Coffee… Something so familiar and constant in our everyday lives, that we oftentimes don’t even realize what we see on store shelves is only a rough 10% of the life cycle of the bean. For those of us that drink coffee for the simple effect of waking up, you may be surprised to see all the effort that goes into making that beautiful elixir we all love. In this article, we’re going to take you from beginning to end in the process to make your early morning (or afternoon) routine complete and full of energy.
In the Beginning…
Most of us only encounter the last tiny bit of a coffee bean’s lifespan in either the form of dark brown beans, for those that grind their own, or the course brown powder sitting in a nicely packaged bag that we bought from the market. In all actuality, coffee has four main milestones within its existence from the ground to your cup.
Step 1: “From the Dust”
Coffee is of course grown as a plant, but the beans themselves are not actually beans at all, they are seeds from a red/purple coffee berry grown from the “coffea” plant.
Photo credit: becuo.com
Although, coffee is grown in a plethora of regions throughout the planet, these plants are only native to one continent, Africa (minus a few small regions in south Asia). African coffee yields some of the most delicious coffee in the world in the forms of native Arabica coffee beans, and the less sophisticated Robusta.
At the time that coffee is ready for harvest, the berries will either be picked by hand, or by machine. No matter the method, they are picked from the branch in 1 of 2 ways. They are either Strip Picked, or Selectively Picked.
Strip picking is typically performed mechanically where all the fruit is harvested at once from the coffea branch. This results in harvesting fruit with a varying level of maturation. Strip picking can be done by a human picker by grabbing the base of the branch next to the trunk and pulling outward, knocking all of the fruit to the ground. If performed mechanically, pickers are assisted by a device called a Derricadeiras, a mechanical stripper that resembles something directly from a Robert Englund performance!
Photo Credit: http://microtratores.blogspot.com
The remaining method is done by Selective Picking. Here, pickers pull the fruit that is the ripest by hand, leaving the remaining immature fruit on the branch for later harvesting. Overripened fruit can either be left on the branch (not recommended) or picked and left in a separate lot from the ripe fruit (recommended). Selective picked fruit ensures that only the best, highest quality of fruit is chosen to be moved into the next process.
Step 2: “Good hygiene and bathing”
Once picked from these small shrub-like trees, the beans will then be stripped of their juicy external berry shell. Coffee can either be washed, un-washed, or semi-washed to remove the outer cherry-like skin before the beans advance to the less exciting sector to remove excess silver skin and polishing to prepare for exporting.
Washed coffee, also referred to wet processed, is performed by a pulper machine. This machine removes the outer layer of skin and prepares the bean to have its mucilage fermented in water for at least one to two days. After this fermentation, the bean is washed from its mucilage once it has released its aroma. This method produces the highest quality of coffee, although it takes a gratuitous amount of skill and water to perform.
Unwashed coffee is the oldest preparation method and has been used for hundreds of years. First the coffee fruit is washed and dried in the sun. Afterwards, the green seed is removed. This process requires far less skill and resources to perform and thus, there are little controls on how the bean is removed from the cherry skin.
Semi-washed combines the methods of both the previous processes as the outer skins are removed, but the pulp can remain and dry in the sun. Once drying is complete, the beans are removed similar to the unwashed process.
Now that the seeds have been picked, processed, washed and stripped they are ready for sale and export to the next step of the coffee journey.
Step 3: “Out of the pan, into the Fryer… err Roaster”
Coffee beans get nice and washed up, to later be dressed in their finest canvas bags and loaded on a freighter getting set up for the most (un)exciting road trip to begin their lives anew. Roasters are spotted around the world in more diverse places than the growing regions of coffee itself. No matter the venue that you bought your coffee this morning, they all have something in common. An expert coffee roaster (master roaster) handled those beans to bring to life the aroma and taste we all love.
Roasting is an art form in itself, from bean profiles to blends, there are hundreds of ways to form a cup of coffee each with its own particular taste and aroma once brewed. We’ll go into more details on roasting in another article, just know that somewhere in the world, there is a total coffee geek who came up with the profile that you drink every morning.
Coffee can be roasted to an array of profiles, from lighter beans (like our New England Breakfast) to darker profiles (Viennese Full City) and everywhere in between. Roasting has 2 main points within the roast time that gives the roaster an important milestone to where the coffee seeds are within their desired profile, first crack and second crack.
As beans heat up, they begin to turn a tan/brown color and emit a bit of a toasty smell. Kind of like bread as it’s being baked. Once they begin to turn more brown than tan, the roaster will hear a small pop which sounds similar to popcorn popping in the microwave. This is the infamous first crack. At this point, coffee is officially drinkable and indicative of the profile being a super light roast. I personally do not recommend drinking coffee that is roasted without reaching first crack (I’ve experimented and gotten a wicked stomach ache from it) but to each their own. Many light blends will be roasted to what is called a “rolling first crack” which is where the roasted allows the beans to get into first crack, but not all the way through and begins the cooling process while first crack is happening.
Passed the point of first crack is a bit of a gray area for the profiles as there is no indicators other than aroma and visualizations to give roasters their profile understanding. This period is for experience roasters to determine. It’s simply trial and error. If a roaster wants a good medium blend, the point between first crack and second crack is where you want to begin the cooling process. The time to wait after 1C (first crack) to get that perfect cup will depend on time, heat applied and the beans’ specific growing region. For instance, Guatemalan SHB (super hard beans) are grown at higher altitudes giving them a more hardy bean yield. SHB is difficult to roast due to its resistance to heat. These beans take a while to brown, but when they do it happens at a decent rate. More of a delayed reaction to the heat so the time frame between 1C and 2C is very minimal. I’ll go into the roast profiles and stages in a different article as well.
Second crack is the latter period of the roasting process. Similar to 1C, 2C sounds a bit more like small pops. Kinda like poprocks candy. At this point, the beans get dark very fast depending on the amount of heat going to them. Just like in 1C, many roasters cool beans in a rolling 2C to get a nice bolder bean but without being too bitter. 2C is challenging because shortly after the cracks end, you may end up scorching the beans to the point of them being nearly black and tasting like ashes (or they might just catch on fire… really.) 2C is the point that growing region matters with blends. Acidity, altitude and soil PH matters here when blending that perfect cup for a coffee enthusiast. You might be surprised to taste some of the flavor profiles that come out of beans. For example, Nicaraguan beans can yield a bit of a dark chocolate hint whereas Indonesian will bring forth a small spicy flavor!
Step 4: “Last Stop”
Once beans are roasted to their desired profile, they’re cooled and prepared for sale to the last person to handle them. Whether it’s a barista preparing a beautiful espresso latte or an individual brewing a pot in the morning before work, this is where the beans are at the end of the line. This is their Green Mile so to speak. So as you can see, as we stated in the beginning the coffee you and I all love and depend on has a very intricate and unique journey to take from the plant to your cup. Sometimes we take for granted the convenience of visiting our grocery store or local café to grab a little pick me up. Now that you know the many processes entailed in producing something as simple as a cup of coffee, hopefully we will all be able to sit back and not be so upset when waiting an extra 5 minutes in line knowing that this 5 minutes is nothing compared to the detailed process it takes to have coffee make it to this point.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article about the journey of coffee from plant to cup. People come from all walks of life and intersect at cafes to wind down or wake up. Whether you’re a student pulling those extra hours on a paper, a construction worker waking up before the sun or a business executive meeting with a client, we all enjoy the same experience and are part of an ever-developing culture of coffee drinkers. If you happen to enjoy this article please share with your friends and as a special thank you, use coupon code Breakfast15 for 15% off your next Captain Mornin Coffee purchase!
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