Last Updated on November 22, 2021 by John Moretti
When you drink your daily cups of coffee, have you ever stopped to think about where your beans originate? Where do coffee beans come from around the world? How are they grown, processed, and prepared? This fascinating process starts on coffee farms, which are located around the world in many different countries. Farming takes on many steps that make it an exciting topic to discuss.
Most coffee comes from five different countries, including:
- Brazil – 2,592,000 Metric Tons
- Vietnam – 1,650,000 Metric Tons
- Colombia – 810,000 Metric Tons
- Indonesia – 660,000 Metric Tons
- Ethiopia – 384,000 Metric Tons
(source: List of countries by coffee production)
Coffee farming is a fascinating process that goes through growth, processing, sorting, and roasting. This four-stage process brings coffee beans from around the world to your favorite coffee shop, allowing you to get the high-quality cup of coffee you want and deserve.
The Coffee Farming Process
The Early Growth Stages
Coffee farms grow all of the millions of tons of beans produced every year. This plant requires a tropical or subtropical climate to flourish, which is one reason why so many South American and African countries grow coffee beans. Most coffee is grown 1,000 miles either north or south of the equator, with very few rare exceptions.
Farms consist of hundreds of plants tended by workers who carefully balance the soil, food, water, and light that each plant receives. They measure the plant regularly and check its leafs for any signs of apparent damage. This process can take over a year or so before the coffee plant reaches full maturity. During this time, farmers also remove pests to minimize their impact on the beans.
Most young coffee plants start growing in a nursery, where these conditions can be kept more balanced and in control. Here, managing temperature and pests is much simpler and provides a prime growing environment for the plant. These early days of growth are critical. Even minor damage to a coffee plant in its first few months of change could result in long-term complications with its development later.
Eventually, the plant is removed from the nursery and transplanted to the ground on the farm. Typically, farmers wait until the plant is around 18-24 inches tall. Each plant is given 10-12 feet of room to provide maximum expansion area for the roots and branches. At this point, the plant is tended to daily to ensure that it continues to grow and reach full maturity as it ages.
If left unharvested, coffee plants can grow to as large as 20 feet tall. However, coffee farmers carefully prune them at around 10-12 feet to keep them more workable. This pruning process helps to keep the plant at a reasonable height, minimizes dead or damaged branches and leaves, and keeps each plant in healthy shape.
The plants aren’t quite ready to harvest at this point. They don’t have any beans yet and won’t produce any for several years. During this time, farmers must make sure that the plant stays at an acceptable and reasonable height and must also work to ensure no disease damages its growth.
Working Towards Harvesting
Coffee plants cannot be harvested until they reach around 4-5 years of age. At this point, most plants will be mature enough to flower. These attractive flowers create a gorgeous plant and produce a jasmine-like scent that makes harvesting coffee reasonably enjoyable. These flowers are not just decorative, however. They form the prime purpose of coffee plant harvesting: the coffee cherry.
This small cherry grows throughout the plant’s flowers about 6-9 months after their initial growth. They are a relatively small green cherry with a sharp taste if eaten before they fully ripen. Inside of this cherry sits two seeds. These seeds will eventually mature and grow into coffee beans. It takes several weeks or so before the green cherry ripens to a yellow and deep-red color.
At this point, the beans can be harvested from the cherry, for they have reached full maturity. Depending on the farm, these beans are split up into two categories. The first is reproductive beans, or those that the farmers will use to produce more plants. The second is the harvested beans or those that will be carefully prepared for sale around the world.
Most of these beans will be put up for sale, with just a portion used for replanting. Typically, they take just enough seeds to replace any dying plants or harvested plants that need to be removed. Each bean collected for sale is then processed to prepare for shipping around the world.
Harvesting itself takes up a considerable chunk of time and requires a lot of physical labor. Typically, this process goes through multiple steps before the beans are processed, sorted, shipped, and roasted. The exact methods will vary based on each company but usually follow a pretty specific grouping of steps.
Harvesting is a Time-Consuming Process
Coffee farms typically consist of around 7-9 acres and utilize a large group of individuals to harvest each plant. A vast majority of coffee beans are picked by hand and include a variety of methods. For example, strip picking requires harvesters to remove entire branches of cherries without checking to see if they’re right. This method has several advantages.
First, it’s swift and minimizes excessive picking times. In this way, coffee farmers can reduce labor costs and cut back on extended hours for their farming team. However, it does result in a lot of cherry waste. Many cherries may not be ripe enough to harvest, meaning they simply get tossed. Strip picking remains popular, though, because of its fast harvesting speeds.
Specialized hand-picking is the most time-consuming process but often results in much less waste. Workers inspect each branch and cherry and gauge whether to harvest it. As a result, they pick only ripe cherries and minimize the amount of sheer waste. However, it takes multiple harvests to finish this process and dramatically increases labor costs. Typically, this option is only used by higher-end coffee farms.
Lastly, some farms may utilize machine picking methods, though these are relatively rare compared to the other options. Coffee-harvesting machines require a very flat area to operate, a situation that is not common in many coffee-farming countries. Machines are also costly to buy, limiting their use to sites that want to cut down on labor costs with one fell swoop.
Some farms may use a combination of these methods to produce steady and high-quality crops. Others may focus on just one, depending on their needs. The technique utilized can dictate many things about a coffee farm. For example, machine farming allows for larger farms and yield sizes, while hand-picking forces farmers to cut back on sheer acreage and focus on quality over quantity.
How Beans are Processed After Harvesting
After harvesting, coffee farmers and manufacturers can choose from a handful of different processing methods to prepare their beans. A wide variety of companies use what is known as the natural or dry process for their beans. This method is beautifully simple and very cost-efficient. It starts by laying the cherries out on brick or concrete or on bare ground to help the soil improve the quality and taste of the beans.
Other manufacturers place their cherries on thin layers to minimize mold and further growth that could impact the quality of their cherries. After laying them out, farmers tend to the cherries to ensure they are protected from pests and wait for the sun to dry them out entirely. As the cherry dries, it ferments and starts to look much like a raisin and would have a taste very similar to one.
However, dried cherries must then be hulled to get access to the bean. Each bean is carefully removed, sorted, and sent off to a facility for shipping preparation. This method uses the sun’s natural strength to produce high-quality beans and cuts back on processing costs. That said, many manufacturers use a variety of different other techniques in a myriad of different situations.
For example, manufacturers in East Asia and South America utilize the washed method to de-pulp their cherries. It uses a wet mill that pushes the coffee beans out while retaining the pulp around the beans. This pulp helps to keep the beans rich in flavor and caffeine. Then, beans are fermented for 12-24 hours to bring out their flavor even more. Fermented beans will then be air-dried for up to 22 days or machine dried in three days to speed up the preparation time.
Indonesian coffee growers may use the wet-hulled process, which uses the same style of washing used in the previous method. However, it then progresses to a short period of sun-drying to prepare the beans. The beans are then hulled and dried on a patio before being prepared for shipment. This method cuts back on processing time but does run the risk of mold development.
Lastly, some companies may use the honey process to produce high-quality coffee beans. It includes various de-pulping techniques that don’t remove the mucilage (cherry material around the bean) the way other methods do. Manufacturers like this method because they believe it adds sweetness to the beans that other forms do not.
Sorting and Roasting the Beans
At this point, the farming process is just about over. However, the beans must still be sorted and roasted to ensure high quality. Roasting may be done off-site by other companies. For instance, coffee roasters in America get beans from various farms and roast them there to produce their varying flavors. Before that point, processed beans must be sorted and packaged.
Sorting is done either by hand or machine. Hand inspection requires a group of individuals to carefully inspect beans as they move past them on a conveyor belt. The beans are checked for imperfections and thrown away if they do not pass inspection. This process is time-consuming but does help to produce a higher level of beans by minimizing missed imperfect beans.
Machine sorting uses a similar conveyor belt system but has a camera that can find defective beans and use a burst of air to get them off the belt. This method does cut back on labor costs but is less efficient because the camera may easily make mistakes. Nevertheless, many farms prefer sorting by hand because it enhances the quality of their coffee and keeps their workers busy, providing essential but straightforward jobs for untrained individuals.
After the beans are sorted, they are then packaged and shipped off to roasters around the world. Their orders are based on what each roasting company buys and will vary heavily. Beans usually ship via ocean travel, as this is often the fastest and most efficient way to move a high volume of beans. However, some companies may prefer air transportation due to its increased speed.
Once roasters receive their beans, they utilize a variety of different methods to produce different flavors. These methods are often individual to each roasting team, creating a broad array of different tastes and styles. During roasting, an Agtron roast analyzer rates the color of each bean roast and allows roasting professionals to create the exact flavor profile they want for their beans.
After roasting, quality control teams check each batch of beans to ensure they are of the highest quality. Any that do not pass their series of tests will be thrown away. Reasons for tossing beans include horrible taste, uneven roasts, or even spoiled beans. Thankfully, most roasted coffee beans pass this process and give you the high-quality coffee you want and deserve.
What Does Fairtrade Mean?
Have you ever looked at a bag of coffee beans and wondered what “Fairtrade” meant? Fairtrade is an organization that certifies coffee farmers and manufacturers who follow basic minimum price guidelines, safety rules, and much more. Certification is granted only to farms that follow these rules.
Their goal is to ensure that coffee is produced ethically and fairly and that the harvesting teams have a higher quality of life. Check for this certification on any beans that you purchase to ensure you work with the best and most ethical coffee farmers and roasters.
Fairtrade also checks for things like organic farming to ensure that it fits the guidelines that were setup for this process. False advertising may claim that a coffee blend is organic when it is not. Fairtrade helps to check for this issue and provides certification (along with other organizations) that help to keep coffee farmers truthful with their statements.
U.S. States That Produce Coffee
Few areas in the United States are warm enough to produce high-quality coffee. Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and California are the only regions that produce a significant amount of coffee. Puerto Rico, in particular, creates a high-quality volume of coffee from almost universally Fairtrade-certified farmers.
Hawaii also produces nearly 9 million pounds of coffee a year around the Mauna Loa volcano region. This area has the perfect soil conditions and temperature for coffee farming. California coffee farming exists in carefully prepared areas of San Diego and Santa Barbara.
Choosing Great Coffee Beans
Understanding how coffee beans are grown, processed, and roasted can make it easier to find a great bean that you can trust. Look for farmers with a Fairtrade certification who produce the roast style you enjoy the most for your beans. Dark beans often provide the densest taste profiles, while lighter beans work best for coffee connoisseurs.
You should also look for beans with minimum faults or manufacturing errors. Quality control should catch a majority of these issues. But if your bag has multiple bad beans (or you continually run into poor-quality with your coffee beans), you may want to work with another farming, roasting, and manufacturing team to get better results.