Crop to Cup
Coffee goes through a long, multi-step, labour-intensive process before it arrives at your table and in your cup. It's hard to believe that the little green pit inside a bright red cherry could ever end up as flavourful and caramelized as the brown bean we grind and brew. Indeed, it is an intriguing process, and as anyone who has had the privilege of visiting a coffee farm will testify, once you see it, you cannot help but wonder how we get away with paying so little for it, fair trade or otherwise!
Here is the process step-by-step:
- The seed: first the coffee seed is planted. It takes anywhere from three to five YEARS for the tree to yield any fruit from the time the farmer plants it.
- The blossom: coffee is a fruit tree and like any other fruit tree, it will blossom before growing fruit.
- The cherry: Coffee grows as a "cherry" - about the size and shape of a grape (probably gets its name from the colour).
- Picking: Once the cherries mature from green to red, the farmers and their hired helpers hand-pick each and every one...but only the red ones which makes it a very "picky" process (pardon the pun). The cherries on a coffee tree - even within the same cluster - mature at different speeds and the quality of the coffee will be greatly affected by whether the cherries were red when they were picked.
- Depulping: The seed (or pit) of the fruit is what constitutes the coffee bean, so right after picking, the cherry is depulped to yield the pit. Some farmers have small manually-operated pieces of equipment that do this and many co-ops have invested in centralized processing centers that include industrial depulpers.
- Fermenting and washing: The newly depulped seed is slimy and slippery! It will stay that way for a good 48 to 72 hours during a period of fermentation to develop and enhance the flavours (similar to cocoa beans). Afterwards, the seeds are thoroughly washed. If this is done on individual farms, the farmer then has to carry the coffee to the central collection center.
- Drying: Still slimy with a thick mucilage surrounding it, the coffee bean now has to be dried. Most coffee grows in tropical areas so this can prove to be yet another challenge for farmers. Usually, coffee will take around ten days to two weeks to dry on large patios or raised beds. The fastest and best way to ensure the least amount of over-fermentation is to spread one layer of coffee beans on a thin and breathable material that is resting on a raised bed. That way, the air flows through the beans, the sun shines on the beans and the coffee dries as quickly and consistently as possible. Raised beds are expensive and difficult to install so most farmers will dry their coffee on cement patios.
- Hulling and sorting: The final process of the green bean involves hulling the outer shell, selecting the coffee by size, and sorting it (i.e. picking out the defects) - usually done by hand!
- Bagging: Once the coffee reaches a humidity level of 12%, it is ready to be bagged up! There are humidity readers that test the humidity, but most farmers can tell by chewing on a bean if the humidity is where it should be.
- Loading: The bagged coffee is loaded into a container (or half-container depending on how far it has to travel). In general, 250 bags (roughly 40,000lbs) fit into a shipping container. It's loaded and carried to the nearest port which in some countries - particularly land-locked ones such as Bolivia or Uganda - is hundreds or thousands miles away! The coffee is shipped by boat to North America or wherever it is supposed to end up.
- Roasting: The green bean gets loaded into the roaster where the sugars, oils, and hundreds of other components are developed and caramelized. Learn more about roasting here.
- Brewing: Freshly roasted coffee is best ground immediately before being brewed. Water just off the boil works best. And our preference (if you're not near Equator to pick up a delicious espresso of course!) is either the French Press or the Eva Solo. Learn more about brewing here.
And voila - there you have it: coffee's journey from the farm to your cup. Enjoy!