Have you ever wondered where those little beans that go so well with a coating of chocolate come from? Or how something that starts off as a seed in another country gets to your steaming mug? The steps to making the flavorful roasts that only come from the highest quality grown and cultivated beans have to be carried out precisely and completely in order for the coffee to make the long journey successfully from the field into your cup.

The National Coffee Association lists 10 steps as being crucial to the making of the finest brewed coffee. (Photos below are courtesy of Google Images.)


~Step 1: Planting~

Coffee Plantations in Agua Branca, Brazil

The coffee beans that we grind in order to brew coffee are, in fact, seeds that will grow into coffee trees when planted. Places such as Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam, and Ethiopia, which produce the majority of coffee in the world, have ideal climates for coffee plantations. In order for a coffee tree to grow, the climate must be tropical, with fertile volcanic red earth or deep sandy loam as the ideal soil. Different types of coffee vary in the temperature needed to thrive; for example, Arabica coffee, which makes up roughly 70 percent of worldwide coffee production, has an optimal temperature range from 64 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. In general, coffee seeds are planted in large beds in shaded nurseries, requiring frequent watering and shade from direct sunlight until they are strong enough to be planted permanently. Planting generally takes place during the wet season, when the soil is still moist, to allow the roots to firmly establish themselves.

~Step 2: Harvesting~

Kenya Coffee4
Photo by Jim Koenigsaecker: A farmer picking coffee cherries in the Nyeri region of Kenya

After approximately 3 to 4 years, the coffee trees will begin to bear fruit. When they are ripe and ready for harvesting, these coffee cherries will turn a bright, deep red. Typically, one major harvest will take place each year, except in certain countries that produce two flowerings annually, such as Colombia. The process of picking coffee cherries is a labor-intensive and difficult one in most countries. In places where the landscape is relatively flat, however, machinery has been created that can pick the cherries more efficiently, such as in Brazil. The coffee is either harvested by strip picking, during which all cherries are stripped off the branch one at a time (by machine or hand), or selectively picking, during which only the ripe cherries are picked individually by hand to be harvested. As selective picking is a more arduous process, pickers will often rotate among the trees every 8 to 10 days to make sure they are harvesting the cherries at their ripest. This process, which is more costly and labor-intensive, is generally only used to harvest the finer Arabica beans. On average, a picker will harvest 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries per day, or 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans.

~Step 3: Processing~

The skin and the pulp of the coffee cherry is separated by the wet method of processing

After the cherries have been harvested, they are then sent to the processing plant as quickly as possible before they spoil, as with any other fruit. There are two kinds of processing, which depend upon location and local resources. The Dry Method, which has been around the longest, is used in countries with limited water resources. First, the cherries are laid out to sun-dry on large surfaces. Throughout the day, they are raked and turned, and at night or in rain, they are covered in order to prevent them from spoiling and getting wet. This process will continue until the moisture content of the cherries drops to 11%, which usually takes  several weeks for each batch of coffee. The other method, the Wet Method, works by removing the pulp from the coffee cherry after harvesting so that the bean can dry with only the parchment skin left on. A pulping machine completes this step by separating the skin and pulp from the bean first. Next, water channels will separate the beans by weight, as the lighter beans float to the top, and the heavier ripe beans sink to the bottom. Rotating drums will then separate the beans by size. Once separation has been completed, the beans are transported to large, water-filled fermentation tanks, where they will remain for 12 to 48 hours, depending upon the condition of the beans, the climate, and the altitude. In the tanks, the slick layer of mucilage (known as the parenchyma) on top of the parchment is dissolved by natural enzymes in the tanks. After a final rinsing by more water channels, the beans will feel rough.

~Step 4: Drying~

Coffee cherries drying on raised beds

If the Wet Method was used to process the beans, the pulped and fermented beans must then by dried to 11% moisture to prepare them for storage. The beans inside the parchment envelope (the endocarp) can be sun-dried on drying tables or floors or machine-dried in large tumblers. These dried beans are called parchment coffee, and are stored in jute or sisal bags until ready for export.

~Step 5: Milling~

Wet milling coffee cherries

Parchment coffee requires this extra step of milling before it can be exported. First, hulling machinery is used to remove the parchment layer from wet processed coffee. If the coffee has been dry processed, hulling involves removing the entire dried husk (exocarp, mesocarp, and endocarp) from the dried cherries. After the cherries have been hulled, in some cases, they will be polished, during which a machine removes any silver skin that remains on the beans. There is actually little difference between polished and unpolished beans, although polished beans are considered superior to unpolished. The beans will then be graded and sorted by size and weight and reviewed for color flaws or other imperfections. To be sized, they either pass through a series of screens or are sorted by an air jet to separate heavy and light beans. Bean size is represented on a scale of 10 to 20, which represents the size of a round hole’s diameter in terms of 1/64th of an inch. For example, a number 10 bean would be the approximate size of a hold in diameter of 10/64 of an inch. Defective bean that have unacceptable size or color, are over-fermented, are insect-damaged, or are unhulled are then removed by hand or by machinery. Often, both machine and hand will complete this final reviewal to ensure the finest quality beans are exported.

~Step 6: Exporting~

Green coffee packed in sisal bags for export

These milled beans are now referred to as green coffee, and at this point are loaded onto ships in jute or sisal bags loaded in shipping containers. They can also be bulk-shipped in plastic-lined containers. For 2016/17, the world coffee production is forecasted to be roughly 3.7 million bags higher than the previous year, which was around 152.7 million 60-kg bags, according to the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service.

~Step 7: Tasting~

Coffee cupping

The process of cupping, which refers to repeated testing for quality and taste, usually takes place in a specifically-designed room for this process. the cupper, or taster, will first evaluate the beans for visual quality. They are then roasted in a small laboratory roaster, ground and infused in boiling water with a carefully-controlled temperature. The cupper will nose the brew to judge the quality of the coffee’s aroma during this step. After the coffee rests for several minutes, the cupper will then push aside the grounds at the top of the cup to break the crust; he/she will then once again nose the coffee before tasting. The actual act of tasting involves a precise process as well, as the cupper must slurp a spoonful with a quick inhalation in order to spray the coffee evenly over the cupper’s taste buds to then weigh it on the tongue before spitting it out. Each day, samples from various batches and beans are tasted to determine their characteristics and flaws and blend different beans to create the proper roast. Expert cuppers can taste hundreds of samples per day and still taste the subtle differences between each one.

~Step 8: Roasting~

Coffee roasting machinery in action

Green coffee must then be transformed into aromatic brown beans that we consumers can purchase at their favorite local cafés by a process of roasting. Roasting must be done at a temperature of around 550 degrees Fahrenheit. During the process, the beans are kept in continual motion in order to keep them from burning. Once the beans reach an internal temperature of 400 degrees Fahrenheit, they turn brown and the caffeol, or the fragrant oil locked inside the beans, emerges. This process, which produces the flavor and aroma of the coffee in our mugs, is at the heart of roasting, and is called pyrolysis. The beans must be immediately cooled by air or water after roasting. Generally, roasting will occur in the importing countries, as freshly roasted beans must be transferred to the consumers as quickly as possible.

~Step 9: Grinding~

Different types of ground coffee beans

The main goal of grinding is to get the most flavor in a single cup of coffee. The brewing method used will alter how coarsely or finely the coffee must be ground. The ideal grade of the grind is determined by how long the grounds will be in contact with water. In general, the finer the grind, the more quickly the coffee should be prepared. For example, coffee ground for an espresso machine is much finer than coffee in a drip system, as the ground beans are in contact with water for a much shorter amount of time.

~Step 10: Brewing~

Traditional drip coffee brewing

Finally, the coffee grounds are ready to be brewed in order to make our daily, energizing, life-giving, perfect cup of joe. Different people will use different brewing methods, the most common being drip brewing. Espresso machines have also recently become popular as a quick way to make a bold cup of coffee. Visit the “Types of Coffee” section of this blog for a break-down of the types of brewed coffee available.



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