As you're sitting there with your cup of java in the morning, did you ever stop to think how far the coffee had to travel before being dripped or pressed and poured into your cup? Yes, you might be aware that yours is a Colombian blend or Indonesian special. Did you know, though, that the average coffee bush takes five years to mature before it starts producing? Knowing the life cycle of the coffee bean will give you a further appreciation of your flavorful brew.
Farming the Beans
Coffee bushes grow best at high altitudes in sub-tropical climates. They grow well in Southeast Asia, Central and South America, Africa and the Caribbean. Each coffee bush yields one pound of beans per year.
Coffee beans are actually the seeds of cherries -- well, not cherries like Bing obviously, but a cherry-like fruit. The fruit grows in clusters, turning from green to red, when it's ripe. Ripe coffee cherries have a bitter skin but sweet meat with the texture of grapes.
Harvesting occurs once a year over a four to six month period. Coffee can be machine-harvested, hand-picked or harvested according to the café de panno method. The café de panno method, which is typical of Brazil, involves placing a sheet under each coffee bush onto which the cherries naturally fall when ripe.
Processing the Beans
Coffee cherries need to be processed as soon as they're picked to remove the husk and fruit from the beans. The beans then get dried to an 11 percent moisture content. Processing the cherries occurs with one of two methods:
- Dry Method: The cherries are spread out on bamboo mats to dry in the sunlight. Workers rake them daily for seven to 10 days to ensure even drying. More than 60 percent of the cherries are processed this way.
- Wet Method: Cherries are put into a pulping machine, which washes away the skin and pulp, leaving behind a slimy, honey-like layer. This gets washed away with enzymes in fermentation machines. The beans are then sun or machine dried.
Dried beans get hulled, removing any remaining covering. Some beans get polished. Workers then grade and sort the beans according to size then density. This process can also be done by an air jet that blows away the lighter beans.
Coffee gets shipped unroasted, or green.
Roasting the Beans
Roasting is where the magic happens. The coffee roasting company heats green coffee beans in large, rotating drums. Mechanical arms churn the beans so they don't burn while being roasted at 550 F.
First, the beans start to turn golden. Approximately eight minutes into the process they "pop," doubling in size. They start browning, and the oils within start emerging. This chemical reaction between the heat and the coffee bean, called pyrolysis, produces the distinctive flavor and aroma of coffee. After another three to five minutes, the beans "pop" again, meaning they are fully roasted.
The coffee roasting company uses precise timing to ensure the roasted beans will yield the desired flavor. Times vary, but the following are guidelines:
- Light roast: 7 minutes, for mass-produced, American coffee
- Medium roast: 9 to 11 minutes, yields full-body flavor
- Dark roast: 12 to 13 minutes, typical of French or Viennese varieties
- Darkest roast: 14 minutes, for espresso
The journey from the roasting of the beans to the aromatic brew in your cup depends on where you buy your coffee. Next time you take a sip, though, enjoy your cup of java with the knowledge of what went into its production.