Coffee may be the most popular drink in the world, but few of us think twice about where – or how – our coffee is made. We grind and scoop our favorite blend into our coffee machines, brew and head out the door to start the day. But it’s quite a long process to get from coffee seed to cup.
It Starts with a Seed
Did you know that coffee beans are actually seeds? Before they can be ground and brewed into coffee, the seeds must be dried and roasted. But if you never process the seed, it can be planted and will grow into a coffee tree.
Planting is a complicated process. Seeds are placed in large, shaded beds. Once sprouted, they’re removed and planted in pots with special soil. These young plants are frequently watered and kept away from bright sunlight.
After planting, it will take 3-4 years (depending on the variety) for the trees to bear fruit, or coffee cherries. These cherries turn a rich red color when they’re ready to be harvested.
In most countries, coffee cherries are harvested by hand. This is a labor-intensive and challenging process, but the landscape in many coffee-producing countries isn’t optimal for mechanized harvesting. Brazil is an exception as the coffee fields are relatively flat and very large.
Processing the Cherries
Once the cherries have been picked, they must be processed quickly to prevent spoiling. Depending on the local resources and the location of where the coffee is grown, cherries may be processed in one of two different ways:
The wet method of processing removes the pump from the cherry. When the bean dries, the only thing left is the parchment skin. There are quite a few steps to this method.
- The cherries are passed through a specialized pulping machine that separates the pulp from the bean. The pulp is washed away along the water, and is typically dried and used for mulch. The beans are then separated by their weight as they make their way through the water channels. The lighter beans float to the top, while the heavier beans sink to the bottom.
- The beans pass through a set of rotating drums, which separates them according to size.
- The beans are transported to fermentation tanks and will remain there for 12-48 hours. Fermentation removes the layer of mucilage that was once attached to the parchment.
- The beans are then rinsed and are ready for drying.
The Dry Method
The dry method is the traditional method of processing coffee beans, and the most popular choice in countries where water resources are limited. The cherries are spread out on large surfaces to dry out in the sun. Workers rake and turn the cherries throughout the day and the cherries are covered at night to prevent spoiling. Depending on the weather conditions, this process may go on for several weeks.
Milling and Exporting
Once the beans have been dried, they’re hulled, polished, graded and sorted. Next, the beans are exported as “green coffee”.
Once the beans have been exported, they’re roasted. Roasting transforms the green color to the brown color we’re familiar with.
Once roasted, the beans are ready to be ground and brewed. From seed to cup, coffee goes through quite a few processing steps before it reaches your morning cup.