The Life Journey of a Coffee - From Seed to your CupPublished Date:
The Coffee Bean Plant
So you want to know how coffee is made? Well, let me tell you my story. I started off in a country far far away. In a tropical paradise that sits along the equator. Up in the hills, on a small little farm. I started off, as many things do, as a tiny little seed.
The farmer here wasn’t just any farmer. He was a coffee farmer. That means he would prune us coffee bean plants in the blistering heat. He would adjust the water cycles so we would get just the right amount of water. And he knew the exact amount of fertilizer we needed and when to give it to us.
The lifespan of coffee trees can be fickle, but our farmer took his craft seriously. There was a science behind it, but also love and care. He was our caretaker, who tended the fields and gave life to us, his coffee bean plants.
I’m getting ahead of myself, where are my manners? Let me introduce myself, I’m known as
Arabica. I can be found in higher altitudes and in more mineral-rich soil, and I’m known for my exquisite taste and aroma. That’s why I’m worth a little bit more money.
My little brother is known as Robusta. This means he’s tough, well, at least he thinks he is. This also means at the end of his journey I reckon his chances of becoming instant coffee are pretty strong. Well, maybe I would say that. Sibling rivalry you know?
But enough about him, this is my story after all. I started off in a nursery. The farmer thought I wasn't ready for the big scary world. “The sunshine is too strong” he would say. And that’s why he kept me inside in the shade for the first part of my life.
It took me a few months of sitting there before I was ready. I never thought it would happen, until one day I shot out my arms and sprouted, or germinated if you want to be fancy. Regardless of what you would like to call it, I was ready. One of the first stages of my coffee journey was done, and the farmer thought I was ready to go outside.
Once my branches had appeared and my trunk had hardened I was moved to the plantation. I said goodbye to my nursery, the farmer gently picked me up, and off we went.
The farmer then planted me in the field and told me not to rush. "Be patient" he would say, “your time will come.” And so I waited.
And waited. And waited.
The lifespan of coffee trees takes time. It wasn't until four years later that I began to notice something was happening to me. Along my branches, I could see small green little bumps appearing. At first, I was really worried. Like, really worried. But then I heard the other coffee bean plants laughing at me.
“Those are your coffee cherries,” they said. “You are meant to grow them when you get older.” PHEW! I just wish someone had told me sooner. I kept growing and eventually, my coffee cherries began to turn from green to yellow, and then to red.
You originally asked how coffee is made, well, buckle up because the coffee harvest is about to begin!
Harvesting Coffee Cherries
Do you want to know how I got harvested? Well, sit tight because it was quite a crazy chapter of my life. I had heard rumors from the other coffee bean plants that there were two ways it could go down. We were either going to be hand-picked or machine-harvested.
If I was to be harvested by a machine then the farmer would have planted all of us coffee bean plants close together. A machine would then come along, which has these flexible vibrating rods. The rods would come between my branches and tickle me until I dropped all my cherries. Can you believe that?
Tickled until all my cherries are gone! Well, except for the green ones that are not ripe. Because they aren’t fully matured yet, they would stick to my branches for a bit longer. But the red ones would definitely go. They would fall into the machine’s holding bin and then be taken to the processing plant.
Lucky for me, that’s not how it went down. I was to be handpicked. This coffee harvest meant the farmer waited until every coffee cherry was red, and then gently picked them off. No tickling was needed!
The problem was he had to keep coming back though to get all my cherries. It took three different coffee harvests to get them all. The row of coffee bean plants across from us had it the worst though. The farmer decided to do “Cherry Stripping” which meant all their coffee berries were picked together. It means at the later stages of coffee they would have to be separated!
After I was handpicked I was then put in a tray made of bamboo. I was told this was called ‘winnowing.’ What the pickers did was give me a good shake up and down, so all the nasty bits of dirt and branches fell through the cracks. It also gave me a lot of air which helped remove anything else that shouldn’t be there. I didn’t want anything rotten next to me after all, otherwise, I and the rest of the coffee cherries could get sick!
Once the winnowing was done it was quickly time to go to the next stages of coffee. I'm telling you, it was so hot that I swear - any longer in the sun and I could start fermenting.
Processing The Coffee Cherry
So then they took us all into a processing plant and can you believe what they did? They tried to kill me!
Just kidding. But the farmers did break me up a little. Apparently, I'm actually a bean that's trapped inside a coffee cherry, and we need to be separated. One of the farmers actually picked me up between their fingers and thumb, brought me up to their face, and said “listen you, there are a few different ways we can go about this...”
The Dry Process - So this way is meant to be the most ‘natural’ and traditional method. Once we are picked, we are then spread out on dry flat surfaces. We are then turned regularly, and at night (or if it rains) we are covered. This goes in for several weeks until I’m bone dry.
The Wet Process - This is also known as the fully washed process, and has become a lot more popular over the years. My fruit flesh is taken off until only the bean remains. Once I'm dried I'm then put in a water tank where fermentation starts to happen. This takes about 2-3 days and will remove the rest of my pulp. I'm then taken out, washed, and dried on a flat surface, again being turned regularly. A lot of people say that when I'm processed via this 'wet process' my natural flavors and notes come to the foreground, and I taste even better.
The Semi-Washed Process - This is a hybrid of the other two processes. This is where my outer skin is removed. Then my next layer, which is known as the mucilage, stays on and is dried. This method is meant to make my flavor very intense.
The Pulped Natural Process - Also called the honey process, it makes me taste a little bit sweeter. Once I have been de-pulped, a little bit of my skin is left on. Then I’m put out in the sun to dry. Thanks to that little bit of skin left drying with me, my skin will ferment and the sugars will stay with me.
If you must know, I didn’t have a choice in the matter. Lucky for me I got The Wet Process. It felt pretty good having some water you know. At this point in time, now that I’ve been processed, I’m still a seed with parchment around me. I guess that’s why they keep calling me parchment coffee.
Milling The Beans
Before I can be shipped around the world I need to be hulled. That’s where my husk layers are removed. Which is another way of saying my ‘parchment layer’ will be gotten rid of. These are known as my exocarp, endocarp, and mesocarp layers.
I heard that sometimes, on certain farms, they will put us in a machine as well and polish me. This is because I sometimes have a ‘silver skin’ that may not have been taken off when I was hulled.
I was then sorted with the rest of my coffee bean friends. Again sometimes it’s done by hand, but I was put through a machine. The way we are sorted depends on a number of factors, be it weight, color, quality, or size. This is called ‘grading.’
This process can take a long time when done by hand, which is why it's now more common for me to go through a series of screens. These separate the big ones from the small ones. They also get rid of any debris that has found its way into us, like soil, dirt, and sticks.
Exporting The Beans
At the end of the milling stage, I was packed into a jute bag. I’ve heard they sometimes use sisal bags but mine was jute. I started getting excited that I was about to be exported.
At this stage, I and the rest of the coffee beans had still not been roasted, and they now call us ‘Green Coffee.’ This meant I had passed all the tests and I was ready to go on a trip around the world!
Cupping The Coffee
Once I arrived at my destination, it was time for some quality control. This is called Cupping. First I was evaluated by how I looked. Personally, I don’t think looks are that important, but whatever.
A small part of me was then lightly roasted and then ground down to a certain size. I was told this is crucial because it gets all my flavor out. I was then put in a cup and covered with boiling water and left to infuse for a few minutes before a taster came to evaluate me.
First, they started smelling my aroma, and then they took a big slurp, before spitting me out again. Can you imagine? What a waste of my perfectly good coffee. Or so I thought…
It turns out that these ‘Cuppers’ taste hundreds of coffees per day and are very skilled at noticing all the subtle flavors between us all. No wonder they have to spit us out if they are tasting that much!
After they tried me, they knew what my roast profile was and what blends I could make. Now, it was coming to the final stages of coffee-making.
Roasting The Coffee
At this stage, I was turned from green coffee into the indulgent aromatic brown coffee that you all know and love. I was placed in a roasting machine that was extremely hot! I’ve been told it had a temperature of 180 degrees celsius. Yes, it was a bit sweaty.
Once inside, I and the rest of the coffee beans were constantly rotated so we were roasted evenly. At this point, we started to slowly change color and our oil (known as caffeoyl) started to be released. This stage of roasting is known as pyrolysis. It was one of the most crucial stages of turning me into consumer-ready coffee. The pyrolysis is what gives me the flavor and the aroma that you love.
At this stage, the roasting can be stopped if I wanted to remain light or medium roast. Alas, I was in it for the full stretch. “Make me a dark roast” I shouted over the roaring machine. “Make it hotter, I can take it!”
This roasting process is only done by people with years of training and experience. It’s a very skilled part of the coffee-making process that requires a keen eye.
Once I had been in there for what felt like an eternity I was quickly doused with water to cool off. I was then quickly packaged (so as to remain as fresh as possible.) I was then transported to my next destination quickly so I didn’t lose my freshly roasted taste. This is why the roasting stage usually happens in the same country where my friends and I will be consumed.
Grinding The Coffee
So I went on my final journey. Arrived at my final destination. And then they ground me down!
This is a crucial part because it’s what produces all my flavor. The type of coffee they are making will determine how coarse or fine I am to be ground down. If for example, they wanted to make me an espresso, then I am finely ground. A filter coffee though would be coarsely ground.
I was then packaged very quickly. Exposure to air isn’t good for me and can make me lose my delicate flavors. This is why all coffee should be put in airtight containers!
I saw other coffee beans packaged without being ground. This is because sometimes people choose to do it themselves at home, so it’s even extra fresh.
Ground or beans, together we are sent on our final journey to your supplier.
Brewing The Coffee
And now here we are—the present-day. My cycle of life has finally reached its crescendo—the final act. The show must finish!
You now know how coffee is made. The lifespan of a coffee tree, from seed, to plant, to coffee cherry. All the way through harvesting and hulling, winnowing, milling, and exporting.
But wait. What I have been made into? I could have been brewed in whatever way you see fit. Some might put me in an espresso machine, others a single-cup pour-over.
But you? You put me in a French Press. A classic. I thank you, it’s a good choice. So that’s my story. I’ve traveled over oceans. Flown over mountains. Been passed from hand to hand. Went down twisted roads and clocked countless miles, and now, finally, here I am...
Sitting here in your favorite cup. Well, what are you waiting for? I’m getting cold! Hurry up and drink me!