE cherries are harvested. They are picked individually by hand. This is time-intensive, labour-intensive. This is typically the method used for harvesting the higher-quality Arabica bean.
Each worker’s haul is carefully weighed each day. They are paid on the merit of their work. The day’s harvest is then taken to the processing plant.
Stage 3 – Processing
They need to get picked coffee cherries to the processing plant fast – to prevent the fruit spoiling. There are two methods of processing – dry and wet.
Dry Method – The oldest method and still used in many countries where water resources are in short supply.
Freshly picked cherries are spread out on large surfaces to dry in the sun. They are raked and turned through the day to prevent spoiling. Covered at night or during rain to keep out the wet. It may take several weeks for each coffee batch to be ready for the next stage.
Wet Method – This removes the pulp from the cherry, so the bean is dried with only the parchment skin left on. Having gone through a pulping machine, the beans are separated by weight as they pass through channels of water. Lighter beans to the top, heavier beans to the bottom. A series of rotating drums separates them by size.
From there, beans are put into large, water-filled fermentation tanks for 12-48 hours. When ready, they are rinsed and readied for drying.
Stage 4 – Drying the Beans
Beans which have gone through the wet method process now need to be dried until their moisture content is at the correct percentage (around 11%) for storage.
The beans can be sun-dried on drying tables or floors, turned regularly. Or they can be machine-dried in big tumblers. Dried beans are known as parchment coffee. They are warehoused in bags made of jute or sisal until ready for export.
Stage 5 – Milling Mr Bean
The dry parchment coffee undertakes one more journey before export – milling.
The process includes hulling, to remove the parchment layer; optional polishing, to remove any remaining silver skin; and grading and sorting. The latter stage sorts by size and weight, and also involves checks for colour flaws or other imperfections.
Defective beans are removed by machine, by hand or both.
Stage 6 – Exporting the Beans
Milled beans are now called green coffee. They are loaded onto ships, either in jute or sisal bags in shipping containers, or bulk-shipped within plastic-lined containers.
Brazil is by far the biggest producer of coffee in the world. Vietnam proves a strong runner-up. Other top-producing countries include Colombia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Mexico, Kenya and Papua New Guinea. If you explore the JayandCo range of coffees from around the globe you’ll see fine examples of what these countries can produce.
Stage 7 – Tasting the Coffee
To ensure the best product, coffee is tested for quality and taste again and again. (It’s probably why we love it so much, right?).
The testing process is known as cupping. It usually takes place in a room set up for the purpose.
Yes, there are people who get to taste coffee for a living. The taster, or cupper, assesses the beans for their appearance. The beans are then roasted in a small lab roaster, ground and infused in boiling water with the temperature carefully controlled.
The cupper noses the brew to experience its aroma – a key measure in judging a coffee’s quality.
To taste the coffee, the cupper takes a spoonful and slurps it in sharply. This skilled technique allows the cupper to get the coffee landing evenly on the taste buds, and then weigh it on the tongue before spitting it out.
Every day, samples from a variety of batches and different beans are tasted and tested. It is said an expert cupper can taste hundreds of samples of coffee a day – and still detect the subtle differences between them all.
The process not only identifies characteristics and flaws. It helps identify beans which may be good for blending.
Stage 8 – Roasting the Coffee
Roasting turns the green coffee into the aromatic brown beans you and I are more familiar with. These are the ones you see in stores or cafes.
Roasting machines operate at around 288 Celsius (550 Fahrenheit). The beans are kept moving to prevent burning. As they begin to turn brown, the fragrant oil inside the beans – called caffeol – starts to emerge. This process is called pyrolysis – and it’s the bit which produces the flavour and aroma of the cup of coffee in your hand.
After roasting, the beans are instantly cooled by air or water. Roasting is usually carried out in the importing countries because freshly roasted beans need to reach the consumer as quickly as possible.
Stage 9 – Grinding Coffee
The grind stage is about maximising the flavour in a cup of coffee. The degree of coarse or fine is determined by the brewing method. Usually, the finer the grind the more quickly the coffee needs to be prepared. It’s why you’ll find coffee ground for an espresso machine is much finer than coffee brewed in a drip system.
Stage 10 – Brewing Coffee
Last, but by no means least, is the brewing stage. This is where your espresso machine, coffee maker, AeroPress, etc, come into their own at home. This is where the barista at your favourite café dazzles you with the way they juggle portafilters, cups, buttons and coffee at their machine.