Seed to Cup: The Journey of Coffee
You enjoy your morning coffee, appreciate differences across roasts and origins, and have cultivated a discerning palette - but have you ever wondered what really goes into producing each cup? In this post, we'll be exploring the entire coffee chain in an effort to understand the rich complexity behind the seed to cup journey.
You might already know that there’s some kind of growth, harvest, and processing phase the coffee goes through, but there is far more to it than that. The finer details of where and how coffee seeds are grown, handled, sorted, processed, roasted, and ground is fascinating.
The journey from seed to cup is worth learning about, as it really does reveal how complex the process is to make our everyday indulgence. The result is more gratitude for our daily cup of joe, as next time you have a coffee, the insight you have on each stage of the process will make your coffee ritual even more magical.
The Key Phases of Coffee Creation are:
- Planting & Growing
- Grading & Tasting
- Grinding & Brewing
Planting & Growing
Did you know that a coffee bean is actually a seed? When planted, these small seeds germinate and grow into coffee plants. In order to flourish, they need to be planted in the ideal environment for coffee growth.
Seeds are planted into large shaded beds. When young seedlings sprout, they are left to grow a few days longer, before moving to individual pots with specifically formulated soils for optimal growth. Planting is usually done in the rainy season of the region to ensure moist soil (this is why coffee farms are very abundant in tropical regions.
The ideal climate for coffee production is warm weather and moist soil. Many areas of the world won’t be suited to coffee production, like North America and Europe. Asia’s tropical climate makes for great coffee production.
Well-drained soil is also necessary, as the soil must be moist, but not soaked. The soil also needs to have high nitrogen content and a low pH in order for the plant to grow healthily.
Seedlings must be protected from the sun, as harsh sunlight can damage the growth. There are many species of coffee plants, with the most commonly known as the Coffea Arabica variety, which holds 75-80% of the global coffee market.
The journey of seedling to a plant takes around 2.5 months. Older seeds can also take up to 6 months for germination. After germination, it will take up to 4 years for a coffee plant to produce harvest worthy fruit for coffee. Between 30 and 35 weeks is the period it takes for the coffee plant to produce flowers that transform into coffee cherries, which is what is harvested.
As mentioned, it can take up to 4 years for a new coffee plant to bear its fruit, which is called the ‘cherries’. These cherries turn from a green shade to a dark or bright red color. At low altitudes and high temperatures, the cherries will ripen faster.
Harvesting usually happens once a year, though some places may harvest twice per year depending on their crop size and growth rate. Colombia and Kenya are places where 2 harvests are the norm. It’s often the case that the second harvest yields more flavorful fruit, which means that most roasters prefer to purchase second-harvest coffee.
Coffee cherries are often hand-harvested to ensure that ripe cherries are picked and that the unripe are left to mature. This means that during harvesting, pickers may go through the crop multiple times. Some countries will machine harvest; Brazil, for example, machine harvests because the land is flatter and the farms are very large.
There are two main harvesting methods:
Strip picking: Cherries are stripped by hand or machine from the branch. It’s a fast, but less accurate method.
Selective picking: Cherries are picked individually- leaving the unripe cherries. Every 10 days, the trees will be revisited to get the ripened cherries. This is more labor-intensive and used for very high-quality coffee. An experienced picker can get up to 200 pounds of cherries per day, which produces up to 40 pounds of coffee beans. Workers are often paid by the weight of their harvest.
As soon as the cherries are picked, they are processed instantly to avoid fruit spoilage.
The two main processing methods are:
Dry method: Also known as ‘natural’ or ‘unwashed’ processing, this technique of processing has been used for centuries, taking a few weeks to complete. This method is utilized mostly by small farms and areas where there is little water available.
The cherries are spread over a large surface and left in the sun to dry as they are turned and raked throughout the day, whilst being covered overnight or if it rains to avoid fermentation. Once dried, the outside turns a black color and hardens as the moisture content drops to the desired level of around 11%.
Wet method: This method uses water to take the beans from the cherries. When the cherries are first harvested, they’re put through the machine so that the skin and pulp are separated from the bean. Through water channels in the machine, the beans are separated by weight with the higher beans floating to the top and the heavier ripe beans going down to the bottom.
Rotating drums then separate the beans by size. Then the beans go into a water-filled fermentation tank and can stay up to 48 hours, often stirring the beans. The time in the tank depends on the condition, altitude and climate of the region of growth. This removes a layer of mucilage, known as the parenchyma, as natural enzymes cause this layer to dissolve.
The beans are rinsed and they are rough at this stage, which signifies completed fermentation. The beans are then dried for up to two days in the sun, or by machine. At this stage, the beans are referred to as ‘parchment coffee.’
The processing continues through to the milling phase. This is where parchment coffee is processed further in the following way:
For dry-processed coffee: A hulling machine takes away the dried husk of the cherries.
For wet-processed coffee: The machine removes the layer of parchment.
There is then an optional polishing process where any skin that is still on the beans is polished off. There’s not a very big difference that’s made by this, though polished beans are thought to be superior in quality due to the clean, crisp aesthetic of no leftover skin.
Grading & Tasting
This process is where the beans are reviewed for imperfections, and sorted by weight and size. It’s either done by hand, which is the more painstaking method, or by a machine to separate light and heavy beans.
Sizing the beans can be done through a machine also. The quality difference in size and weight is then what determines which beans are packaged and sold at different places (anywhere from high-end coffee companies to low-end suppliers).
Another name for tasting is ‘cupping.’ Coffee beans are evaluated by an expert for their visual quality, then roasted, ground, and brewed in quality-controlled conditions. The taster then assesses the aroma and takes a sip (without fully swallowing).
There are often different batches being tasted in the process. Acidity is determined, as well as the coffee’s body taste and the aftertaste, all of which helps to determine how to package the coffee and describe the batch. Batches can then be blended based on their flavor profile before they are packaged.
This phase of the process is where green coffee beans are roasted to become the beautiful, rich, brown beans that we know. Common roasting machines keep a temperature of approximately 550 degrees Fahrenheit / 287 degrees Celsius. The beans are always being moved during the roasting in the large drums in order to prevent the batch from burning.
When the internal temperature of the beans reaches 400 degrees Fahrenheit / 204 degrees Celsius, the bean’s oil - called coffeol - releases and the beans are browned. This is what produces its unique flavor and aroma. When roasting is complete, the beans are cooled by water or air.
Roasted beans are always best consumed fresh, so the roasting is generally done by the facility that imports the beans - whether it’s a large supplier or a coffee house that roasts the beans themselves.
Beans are roasted for a variety of durations and temperatures to develop different roast profiles.
The common types are:
- Light: The roasts are light in color There’s no oil produced on the coffee bean surface.
- Medium: Color is medium-light to medium brown. There’s a small amount of oil.
Dark: Beans are charred darkly and have a lot of surface oil.
Grinding & Brewing
This is an important step to get the best flavor out of the roasted beans. The size of the grind - fine or coarse - will depend on how the coffee is being brewed. The grind is what determines the length of time that the water will be moving through the coffee. Espresso machine coffee is generally ground much finer than coffee that is being brewed in a drip format, or French press style coffee.
Common coffee brewing methods are:
- French Press
- Espresso Machine
- Bonmac Dripper
- Vacuum Pot
And many more...
It’s an adventurous process to experiment with different roasts, grinding styles and brewing techniques to discover how unique coffee taste profiles actually are. There’s a whole universe of coffee to explore!
Once coffee is ground, it's important that it is packaged properly - whether it's being packaged for sale or at home. Exposure to the air can make coffee turn lumpy and result in a loss of flavor. To get the most out of your coffee, store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry, and dark place.
The Final Step
Enjoy your favorite style of coffee with a deeper sense of gratitude for the complex journey of taking the seed to your cup.