Taking the journey of coffee for granted is understandable. We pay to receive a latte at the local shop or just add water to granules at home. Some are even unsure of what coffee is, unaware it is the fruit of a tropical tree. Here we’ll look at the journey of coffee seed to roasted bean, avoiding the details of others processes like decaffeination or freeze-drying for instant coffee.
Sowing the Seed
Seeds are mostly planted into shaded nurseries to germinate and sprout. A stem will appear with an adorable coffee bean sat on top. It takes around 6 to 9 months for leaves to appear. The plants will be moved from nursery to nursery over the next few years and planted onto lots after three years. Coffea Arabica is generally slow growing.
The agriculturalist must take into account bean variety, altitude, soil type, shade, irrigation, temperature, pests and disease.
Variety – Some Arabica varieties are more resistant to pests than others, while yields can greatly differ per square kilometre. This factors will be taken into account.
Altitude – Arabica coffee plants grow well 1200 Metres-Above-Sea-Level. The higher they are grown the slower the beans mature, becoming denser and developing more complex and acidic flavours. Certain pests thrive better at lower altitudes and more pest-resistant or hardy plants might be used to combat this.
Soil Type – Coffee is grown in different kinds of soil. This includes Volcanic Loam, Clay Mineral, Sandy Loam, Vertisol (clay-like soil low in organic material) and Luvisol (high mineral with good drainage). Some will fare better than others.
Shade – Shade-grown coffee has a number of benefits, including sheltering coffee from over-heating in direct sunlight. It also increases eco-diversity.
Irrigation – Water access.
Temperature – Coffea Arabica fares best in temperatures between 20 and 30 Celsius. It is easily killed by frost and suffers in extreme heat.
Pests/Disease – There are many pests and disease causing fungi the farmer needs to be aware of.
After 5 or 6 years the trees will produce fruit yields. During this stage a farm’s labour requirements greatly increase, with pickers needed to harvest the fruit over the fruiting season. This might last 3 months. For specialty coffee, pickers are encouraged to harvest only the red, ripe fruit, making this unsuitable for machinery. In countries like Costa Rica, this can be expensive. Labourers are protected and paid the same salary for picking ripe and unripe cherries, adding another stage of sorting.
In Brazil, many commercial farms use machinery to indiscriminately strip the branches. This results in stones, leaves, sticks and branches all mixed in with the cherries of varying degrees of ripeness.
After harvesting, coffee needs to be processed. This can be expensive. The processing method will be chosen for environmental reasons (e.g. lack of water or high humidity), flavour preference and the capabilities of a farm. At this stage the coffee is sometimes sent to a cooperative milling station for processing, a common practice in African countries. The milling station will then pay farmers for their coffee.
Sorting, Grading and Drying
The beans are sorted for defects and graded depending on the custom of each country. This is generally done by size or growing altitude.
Coffee is then dried to a moisture level of around 11%. The outer layers are removed and the beans are left to rest for a couple months. This ages the coffee before transportation, helping the flavours develop. If the coffee is not stored well, such as in humid conditions, moisture levels will increase and could develop mould. Coffees which moisture levels fall outside the 10-13% range tend not to develop well when roasting.
Sale and Export
By the time coffee goes to market, if it has not already been sold on futures or through Direct Trade, it may have changed hands five times! This is where the traceability of lower grade coffee becomes a problem and where Fairtrade prices might not necessarily benefit the farmers or coffee pickers. Excellent coffees can also be lost along the lines of middlemen, making it almost impossible to find the same coffee a year later.
In countries with poor infrastructure or bureaucratic labyrinths, coffee can be kept at ports in poor conditions long beyond the benefit to anyone. Good coffees can turn bad and deals can be changed.
The beans tend to be packaged in 60kg jute bags. Vacuum bags are also used to help stabilise quality but these are relatively rare. Coffee is then loaded into containers and onto ships. The port at Hamburg receives the greatest quantity of coffee by weight in the world.
The roaster will typically receive their coffee 4-6 months after harvest. This works out a five and half year journey from seed. From here, the roaster’s skill becomes the next variable along the line of many. They will inspect the coffee, choose a profile and roast it to their style, whether that be a light and gorgeous roast ideal for single origin filter, or blended with other coffees and roasted darker for espresso.
Robusta is sometimes added to blends for more ‘bite’. This is in terms of all caffeine, bitterness and body, although the trade-off is the more pleasant flavours of Arabica. SunDeers (see what I did there?) tend to burn all their coffee to keep the customer’s expectation uniform around the globe; that is a burnt, bitter and watery-bodied coffee.
Lastly, it is the baristas job not to bastardise the coffee. After this massive journey it can come down to the final 20 seconds to ruin the cup.
It’s hard to appreciate all the work, variables, care and time involved in making a cup of coffee. When complaining about the price or time spent waiting for your cup, think about how many months and hands the beans have passed to finally reach your mouth.
For an excellent info-graphic on this journey, check out this page on The Beanstalker.