From a Cherry to the Cup: The Life and Journey of Coffee Beans

From a Cherry to the Cup: The Life and Journey of Coffee Beans

You sit back at your local café, sip your latte or black gold brew, and relax. But did you ever wonder how that Joe got to your cup? Fresh roasted gourmet coffee does not just appear! There is a journey here. Before any roaster can sell coffee wholesale to any café to brew a cup, many things need to happen. Enjoy the journey!

A coffee tree produces a fruit we call a cherry. These are small, like berries and they turn bright red when they are ripe, ready for picking. The skin, is thick and bitter but the fruit underneath is extremely sweet. Its texture is similar to that of grape. Then there is a slimy layer that comes next to help protect the bean. The beans inside are covered by yet another layer that protects the two halves which are covered by yet one last layer called the silver skin. Yeah, a lot of layers! This is where we find the raw green coffee beans.

Each year coffee is harvested during the dry season when the cherries are bright red, glossy, and firm. The actual time of year varies by country of origin (actually the geographic zone determines when). However in general, North of the equator harvests between September and March, and south of the equator harvests April and May. Ripe cherries can be harvested via selective picking; that is harvested by hand. They can also be harvested by the stripping method; that is stripped from the tree with both unripe and overripe beans. Lastly, some farmers use a harvesting machine. Picking the ripe coffee beans from the tree by hand will leave unripe, coffee cherries behind. This is the best way to harvest coffee and will maximize the amount of ripe coffee. The rest will be left on the tree to be harvested at a later time. This is also the most time consuming and labor intensive way of harvesting so not all farmers do it.

Processing takes place next. The bean has to be removed from the cherry and that is done in a couple of ways depending on the country of origin. The wet process is the process in which the fruit is removed from the seeds (beans) before they are dried. The wet process method is also called washed coffee. In this method the fruit is removed in water. Coffee beans can be dried in the sun or by machine but in most cases they are dried on patios in the sun.

The dry process is also known as unwashed or natural process. It is the oldest method of processing coffee where the entire cherry is cleaned and then placed in the sun to dry on tables or in thin layers on patios, completely intact and the dried cherry is removed after it has dried. Each method gives a distinct flavor profile to the final taste of the coffee.

Before anyone can buy any green coffee beans however, the cherries are raked or turned by hand as they dry to ensure even drying and to prevent mildew. Sometimes it takes up to 4 weeks before the cherries are dried to the optimum moisture content. Of course this all depends on Mother Nature. Machine-drying is sometimes used on larger plantations to speed up the process. This is usually done after the coffee has been pre-dried in the sun for a few days.

The dry method is used for most of the Arabica coffee beans produced in Brazil. Most of the coffees produced in Ethiopia and India also use the dry method. In rainy areas however, it is not practical.

There is also another method used in Brazil mainly but also used on some farms in Sulawesi, Indonesia and Sumatra. These are known as semi-dry processed coffee (aka pulped natural and semi-wet process). The coffee is prepared by removing the outer skin of the cherry and drying the coffee with the sticky mucilage and the inner skins still clinging to the bean. This semi-dry process is what you can call a ‘hybrid’ process.

During the hulling process, machines are used to remove the parchment layer of skin from wet processed coffee. Hulling dry processed coffee removes the entire dried cherries. Remember, during the dry process the beans are dried intact with the entire cherry intact.

Polishing is optional but it removes most silver skin that remains on the green coffee beans after hulling. The roasting process heats any still remaining silver skin (chaff) and it literally peels it off in the roasting chamber and is collected in the chaff collector. Not all green coffee is polished however. It has been my experience that unpolished coffee has a much better flavor profile than polished, which is more of a mechanically produced coffee.

Before any coffee is exported or sold however, grading and sorting must take place. The coffee beans will be sorted by size and weight. Each bean will also be evaluated for flaws such as color, chips and other imperfections.

Some high quality coffee may be hand-cleaned twice, called ‘double picked’ or even three times. The latter is called ‘triple picked’. Most specialty coffees are cleaned and sorted this way. Color sorting can also be done by machines but they are very expensive. However, the sorting of coffee by hand supplies much needed work for the small rural communities.

At this point, the coffee is exported to buyers and either resold by brokers or roasted by coffee roasters. The roaster then sells the coffee wholesale to suppliers and it gets to you via your neighborhood coffee shop or supermarket. Never thought it was that complex now did you? Next time you sip a fresh roasted gourmet coffee, think about the coffee bean’s journey. You’ll appreciate your fix a lot more!

Leave a Reply