The Coffee Journey – from Seed to Cup

Seed to sapling

What we know as the “coffee bean” starts as a seed inside the berry from the coffee plant. There are two seeds within each coffee berry (sometimes there is just one which is called a “peaberry”). The coffee berries (AKA “coffee cherries” or “coffee fruit”) themselves don’t taste at all like the coffee that we drink – they actually taste a little bit like a green bell pepper. I always wonder how someone thought to roast the seed of that berry and create the coffee.

Coffee nursery in Chiapas, Mexico
Coffee nursery in Chiapas, Mexico

Most of the farmers that I know plant coffee samplings in their farms rather than starting from the seed. The coffee seeds are first planted and nurtured in a nursery. They are transferred as a sampling to the coffee farm when they are a little over a year old.

Coffee flowers

It usually takes about 3 to 4 years for the coffee plant to mature, flower, and produce coffee berries – which is largely dependent on the elevation of the farm and the varietal of coffee plant, among other things. When the coffee plants are in bloom, the entire farm is dotted with these delicate, white, fragrant coffee flowers. There can be thousands of flowers on just one plant! During the coffee bloom, there is this jasmine-like scent of the flowers that permeates the air, wafting through the windows of the nearby houses or even through the car windows if you are driving near coffee farms. The flowers do not stay for long though – after only about three days, they start to dry up, turn brown, and fall to the ground.

Coffee flowers
Coffee flowers

Coffee harvest

The coffee berries start off green, like most fruit, and turn a deep red as they mature and ripen. It takes about 5 to 8 months after the flower bloom for the berries to be ready for harvest. If it’s a small farm, it’s a whole family affair – but larger farms usually hire migrant workers to pick the coffee. A good picker can harvest up to 100 to 200 pounds of coffee berries per day – which will produce about 20 to 40 pounds of coffee. Coffee picking is tough work. The pickers tie a plastic basket, the looks similar to a laundry basket, around their waste and gather the ripe, red coffee berries from each branch. They are paid by the volume of coffee they pick each day, so it helps to be quick, but they can also get fired if there are too many dead or green berries in their basket, so accuracy is important too. For one of my research studies, we had placed track plates throughout the coffee farm in hopes of getting footprints from animals going into the boxes to get bait. They were basically wooden boxes tied together with rope. We happened to be in the farm during harvest and without fail, every morning when we went to check the track plates, the boxes were collapsed because someone had taken the rope that held it together…we actually got photograph evidence of the culprits from a camera trap that we had nearby. No doubt that the rope was put to good use for the coffee pickers, but it didn’t make for very successful research results.

Rope getting swiped
Rope getting swiped

Processing

At this stage in the coffee journey, the seed is isolated from the coffee berry. For most smallholder coffee growers, this is point at which the coffee leaves their farms. The coffee berries are often brought to a local processing plant, or what is called a “beneficio” in Latin America, where the coffee seed is stripped of the fleshy fruit and further processed.

There are two methods for processing – either what is called the “dry method” or the “wet method.” The dry method is most simple. There are basically three steps. First, the coffee berries are sorted and cleaned- removing any twigs, debris, under ripe or over ripe berries, and then washed with water. Second, the berries are laid out on a flat surface to dry in the sun. After the harvest in India, I saw coffee berries drying everywhere – yards, patios, rooftops, driveways – anywhere there was a flat unshaded surface. For the last step of the dry method, the dried berries are sent to a mill to be hulled, removing the outer layers of the fruit and skin from the seed or bean.

Coffee drying in India
Coffee drying in India

The wet method (AKA the washed method) is much more involved and as the name suggests, uses water, a lot of it actually. The general consensus in the coffee world is that the washed method produces better quality coffee, although there has been some talk recently of the advantages of the dry method in preserving quality and taste. It should be noted without getting too far into the anatomy of the coffee fruit that the coffee seed is surrounded by a thin paper-like layer called parchment which is underneath another thin layer of slimy film or mucilage. The wet method has some steps to remove this mucilage. The steps for this method are roughly go like this:

  • Coffee berries are sorted and cleaned
  • A machine is used to remove the fruit pulp from the bean
  • Beans and mucilaginous parchment are washed in water
  • Placed in fermentation tanks to remove mucilage
  • Beans are washed again
  • Beans are dried either outside in the sun or in driers (“parchment coffee”- still surrounded by paper thin endocarp)
  • The beans are hulled to remove parchment (now it’s called “green coffee”)

One thing to note from a sustainability point of view is that there is a large amount of water used for the wet or washed method. There are some processing plants that I have seen that recycle this water, but that is not the norm. Also, there have been some reports of the wastewater from the processing contaminating local water resources.

Coffee sorting
Coffee sorting

Roasting

Most coffee is exported as green coffee and then roasted and packaged in the import country. In fact, in many of the coffee regions where I have worked it is tough to find a good cup of coffee because the high quality coffee is shipped out! This is changing though as high quality coffee is being appreciated more widely. But in India, we actually drank a lot of instant coffee in our field house after working in the beautiful coffee farms all day.

Coffee roasting is a beast unto itself. It is a mix of science, experience and knowledge, and art. I have spoken to coffee roasters who will do batch tests changing the temperature just 2 degrees and say they can taste the different taste profiles that are brought out within the coffee. This is beyond my expertise as a coffee research scientist, but I did find a great website that has some information (and cool pictures) on the different roasts if you are interested in checking that out: http://legacy.sweetmarias.com/library/content/using-sight-determine-degree-roast

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