It is estimated that 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed globally each day. That comes from a huge amount of coffee beans, but where do coffee beans come from?
While any coffee lover can indulge in a cup of java, how much do we know about its origins or how it gets from the fields to our cups?
If you want to know a little more about the coffee you’re drinking, this article will fill you in on the basics of the coffee plant industry, and coffee production.
Coffee originally came from the continent of Africa, specifically Ethiopia. This is where the first coffee plants were found. From there the plant migrated to South East Asia as well as Central and South America.
At this time Brazil, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Columbia and Indonesia are the top coffee growers and producers, although there are many smaller countries that contribute as well.
However, Brazil tops them all, offering more than 5 billion pounds of beans each year to the global market.
Beans don’t just come from one type of tree or bush. Coffee plants tend to be grown in two varying types. There is the Coffea robusta (syn. Coffea canephora) and Coffea arabica.
The robusta bean produces a stronger tasting coffee that has earthy tones. Its bold taste begins with a little more bitter taste but finishes smoothly.
The Coffea arabica plant is less harsh than the Coffea robusta and is the most popular variety across the globe.
An arabica bean is sweeter and more reserved than those of the robusta plant. The reason is that the arabica plant offers a bean that is sweeter and less harsh than robusta beans. These flavors of sugar, berry and tones of fruit are all present. Arabica coffee is also more acidic than robusta.
Both types of coffee plant produce a seed that is known as a coffee cherry. It will take a plant up to 4 years to mature and have harvestable beans once it has been planted.
An older plant that has been well cared for can grow up to 40 feet in height. Once it grows over 20 feet high and the trunk is over 3 inches in width, it is designated as a coffee tree rather than simply a plant or bush.
Growing coffee beans take time. Farmers will keep a close eye on plants once they are in the ground. When cherries appear, then they check for ripeness. When they are considered ripe, they are harvested by hand.
It is a very labour-intensive harvesting process. Harvesting is less daunting in big coffee producer locations such as Brazil where the area is fairly flat for coffee bean growth. The fields are huge and accessible so mechanized harvesting is easier.
Once the beans have been harvested, they are processed through either a dry or wet process. The dry process is more favorable in areas that are arid and as such have limited water resources.
Fresh picked coffee cherries are left to dry on a flat surface in the sunshine. While the cherries dry, the farmers rake and turn them throughout the day. At night, they are covered so they do not get wet.
In contrast, the wet method takes the pulp off from the coffee cherry once harvested. This means the bean dries with only a parchment skin on it.
No matter what method is used, once the bean is dry then it begins the journey to our cup.
Once the coffee is dried then it goes through the hulling process. If the bean was wet-processed the parchment is removed and the bean polished to make sure all skin is gone.
Once this happens then the beans, dry or wet-processed, are graded. They are also sorted based on their size and weight. Defective beans are taken out of the batch and then the sacks of good beans are ready for export.
When the beans arrive at their destination port, there are coffee tasters who are specially trained to check them. These tasters are also called cuppers and will test the shipped beans many times to make sure they are of good quality.
The best cuppers will taste hundreds of samples per day and have the talent to tell even the subtlest of variances between them.
Along with taste tests, there are visual requirements as well. The beans must look good and be of high quality. Once these tests are completed then the beans are roasted immediately.
Some of these roasted beans are ground and put into a cup of boiled water of exact temperature so the tester can then assess the aroma that the coffee releases.
When the cup of coffee has rested, the cupper sips a spoonful then spits it out. This is so the coffee evenly spreads across the cupper’s taste buds. It lets them assess the full taste and weight of coffee on their palette.
This allows them to determine the character of the coffee as well as any flaws it may have. It also allows them to look at the potential the beans may have for various blends and roasts.
Roasting generally happens once the beans arrive in the importing country so it is fresh for those who will brew it. The roasting machine changes the green beans into brown, so they are ready to hit the stores where we buy our favorite roasts from. However, sometimes, a green coffee bean is available to buy at specialty coffee houses to roast and brew at home.
So many of us love our cup of coffee or other coffee beverage. The enjoyment of a cup of coffee is built into our daily routine and is part of our home, social and work worlds.
While we know what we like when it comes to taste, knowing how it grew, was processed and arrived for our purchase are all important things to understand.
Learning how the coffee gets from the early stages of planting all the way to your home gives us an appreciation of the work that goes into creating a great cup of coffee that tastes so good.