From Crop to Cup
Even though you mostly care about feeling alert and with it after a cup of coffee early in the morning, have you ever wondered how the magic happens, from crop to cup? We’re going to tell you.
If you don’t live in a coffee producing country, you may know very little about coffee plants. A coffee tree is a woody perennial evergreen shrub, covered with dark green, waxy leaves that grow opposite each other in pairs. They can grow to be 30 feet tall, but are typically kept shorter for easier harvesting. It takes three or four years to grow a tree to become productive. The tree actually produces fragrant white blossoms that smell a bit like jasmine. Then about a year later the coffee cherries mature. Each tree can produce beans that make between 1 and 1.5 pounds of roasted coffee every season. Imagine how many trees we’d each need to power our coffee fix each year? A lot for some of us.
Coffee plants grow in rich soil and mild temperatures with lots of rain and shaded sun, often in the shade of other trees. The best coffees are grown at an altitude of 1300 metres or higher, above sea level in coffee belt, an area bounded by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Here soil, climate, and altitude affect the flavour of the beans.
Coffee beans live inside the coffee fruit -- or cherries. The cherries are ready to be picked when they are deep red (or sometimes yellow; there are some varieties of coffee where the fruit is yellow).The beans can be picked by hand for better quality specialty coffees (like our coffee!) or strip picked by machines for commercial coffees, the kind you typically find in grocery stores.
But in many countries it’s picked by hand in a labour-intensive and difficult process. Cherries are picked individually by hand with pickers rotating among the trees every eight to 10 days. A good picker averages 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day, producing 20 to 40 pounds of coffee. The day’s harvest is then transported to the processing plant.
Depending on location and resources, coffee is processed in one of two ways: wet and dry.
The dry method is the age old way and still used many places where water is limited. The freshly picked coffee are spread out on huge surfaces to dry in the sun. In order to prevent spoiling they’re raked and turned throughout the day, then covered at night or when it rains. The intent is to pull the moisture from the cherries until the moisture content is at 11 percent.
The wet method removes the pulp from the cherry so the bean is dried with only the parchment skin left on. The skin and pulp is separated from the bean, then the beans are separated by weight as they pass through water channels. The heavier, ripe beans sink to the bottom, and passed through rotating drums that sort them by size. Separated, the beans are transported to fermentation tanks to dissolve the parchment. Once they’re rinsed, the beans are dried. Like the dry method, they’re dried to 11 percent. The parchment are hulled to remove the parchment layer, then polished.
The way coffee is treated right after it is picked is at least as important as the terroir. The way it is picked and processed has an enormous impact on the final result in the cup.
From here, the green beans are loaded into bags, put onto container ships to their final destination for roasting. Western Europe, the US, Canada, and Japan are the largest importers of coffee. Upon arrival the beans are inspected by coffee cuppers by sight, smell, and taste before roasting.
Green coffee is transformed into the aromatic brown beans we all know at its final destination. The beans are removed from the roaster when the internal temperature reaches 400 to 450F. At this point the oil locked inside the bean emerges. Generally speaking, the roasting process tries to bring out the best mixture of naturally occurring acids found in a specific coffee. These are the compounds that give the coffee its unique characteristics.
From here the process should be more familiar. Grind the coffee coarse or fine, depending on the brew method. See our brewing guides on where to go from here! Then enjoy, of course!