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Coffee’s Journey From Seed to Cup

Ahhhhh, coffee. So many of us start our days with the sweet, smelling aroma of our favorite cup of Joe. But while we begin our day with these beautiful beans, we rarely consider where the journey of those beans began. Did you know, for example, that every cup of coffee starts with one, small, mighty seed that will eventually become a coffee tree? Wild, right? If you’re curious about coffee’s seed-to-cup journey and how those coffee trees eventually become the big brown coffee beans you buy in the store, this blog post is for you!

Planting the Seed

Our seed’s coffee journey begins with the planting of the seed. Most of the time, these seeds are first planted in shaded raised beds or single pots. During this time, they’re watered frequently and shaded to protect them from the sunlight. Once the plant is strong enough, it will be permanently planted into the ground to grow into a coffee tree or shrub. This is best done during the rainy season when the soil is moist, which allows the roots to become established and thrive.

Harvesting the Cherries


The next step in bringing you you’re morning cup of Joe is harvesting. There are a number of coffee tree varietals, but most of them will take around three to four years to mature. These mature trees begin to bear fruit called coffee cherries, which can vary in color from bright red to orange, yellow, or pink, depending on the variety. These cherries contain seeds that will eventually become coffee beans.

Coffee cherries are typically harvested once a year in a rigorous, labor-intensive process that tends to be done by hand. There are two methods for harvesting coffee: Strip picking and Selective Picking. The first involves stripping all of the fruit from the trees as quickly as possible. This method can be done by hand or by machine, which will increase the chances of having a variety of ripeness as the machines cannot decipher the ripeness of a cherry. Whether picked by hand or machine, when farmers use this method of picking, you can expect a combination of under-ripe, ripe, and overripe cherries. This picking process produces low-quality, commercial-grade coffee.

That’s why, when it comes to specialty-grade coffee, we tend to prefer a selective picking process. In this method, they are hand-picked every eight to ten days by professional pickers who choose only the best, ripest cherries for harvesting. Making selective pickings from cherry to cherry guarantees a higher-quality brew. It also increases the amount of time, labor, and cost involved. Because of this, selective picking is primarily used to harvest high-quality Arabica beans over Robusta. An experienced picker can expect to pick enough cherries to produce an average of 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans a day. Next, this daily harvest is sent to be processed.

Processing the Cherries

Once the cherries are harvested, the clock starts ticking. Unless you’ve created some controlled way of storing and holding cherries prior to processing, it’s typically best to transport them to the mill for processing as quickly as possible. The two most common ways of processing cherries are the Natural Method, or Dry Method, and the Washed Method, or Wet Method. Natural processing is the oldest known method of coffee processing and originates from Ethiopia. In this harvested and left as a whole fruit to dry in the sun on raised tables or patios before being stripped down to the bean. Once the cherry is fully dried, which usually takes about 2-4 weeks, the husk is removed and the beans are ready for storage and shipping.

Washed coffee, on the other hand, focuses on the flavors derived from the coffee bean, rather than the cherry fruit surrounding it. The freshly harvested cherries go through a pulping process where the skin of the cherry is removed and the cherries are put into large vats of water for 12 to 48 hours to remove the fruit’s sugary layer known as mucilage. If coffee is processed using this method, it will need to go through a drying process before it goes through the milling process, which is the next step in the coffee’s journey from bean to cup. Check out our blog post on the subject to learn more about the different ways of processing coffee.

Milling the Beans

Before the processed beans can be exported, they go through a mailing process that includes hulling, polishing, grading, and sorting of beans. Hulling involves removing the dried skin and parchment from the coffee cherry seeds. Polishing is the next step in the milling process. This part of the process is optional and uses a machine to remove a thick layer of silvery skin. Many consider polished beans to be of higher quality. Once hulled and polished, the beans are sorted to be graded. This includes dividing the beans by size and weight and then checking them for any visual inconsistencies or defects. The flawed beans are discarded so that only the best beans remain. The resulting beans become what’s known in the coffee biz as “green coffee,” and they are now ready for export.

Tasting

Tasting involves an elaborate process called “cupping.” Cupping is used to measure the flavor and quality of the coffee and happens several times throughout the seed-to-cup process. At the end of the cupping process, coffee cupping experts known as Q graders give the coffee beans a score based on a standardized scoring system created by SCA. These graders rate the coffee from 1 to 10 based on a number of factors including flavor, aroma, acidity, and balance, as well as an overall rating. The individual scores are added together and any defects are subtracted from that number to give the coffee its final score. If a coffee scores a total of 80 points or higher, it’s considered specialty-grade coffee. We talk more about cupping scores and how coffee is graded in this blog post.

Roasting

The roasting phase of the seed-to-cup process is where green coffee transforms into those beautiful brown beans we all love. During the roasting process, beans are placed in a machine and heated to around 550 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they’ve reached an internal temperature of 400 degrees, the beans will have doubled in size and begin to change colors. This stage of roasting is known as pyrolysis, which releases the fragrant oils of the beans, giving them their unique flavor and amazing aroma that fills your kitchen when you open a fresh bag of coffee. Depending on the roasting time and temperature, the end result is a light, medium, or dark roast.

Packaging

Packaging also happens at the roaster. This is an important part of keeping the coffee as fresh as possible between the time it leaves the roaster to the moment you find it on the shelves of your local grocer or favorite coffee house.

Grinding

Depending on the roaster and the specific bag of beans, grinding may happen before or after they leave they are packaged by the roaster. If you prefer to buy your coffee as whole beans, you’ll do the grinding at home. Ground beans can be fine or coarse and there are varying degrees of grinding. In order to make sure you get the best cup of coffee possible, it’s important to grind your beans based on the type of brewing method you plan to use. If you’re using a French press, you’ll want a course, even grind. Whereas if espresso is your brew of choice, you’ll want to make sure to use finely ground beans.

Brewing

With that, we’ve reached the final stage of the seed-to-cup process! From your automatic drip machine to a single-serve pour-over method, there are so many ways to brew your coffee from home these days, and it can sometimes be hard to choose. Not sure which brewing method to use? Check out our blog post on popular brewing methods to see how to make the perfect cup of Joe for you!

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