From Ground to Grounds – How Coffee is Made
Coffee. Simple, basic, uncomplicated…or is it? Have you ever stopped to consider how that dark, delicious liquid traveled from somewhere else in the world into your cup this morning? It’s not as easy a process as you might think.
Where do coffee beans come from? Let’s begin this journey at the Bean Belt.
The area of the world where almost all coffee is grown.
This belt is a ring that extends around the Earth’s center and encompasses most of South and Central America, Africa, and Southern Asia – places where the soil is dark and rich, the climate is wet and mild, and the altitudes are high but temperate due to their proximity to the equator.
Brazil, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Columbia are some of the highest coffee-producing countries in the world.
Geographically, that’s where coffee comes from, but what about botanically?
The growth and process of the coffee bean.
Commercial beans are derived primarily from the two species of flowering trees known as:
- Coffea arabica, and
- Coffea robusta
Botanists speculate, however, there could be as many as 100 different species of coffee trees.
These trees typically spend the first year of life in nurseries.
They are cultivated from green coffee beans into saplings, and meticulously cared for until they are hearty enough to be planted. It will take another 2 to 4 years for these trees to begin producing fruit. Left to their own, these trees can grow as tall as 30 feet, but on coffee farms are pruned to stay around 8 – 10 feet for efficient harvesting.
But coffee beans don’t simply grow on trees.
Coffee trees bloom with white flowers which produce a berry or fruit referred to as “cherries”. Inside each cherry are two individual coffee seeds we call “beans”. These cherries are ready to harvest when they reach a bright shade of red. A perfectly ripe coffee cherry will produce a bean whose content is oily but not acidic. In most countries, cherries are still picked by hand (though on larger farms, where the terrain is mostly level, this is done by machine).
This harvesting step is the most labor-intensive and physically exhausting of the coffee-making process.
The berries ripen in intervals, so harvesting is done in revolving stages. Cherries are plucked from the branches, then ripe ones are sorted out by individuals. This can be done by:
- Simply pulling out the ripe berries hand
- Using a sieve to remove the excess debris, or
- Submerging the fruit in water where the ripe cherries float to the top.
The average berry picker will harvest about 150 pounds of fruit a day. On average, only 30 pounds will make it as far as packaging.
Once sorted, the ripe fruit then moves immediately on to the next step: processing.
Cherries must be processed quickly to escape spoiling. This may be done using:
- The Dry Method, in which the fruit is spread out to dry under the sun. During the days, the fruit is raked and turned. At night the fruit is covered to prevent dew or rain from ruining it. The goal of this process is to reduce the moisture content of the cherry to less than 11%.
- The Wet Method, in which the beans are first removed from the pulp of the fruit before they are dried. Even though done with machines, this is a meticulous process that can take anywhere from 6 hours to 3 days.
The different processes of removing the beans from the fruit is called the fermentation stage. The end result of both the Dry and Wet methods is to acquire the two little green seeds in the center.
The coffee cherries must be pulped. The skin, pulp, and membranes surrounding the beans must be removed. The seeds may go through multiple processes and machines to be pulped, hulled, polished, graded, sorted, and graded.
Finally, these seeds from the cherry can officially called “green coffee beans”. They are now stored in burlap (jute, sisal) bags where they may be immediately exported or stored safely for years.
For those being exported, it’s about so much more than transport. The objective for consumers is to search out Direct and Fair Trade coffees. These are production methods that work to ensure coffee farmers are getting the absolute best price by removing as many distribution steps as possible.
Direct Trade sources directly from the producer, allowing the farmer to get the bulk of the proceeds and not a bunch of middlemen who merely ship and store and resell.
Fair Trade goes a step further by encouraging ethical labor practices and ecologically responsible agricultural methods. Just remember: the fewer links between your coffee and the farmer who grew it, the better chance the producer is getting a fair price, and is, in turn, able to grow a quality product.
Now onto roasting!Roasting is simply the process of transforming green coffee beans into fragrant brown beans.
The process itself, however, is anything but simple. Coffee roasting is both scientific and artistic.
Temperature and timing are key to achieving perfection. Roasting machines maintain an average temperature of 500 to 550 degrees, where beans are swirled, stirred, and spun for 7 to 14 minutes.
Beans are continually moved to prevent them from burning. As the internal temperature of the beans gets higher, they “pop” just like popcorn.
This releases the oil inside the bean and gives coffee its decadent aroma and delicious flavor. The longer the roast, the more intense the flavor, but also the more caffeine is removed.
The key is to achieve and maintain all of these elements perfectly for the desired roast.
Once perfection is achieved, the beans are immediately cooled to prevent further internal roasting.
Commercial roasters then package their whole-bean product in opaque, airtight bags or canisters to maintain the integrity of the flavor until the beans are ready for grinding – the very critical next step in the coffee-making process.
First, it should be noted, that beans are best ground just before brewing. Coffee releases more than half its aroma within minutes of grinding.
Now, how coarse or fine the beans are ground depends on the intended brewing method. For a vacuum coffee maker or a French Press, the grind should be fairly coarse. Moving to drip methods, the grind falls somewhere in the middle. For an espresso, the grind should be very fine.
Ideally, grinding is done using a conical burr grinder as opposed to a blade grinder. While a blade grinder may be adequate for most drip coffee, a burr grinder allows for superior control of the grind consistency and prevents overheating which can spoil the flavor.
And now onto the brew…
Your coffee has come a long way to get to this point. Whether you choose to brew via drip, pour-over, espresso, etc., equipment should be clean, temperature should be monitored, amounts should be measured, every tiny step painstakingly supervised to ensure the journey these beans have been on is not wasted.
This final step of brewing determines whether the time and expense of the farmer, the intensive labor of the cherry picker, the careful transit by the exporter, the craft of the artisan roaster, culminates in a coffee that is disappointingly drab or an ultimately satisfying.
As you savor that dark, rich drink in your hands, be aware of what was required for your coffee to get where it is.
May you never again take your caffeinated cup for granted.
If you are looking for the best coffee products to make your perfect caffeinated cup, take a look at our store.