Last Updated on September 13, 2021 by John Moretti
I have often wondered where my morning coffee comes from. My curiosity got the best of me so I did some extensive research and put together a list of ALL the steps that happen before we take that morning sip of java. There’s a lot of information, so let’s grab a cup of Joe while we review the birth of our coffee beverage.
1. Planting The Seed
Coffee beans are seeds that are planted in shaded nurseries. When tending to these seedlings, we must water them frequently and protect them from sunlight. Once our seedlings have matured, we can permanently plant them during the wet season (spring or the rainy season). Our seeds must have a cool climate and moist soil. It is even better when the soil is hilly and rich in nitrogen.
In Uganda, a coffee grower shows us how he plants his seedling nursery.
More than 70 countries grow coffee beans. However, as much as 70% of our java comes from Columbia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the top producer, Brazil. We refer to this high coffee-producing area as the “The coffee belt”. These countries are all between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.
This research study from the Journal of Horticulture and Forestry details the effect of direct sunlight on coffee seedlings in Ethiopia. Excessive sunlight gives us smaller and lighter seeds of less quality than those produced under shade.
A new coffee tree will bear its first fruit, called a coffee cherry, in 3 to 4 years. The ripe fruit is bright red and is harvested once a year. However, we can have two harvest pickings in Columbia and Kenya – these countries don’t have specific wet or dry seasons.
If we need a good workout, coffee picking is a good choice. The fruit is laboriously picked by hand in most places except Brazil. Due to the flat landscape, coffee picking is done by machines there.
A typical coffee picker in Costa Rica will wake by 5 am, make the long journey ride up steep hills and begin picking by 6:30 am. Workers are assigned a row of beans called the calle. Each picker has his own calle so beans are not mixed.
Coffee pickers work very hard to deliver our beans. A hard day of labor may only result in 2 – 3 dollars a day. Once the coffee reaches the last stage, we can easily pay that same amount or more when we buy a morning cup at our local cafe.
Ideally, sorting is done during the picking process, but it does not always work out that way.
Coffee pickers are encouraged to only pick ripe beans when doing so by hand. They labor to gather between 100 – 200lbs of coffee cherries per day. We can get 20 – 40lbs of coffee beans from such a load.
Machine harvesting can save time, but these are not smart machines that will select only ripe berries. Many unripe berries are collected which have to be picked out later. The coffee farmers can’t regain those lost profits from unripe berries picked before their time.
4. Pulp the Cherries
We must de-pulp the cherries the same day as harvesting. The actual bean we use for our coffee lies inside this pulp. There are two ways to separate the bean from the pulp – machine or water soaking for up to two days.
We must further sort the beans by running them through vibrating screens. These screens separate correctly pulped beans from poorly pulped ones. The screens also separate beans by size as the heavier beans float to the bottom.
Now it is time for fermentation. This process allows us to get rid of the parenchyma – a slick layer of mucilage left from the pulp. The beans will lose this layer as they soak for 12 – 24 hours in a water tank.
Once the parenchyma dissolves, we can remove the beans from the fermentation tank but must put them through more washing. Our beans are well bathed before drying.
There are two main ways that beans can be dried. In places like Brazil, the whole cherry is left outside on a tray to dry and ferment. This technique is an example of naturally processed coffee.
When beans are processed in the wet method mentioned above, we must dry them until they reach an 11% moisture rate. They get a nice sunbath as farmers spread them on tables or floors. The beans are still surrounded by the endocarp layer. This layer resembles parchment paper, so coffee at this level is known as parchment coffee.
Some coffee producers may use machines for drying as well. Like fermentation, beans are rotated during this process for even drying.
Coffee produced in Kenya undergoes a more rigorous drying process that involves six stages. Some coffee producers are also using solar drying panels due to their faster and consistent drying time.
Our beans have been thoroughly washed and dried. Now it is time to rest and store them. During this time, our beans need a space with good ventilation and little sunlight. Beans are usually stacked in sacs called jute bags or in large wooden silos.
Hulling removes the parchment layer in a machine. Some producers may opt to have the coffee beans polished. Polishing does not affect the taste, but we get to hold nice and shiny beans.
The beans undergo further inspection for imperfections. The bean size ranges on a scale from 10 to 20. Beans grown at high-altitudes are usually larger than low-altitude beans.
At this stage, we must look for signs of over-fermentation, insects, remaining hulls, discoloration, and size issues. Machines or hand pickers remove defective beans.
In some instances, beans may be sorted as much as three times before moving on to the next stage.
The coffee beans have passed several tests and passed through many hands since being picked. It is now time to ship the beans off so they can reach stores, coffee shops, and our homes.
The milled beans are collected in plastic-lined containers or sisal or jute bags and shipped out. At this stage, our beans have a green color since there is more work to be done.
That lovely aroma we smell as coffee brews results from its roasting process. Beans move through a machine that maintains a temperature of 550 degrees Fahrenheit.
Caffeol is the lovely fragrant oil that springs forth as the beans reach 400 degrees internally. In other words, roasting is the source of what truly makes a cup of coffee enjoyable – flavor and smell.
The smell of coffee consistently ranks as one of the top ten smells in the world. The smell of coffee is so powerful, it can even affect our brain, according to the American Chemical Society. So it is no wonder that we often perk up a bit as we smell coffee in the morning.
So much work has gone into our coffee at this point, it would be such a shame if it were to lose its flavor or go stale (coffee beans have some oils/fats). This possible damage is why roasted coffee needs airtight packages and containers. A heat sealer can seal the bag.
Coffee is often packaged in a plastic bag, paper bag, or airtight pack with an air valve for escaping gas. The airtight pack is best for coffee that will sit on a shelf for weeks or months. We often receive freshly packaged coffee beans in a paper bag from our local coffee shops, since we take the coffee straight home.
To brew a fresh cup of coffee, we must grind the beans enough for water to filter through them. Coffee beans are almost as hard as a rock. Machines consisting of very sharp blades pound the hard beans down into tiny particles.
The size of the ground affects how long it will take for us to brew a cup of coffee. Espresso coffee is the finest grade we can buy. Coffee made for a typical drip-machine will have various larger sizes.
We can often buy coffee already ground or take whole beans home and grind it ourselves.
While tools like blenders or food processors can grind coffee beans, I would not recommend it. While those kitchen appliances have sharp blades for hard veggies, they are not made to evenly grind coffee beans.
A group of uneven coffee grounds won’t produce an ideal cup of coffee. If you are in a pinch and must use a blender or food processor, be prepared to put in the elbow grease and time until your grind looks acceptable.
For home grinding, purchase a real coffee grinder. Many coffee grinders have two blades and will grind your beans in seconds.
Coffee lovers can buy a hand or automatic coffee grinder. Some argue that hand coffee grinders produce better coffee. In this increasingly nomadic world, hand coffee grinders may become increasingly popular since they are mobile and don’t need electricity.
You can use other household tools, like rolling pins or mortar and pestle to grind coffee manually.
We are one step closer to drinking a nice cup of Joe. Brewing is the process where hot water extracts the flavor, color, and oils from the grounds to give us a delicious dark brown concoction.
At this point, we can certainly enjoy the aroma. There are several different tools and techniques used to brew coffee these days. Water affects coffee quality, so we should aim for filtered or bottled options if your tap water is suspicious.
Use about one to two tablespoons of coffee for each six-ounce cup of water. I usually find that two tablespoons produce a perfect cup.
A coffee drip machine may take about 5 minutes to brew coffee. Espresso brews in about 30 seconds. A french press machine will make coffee in about 2 or 4 minutes. For a nice cold brew, prepare it the day before or overnight.
Here comes the fun part. After a journey from several corners of the world, sitting under a dark tree for 4 years, being picked, having several baths, drying like a raisin, shedding many layers, being packed and ground up to a pulp – our coffee is finally ready for us to drink.
Hot days don’t have to stop our coffee enjoyment. Cold-brew has risen in popularity over the years to compete with ice tea. We can even drink our coffee in a smoothie or milkshake.
In Sweden, you can enjoy your Fika break all day – make sure you have a sweet bite too. In the United States, get your coffee at the drive-through Starbucks or program your automatic coffee machine, so coffee is ready when you get up. In Italy, sip your espresso while standing at a bar.
We are now fully aware of all the steps our coffee beans go through before making it to our cup. It is quite a journey, and I hope we can all enjoy the adventure as much as we enjoy drinking the result. Cheers!