You can drink it, but do you know how to grow it? - G-PAK

Coffee: you can drink it, but do you know how to grow it?

March 17, 2016


Coffee is easy to take for granted. Sacs of it are exported by the millions and made available in almost every grocery store. What many people don't know is that the process of getting these beans to your coffee cup is a long one. There are villages of people involved in picking these beans, which then need to be manually processed and finally pass a stringent taste test. It's a pretty incredible journey that coffee takes to make it to your cup.


Step one: planting

The ground coffee bean that we drink is actually the processed seed of the coffee tree. These seeds come from the centre of the fruit that the coffee tree produces, called coffee cherries. 

When a coffee tree starts its life, the seed is planted in a large, shaded nursery along with many other coffee seeds. After the seeds have sprouted they are moved to individual shaded pots. They live in these pots for about a year, at which point they are around 12 to 24 inches.

From here, they are transported to their final destination- a coffee farm. The tiny trees are planted about 10 feet apart. A coffee tree can grow to 20 feet in height, but since most coffee is laboriously hand picked they are generally capped at 8 feet.




Step two: harvesting the coffee cherries 

It will be an entire 3-4 years until these trees start to produce coffee fruit. When they are finally able to, the process starts with white, jasmine scented flowers that last only 2-3 days. Then, about 6 to 9 months later, the coffee fruit appears.

Once a year, these coffee cherries are harvested. The process is incredibly labour intensive. Since coffee is often grown on rough or tiered land, machines often can’t be used. This means that usually coffee cherries are painstakingly hand picked. 

Harvesting happens in one of two ways:

  • Strip picked: All the cherries are stripped off the branch either by hand or by machine
  • Selectively picked: This method is most often used by premium coffees. In a process where pickers periodically switch trees over a period of weeks, only the ripe cherries are picked at each rotation.



Step three: processing the coffee cherries 

Once the coffee cherries are harvested, they can be processed in one of two ways:

  • Dry Method: This is the traditional method in which the coffee cherries are spread out to dry directly in the sun. This may take several weeks.
  • Wet method: In this process, the first step is to remove the pulp from the coffee bean. This is done with either hand or machine pulpers, and must be done within 24 hours. Any more than that and the coffee might have a fruity, rotten quality to it.  

    After this, the freshly depulped coffee beans are placed into a tank of water. They will stay in these ‘fermentation tanks’ for 12-48 hours. The thick layer of mucilage on the outside of the coffee beans, the “parenchyma”, assists the fermentation process and is the part of the bean that is actually being broken down during fermentation. A traditional way to tell if the fermentation process is done is to dip a stick into the tank. If a hole remains in the film on the surface of the water, the fermentation process isn’t finished and the sugars need to break down more.



Step four: drying the coffee cherries

After fermentation, the beans are then rinsed with clean water. This removes the parenchyma and halts the fermentation process.

Now the coffee needs to be dried. They are laid out on concrete decks or screens and can take anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks to dry. Once the drying process has begun, it’s important that the beans do not come into contact with any water. This can ruin them.

Once the water content in the beans has dropped to 11%, the coffee beans are pulled from their drying racks and placed into coffee sacs, ready for the final step of processing.




Step five: milling

  • Hulling: during hulling, a machine will remove the outer parchment, called the ‘endocarp’ from the bean
  • Polishing: This is optional. In this process, any remaining silver skin stuck to the bean is removed. Although these beans are seen as of ‘superior’ quality, it is believed that there is little difference between polished and unpolished.
  • Grading and Sorting: At this point coffee beans that have any flaws (under ripe, strange colour, over fermented, insect damaged or unhulled) are removed. Sometimes this is done by machine, but often this step is done entirely by hand.

    They are also sorted by size. Coffee beans are graded from 10-20, with this grading referring to hole diameter in terms of 1/64th of an inch. So if a coffee bean is graded a 10, it means it is 10/64th of an inch. 11, 11/64ths.




Step six: exporting

These milled beans have yet to be roasted and are called “green coffee beans”. In 2015/16, it is estimated 152.7 million 60 kilogram bags of these green beans will be exported.



Tasting the coffee

Once these green coffee beans have arrived at their destination, they are then tested for quality and taste. This is called cupping, and usually takes place in a room that is specially designed for this purpose.

A coffee taster is called a cupper. The first step is that the cupper visually assesses the beans for quality. They then take those beans that grind them, immediately infusing the beans with boiling water. At this point the cupper noses (smells the coffee), then sets it aside to rest for several minutes.

After the coffee rests, the coffee grounds on the surface are pushed aside and the cupper will nose the coffee again.  After this second smell, the cupper will take a spoon, fill it with coffee, and slurp it to evenly distribute the coffee over their taste buds before spitting the coffee out.

If the coffee passes all of these tests, it is allowed to move onto the next stage- roasting. A coffee cupper will taste hundreds of coffees a day for quality and consistency. 



Roasting Coffee 

This is the stage the green coffee beans become the brown coffee beans we are familiar with. The ovens are kept at an internal temperature of 550F, keeping the beans constantly moving to ensure even roasting.

When the beans reach an internal temperature of 400F,  they start to turn brown and release an oil called caffeol. This process is called pyrolysis and produces the flavour and aroma that we know and love.

After the roasting, the coffee needs to be immediately cooled down using air or water. Roasting is always done in the country that the beans have been exported to. Once the beans are roasted, they need to make it to the consumer as quickly as possible.




The final process of coffee is however you choose to drink it!

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