Beginner's Guide to Coffee (Part 1 of 3)

Photo: Kyle Meck

Photo: Kyle Meck

While coffee has been a staple of the morning routine for centuries, little is known by the average consumer about the black magic that takes it from seed to latte. Let this 3-part series give you an insight into various steps that go into every great cup.

Before that perfect cup ever gets you started, the beans we so commonly see processed start as seeds. These seeds don't prosper in many areas, requiring heavy tropical rainfalls and consistent climates found only near the equator; which contributes to their value as a cash crop. Most coffee trees begin their life in grow houses (like those other trees we all love), where they typically spend their first year until they reach about a meter in height. It can take an additional five years of growing for the tree to produce cherries, which are the unprocessed base for finished coffee beans. This unprocessed cherry will contain a maximum of two coffee beans, which are surrounded in a silver skin and a red pulp, hence the name cherry.

Coffee Seeds (photo: Naveen Mathew)

Coffee Seeds (photo: Naveen Mathew)

 Most harvesting begins with strip picking either carried out by a machine or laborer, all the cherries are stripped from the branches of the trees. Finer coffees implore a more labor and time-intensive process in which the cherries are individually harvested at their optimum ripeness, cherries that are not fully ripe are left on the branch until they reach proper maturity.

As if it wasn't enough work to grow a temperamental tree for five or more years, then scale it's ten foot height to pick the cherries it produces, one must now process said cherries to be worth any value. The ancient method for processing the beans from the cherry's pulp, involves sun-drying all of the moisture out, so the pulp may be removed. Most modern bean manufacturers suggest that the pulp be removed within one day of harvesting the cherry to prevent unsavory flavors from manifesting within the coffee. Modern depulping devices have been employed to remove the cherry’s pulp immediately after harvest, by using a textured grinding surface which removes the outer layer of the cherry, exposing the beans within, which are still covered in a silvery skin. The skin is removed from the beans through a wet fermentation process, which leaves the beans exposed with a rough-feeling surface. They are polished through further travel in water channels.

Coffee 'greens' (photo: Dan Bollinger)

Coffee 'greens' (photo: Dan Bollinger)

After polish, the beans are ready for export. The beans are exported as greens, which resemble coffee beans, but they are green in color and do not have their dark, roasty aromas. Beans can be kept this way for a long time without sacrificing taste or integrity. Upon reaching their destination, roasting can begin, which is the most important step in the taste and final product of the bean. Roasting is a highly skilled process which requires a scientific focus and experimentation, at the hand of a true craftsmen to take the beans from their green state through the roasting process.

The processes that go into each bean affect the sustainability and outcome of each cup. Hopefully this guide has given you a little insight into the larger coffee picture, or at the very least, some cool facts to spout off at your friends at the local coffee shop.

Stay tuned for the second installment on the Roasting Process.