Where Do Coffee Beans Come From?

Where do coffee beans come from? Ever found yourself sipping a cup of coffee and wondering how far the coffee bean had to travel to find its way to your local coffee house? Well, most people just order the cappuccino, talk to their friends while enjoying it and don’t bother to pause and reflect on such unnecessary behind the scenes information.

But if you are a true coffee connoisseur, you start looking at the whole coffee making process differently. We’ll follow those lovely little beans from their origin to that delicious cup in this post.

Sourcing the Coffee Beans

Did you know that it takes four to five years for a coffee tree to start producing coffee? Flowers cover the branches for two to three days and release a scent comparable to jasmine. Then after six to nine months, small green berries start appearing. These hold two coffee seeds or beans.

The coffee cherries change from green to yellow, and at their ripeness peak, to deep red. Some species turn to dark orange or yellow when they’re ripe. They’re referred to as coffee cherries because of the cunning resemblance of their color, shape and size.

The coffee cherries have several layers. Within the tough outside layer there is a fleshy pulp covering a layer of protective parchment and silver-skin that encloses two round or oval seeds or beans that are flat on one side.

Harvesting the Coffee Cherries

The green coffee beans inside the red cherries are harvested. Usually there is one major harvest per year. In countries like Colombia, there are two flowerings per year, with a main and secondary crop.

Most often the crop is picked by hand in a labor-intensive process. But in places like Brazil with a relatively flat landscape, the process has been automated with machines. Coffee is harvested in one of two ways:

Strip Picked:

in this process all the cherries are stripped off the branches all at once.

Selectively Picked:

in this process only the ripe cherries are harvested, they are hand-picked individually. Pickers rotate between the trees every eight to ten days, picking only the cherries which are at their ripeness peak. This kind of harvest is labor intensive and costly, so it is used primarily to harvest the higher quality Arabica beans.

A good picker averages roughly 100 – 200 pounds (45 – 90kg) of coffee cherries per day. This will produce about 20 – 40 pounds (9 – 18 kg) of coffee beans. Each worker’s daily pickings are carefully weighed, and they are paid on the merit of their work. The day’s yield is then transported to the processing plant.

Processing of the Cherries

Once the coffee cherries have been picked, processing must begin as quickly as possible to prevent spoilage. Depending on location and resources, the beans are processed in one of two ways.

The Dry Method is a very traditional way of processing the beans, and it is used in countries where water resources are limited. The freshly picked cherries are spread out on huge surfaces to dry in the sun.

To prevent the cherries from spoiling, they are raked and turned continuously throughout the day. At night or during rain they are covered to prevent them from spoiling. Depending on weather circumstances, the process can take several weeks, until the moisture content of the cherries drops to only 11%.

The Wet Method firstly removes the pulp from the cherries after harvesting so the beans are dried with only the parchment skin left on. The freshly harvested cherries are then passed through a pulping machine to separate the skin and pulp from the bean.

The beans are separated by weight while they pass through water channels. The lighter unripe beans float to the top and the heavier ripe beans sink. The beans are then passed through a series of rotating drums to separate them by size.

After the beans have been separated, they are transported to large, water-filled fermentation tanks. Depending on the condition of the beans, the climate and the altitude, the beans remain in these tanks from 12 to 48 hours, to remove the slick layer of mucilage (parenchyma) that is still attached to the parchment. Natural enzymes will cause this layer to dissolve while resting in these tanks.

When fermentation is complete, the beans are rough to the touch. The beans are rinsed through additional water channels, and are then ready for drying.

Different De-pulping Methods

The coffee cherries are de-pulped using mainly two different methods. It’s very important that the coffee cherries must be de-pulped within 24 hours after harvesting. The de-pulping separates the coffee beans from the outer layer of flesh. If cherries are left for more than 24-hours before being de-pulped, they might produce an overly fruity, rotten flavor that will ruin the coffee quality.

Hand De-pulping:

a hand de-pulper is a machine with a small rotating burr. It tears off the outer layer of the coffee berry flesh, exposing the two coffee beans inside. Some coffee producers operate their de-pulpers by hand but others have automated them to speed up the process.

The de-pulper deposits the coffee beans into a tank and the residual skin and flesh is separated and usually used for compost.

Centralized De-pulping Stations:

The de-pulper station is shared by 10 to 100 farmers and it usually runs from electricity or some other kind of sustainable energy source. The same process of extraction is used as the hand de-pulper, the outer layer of the cherry is removed and the beans are deposited into a tank to begin the process of fermentation.

The Fermentation Process

This process accentuates the body and flavor of the coffee beans. The de-pulped coffee beans are dropped into large, clean tanks made of cement, wood and sometimes plastic. The coffee beans ferment in the mucilage that is left on the bean after the de-pulping, converting the natural sugars to liquid.

Depending on the country, altitude and humidity the fermentation can take anywhere from four hours to up to three days. It’s especially important that the tanks are cleaned after each batch to avoid bacterial build up that can affect the flavor of the next batch.

A common method used to determine if the process is complete, is to submerge a clean stick into the fermentation tank, then pull it out. If the circle created by the stick remains, the sugars haven’t dissolved enough yet and the coffee is not ready to be washed. If the coffee beans easily flow back together, fermentation is complete and the beans are ready.

Washing and Drying the Beans

Many specialty coffees are washed once the fermentation is complete to stop the fermentation process. This is called “wet processing,” coffee beans are washed in a series of concrete or wood channels with clean water.

The coffee is then dried, either by the sun or mechanically. Sun drying can take three to five days or even up to two weeks, depending on the weather conditions. It’s very important that the drying coffee is continuously turned each day and does not come into contact with water.

When the coffee is down to 12% moisture and a thin shell encapsulates each bean the coffee is pulled off the patios or screen trays and put into coffee sacks.

Dry Processing vs. Wet Processing

There are various ways that coffee beans are processed throughout the world. Sometimes coffee cherries are not de-pulped, but harvested when ripe and laid out to dry. The coffee cherries can also be left to partially dry on the tree, then picked and placed in the sun to dry.

With both methods, the cherries are sun dried for two to three weeks and then put through a hulling machine to remove the dried pulp, parchment and silver-skin. Dry processing is believed to produce a heavy-bodied coffee and these beans are referred to as naturals.

Sorting through the Beans

espresso-coffee-beans

Usually one of the following methods are used to sort through the coffee beans to find the defective ones.

By Hand:

the defective beans are removed individually and grouped on tables according to their quality.

By Hand with Conveyor Assistance: a conveyor belt is used to slowly move the beans down a line of people and they pick out the imperfect beans and remove them from the conveyor belt.

By Machine:

an automated system moves the beans through a chute at a controlled rate, while a “mechanical eye,” programmed to sort beans by color, blows a puff of air to remove defective beans from the production line.

Travelling from Far

Wow, quite amazing to realize how labor-intensive the coffee production process is! And for now our precious beans are still stuck in their country of origin. Follow the process along with our next article How to Roast Coffee Beans to Make the Best Tasting Coffee with a look at roasting standards and other quality controls.

Don’t know about you, but the next cappuccino I’m going to enjoy, I’m going to sip extra slow to savor the trip those beans undertook to make their way into my cup!