How Coffee is Made
Have you ever thought about how that fresh, hot cup of coffee in your hand began it’s little coffee bean life? Not really? Well, I get it.
Most of us just want to savor the moment and satisfaction of that first sip of java in the morning, and where the little beans originated and found their way into your coffee cup is not exactly at the top of your list of things to learn at the moment. We want to make a great cup of coffee and enjoy it!
But, let’s say that you’re awake and alert, and that curiosity about how coffee is made is prompting some action on your part. You might even be a coffee newbie, and want to know all the facts about this curiously delicious brew.
It really is quite a fascinating process, with some very specific steps that go into the creation of the coffee beans that ultimately are used in brewing your java. So settle in with a cup of coffee in hand (maybe a sweet treat in the other) and prepare to understand how coffee is made.
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And so, our story, 'from bean to cup', begins...
How Coffee is Made
From a seed...
Yes, coffee beans are actually seeds, and are grown around the world in what is known as “The Bean Belt”. This is the area that is between the tropic of Cancer and Capricorn, a tropical region of the world.
There are more than 50 countries in ‘the Belt’, including:
- North America & The Caribbean - US Hawaii, Mexico, Puerto Rico
- Central America - Guatemala, Costa Rica
- South America - Columbia. Brazil
- East Africa - Ethiopia, Kenya
- West Africa - Ivory Coast
- The Arabian Peninsula - Yemen
- Asia - Indonesia, Vietnam
A coffee seed begins it’s life in a nursery, planted in large, shaded beds. With a lot of love, water, and protection from the harsh sun, the small plants are nurtured until they’re strong enough to be permanently planted during the wet season, and are typically about 18 to 24 inches in height.
Most of the coffee produced is one of two varieties derived from two plant species: Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta.
About 70% of the world's coffee is arabica, and it is considered to be the higher quality, with a mild taste and a light and airy complexion with an intense, intricate aroma. It grows typically in higher elevations and requires considerable care while growing. Most gourmet coffees are made with high-quality mild varieties of arabica coffee.
Robusta coffee is grown mostly in Vietnam, with India, Africa, and Brazil also contributing to the supply. It is easier to care for and has a greater crop yield than arabica, so it is cheaper to produce. The taste of robusta coffee is a little bitter although full-bodied and possessing a distinctive earthy flavor. Not surprisingly, you'll find robusta used most often in espresso blends.
...to a Fruit
The plants grow into a tropical evergreen shrub, and are pruned and tended to for about 4 years before they graduate to coffee tree status and are ready to produce their fruit.
The coffee trees flower during the annual rainy season with a delicate, white blossom that is somewhat reminiscent of the scent of jasmine.
After flowering (which only lasts a few days), the shrubs are tended for about 7 to 9 months for Arabica beans, or up to 11 months for Robusta beans, when the fruit comes.
It is green at first, but when it ripens, it turns into a deep red, shiny cherry, appropriately named the coffee cherry. Inside there are usually two seeds, and we refer to them as the green coffee bean.
Then Comes the Harvest...
In most countries the crop is picked by hand, which is labor intensive and slow. There are two methods for harvesting
- Strip Picked - all of the cherries are stripped off of the branch at one time, either by hand or by machine. The machine could be a derricadeiras, a mechanical tool held by a picker to strip the beans. Or, it could be a machine called a mechanical harvester.
- Selectively Picked - harvested individually by hand, choosing only the cherries at the peak of ripeness. The pickers tyypically wear a basket around their waist, then empty the basket into one large bag.
The harvesting is done is cycles, revisiting the trees until all of the coffee is picked from the field. It is a costly process and used primarily for harvesting the finer Arabica beans.
How many coffee cherries does a coffee picker pick? Approximately 100 to 200 pounds per day, which translates into about 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans.
Processing must begin quickly after the coffee cherries have been picked to prevent spoilage, and is most often handled in one of two ways:
The Dry Method is the ‘age-old’ method and is used in countries where water resources are limited. It’s very simple but labor intensive.
The coffee cherries are spread out on huge surfaces to dry in the sun. They are turned regularly to keep the from spoiling, and covered at night to keep the rain and moisture off. This manual process could continue for several weeks, and ultimately until the moisture content of the cherries reaches about 11%. After the drying process the outer cover will change to black.
The Wet Method is quite different in contrast. The freshly harvested cherries are passed through a pulping machine to separate the pulp and skin from the beans.
Then, the beans pass through water channels where they are separated by weight. The heavier beans sink and the lighter beans float.
The next step in the wet method is to soak the beans in large, water-filled fermentation tanks. The magic that happens here is that while they soak (anywhere from 12 to 48 hours), a slick layer of mucilage will dissolve and leave just the beans. After this process they feel rough to the touch. But, they’re now ready for drying!
The beans can be sun-dried by spreading them out and turning them regularly, or they can be machine-dried in large tumblers. Either way, they must be dried to approximately 11% moisture.
Now, our small java friends are referred to as parchment coffee. They are stored in jute or sisal bags until ready for export, in an area that has good air circulation, is dark, and away from moisture. There are quite a few steps in learning how coffee is made, and we're working our way through!
Now It's Time for Milling
In the milling process, the skin is removed from the coffee beans (the parchment coffee). There are two steps to this process:
- Hulling - the dried husk is removed using a machine called a 'huller'. It is done carefully to avoid damaging the little beans.
- Polishing - an optional process where any remaining silver skin is removed and leaves the coffee beans shiny and pretty. It doesn't affect the taste, though.
Now, the coffee beans are light brown, and they're called 'green coffee'. I know. Confusing, but that's what it is.
The All Important Tasting of the Coffee
Before the beans are taken for roasting, more coffee-magic happens, and that is the grading of the coffee. It is done by professionals who are called tasters, or cuppers. They play a vital role in how coffee is made.
There are very special rooms designed solely for the purpose of cupping. This is the process of tasting the coffee and evaluating it for overall visual, taste, and aromatic appeal. A professional cupper can taste hundreds of samples per day and be able to find the subtle differences between them. Amazing.
You might be wondering how this is accomplished, as we’re still in the ‘green coffee’ stage, aren’t we? Well, here’s how the process works.
- A professional taster, or cupper, first evaluates the beans for their overall visual quality.
- Then, the beans are roasted in a small laboratory roaster, ground immediately, and infused in boiling water (at the perfect temperature, of course).
- The cupper will then nose the brewed coffee and experience its aroma.
- The coffee rests for several minutes, and then the cupper pushes aside the grounds at the top of the cup...that is called the crust...and they nose it once again.
- The tasting of the brew is quite special, too. The cupper quickly slurps a spoonful of coffee, then weigh it on their tongue before spitting it out.
The bagged, green coffee is loaded into shipping containers or bulk shipped inside plastic lined containers. By the way, coffee is the world’s most traded agricultural commodity.
There are a variety of methods and variables in the distribution chain, but simply put, ultimately the green coffee is exported from the country of origin, imported to the countries that are purchasing the product, then sold in smaller batches in bulk, to different sellers and distributors. It eventually reaches local coffee roasters.
Whew! Those little can beans travel.
...then it's Roasted!
Okay, we’re finally to the step in the process of how coffee is made where the little beans turn the beautiful brown color that we’re accustomed to seeing (and smelling!)
Most roasting machines maintain a temperature of about 400 degrees Fehrenheit. During the roasting process the beans begin to turn brown, and they emit a fragrant oil called caffeol. This process is called pyrolysis...the evolution and creation of the flavor and aroma of the coffee we ultimately drink and enjoy so very much!
While roasting at high temperatures, the oils and lipids found in the coffee beans move from the center to close to the surface of the beans.
Much of the commercial roasting is done on a large scale, but a small-scale, single-origin roast can take place at your local coffee shop.
If you have an adventurous spirit and want to know first-hand how the coffee roasting process works, consider roasting your own coffee at home! The roasters themselves can be budget-friendly, and purchasing the green coffee beans isn't difficult. Wouldn't it be fun to amaze your friends by showing them your part in the coffee-making process with a uniquely roasted java?
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Onward to the Packaging...
Because roasted coffee beans are easily spoiled by air or moisture, it's important to package them quickly and properly.
An air-tight bag with opaque material to protect them against UV rays is used, as well as a one-way valve in the packaging material that is included to allow carbon dioxide to escape the bag. The valve also prevents oxygen from entering the bag.
...Then it's Time to Grind
Our journey into how coffee is made has now ventured all the way to the point of grinding the beans. This can take place at the manufacturing location, at the local coffee shop, or in your kitchen!
There is nothing quite like the aroma, and then the taste, of coffee brewed with freshly ground beans. The level of grind depends on what type of coffee will be brewed:
Coarse - looks like flaky sea salt, and is used to make french press coffee
Medium: feels crumbly, looks like peat moss, and is used to brew coffee using the pour-over method
Fine: looks like finely milled salt, and is used when making espresso style coffee
Here is a helpful Coffee Grind Quick Reference Chart created by our friends at coffeehow.co:
While purchasing ground coffee can be convenient and efficient, the process of grinding your own coffee is, in my opinion, so very worth the result! A coffee grinder doesn't have to cost a lot of money, and if you keep one on hand you can decide when you want to take those extra couple of minutes to grind the beans.
If time doesn't allow, keep the ground coffee handy!
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So, our story of how coffee is made is complete, except for one final detail...
Savor the fresh brew!
Enjoy, my friend, now that you know how coffee is made!
Resources used in the creation of this post:
- images and video clips used by permission from canva.com
Candi Randolph is a coffee lover, blogger, and content creator who loves to share her knowledge with the coffee-drinking world. You'll often find her tending to her coffee bar at home, deciding which method to use to brew her next cup of java. Life is full of important decisions.