Life of a bean…

The coffee bean begins life as a seed inside a protective husk called a cherry. Coffee cherries grow on plants ranging in height from 12-16 feet. The two main coffee tree categories are Arabica and Robusta and they are very, very different. Arabica plants are delicate and grow at elevations of 3,500-7,000 feet. Arabicas grow best under moderate conditions and yield one crop per year. Robusta plants, in contrast, are hearty, grow at low elevations, and are able to withstand more extreme weather conditions. Given that Robustas are easier to grow and harvest and produce multiple crops per year, their beans cost less than the Arabicas. In our opinion, the savings are all in the quality – Arabicas produce a flavorful, pleasing, aromatic brew while Robustas are bitter with an offensive, lingering aftertaste. Needless to say, the rest of our focus will be on Arabicas.

Coffee grows close to the equator in mountainous, tropical or semi-tropical environments. Older, more traditional farms have shade trees that provide a protective canopy for delicate Arabica coffee plants. This protective cover is very important as excessive sun, rain, or extreme temperatures can ruin a coffee crop. Shade farms also help to preserve the natural environment and provide homes for countless birds, including the songbird. In sum, shade trees produce better coffee and support a better environment.

CoffeeTree
Coffee trees with cherries.

It takes roughly 3 years for the coffee plant to bear fruit and once it does, the plant will continue to produce crops for the next 8-9 years. The first sign a tree is ready to produce is the appearance of a fragrant white flower. The flower lasts for a few days before falling off and being replaced by a green cherry. As the cherry matures, it turns from green to shades of red until it is bright red and ready to be picked. One coffee tree is capable of producing, at best, about 4,000 green beans per year or a single pound of roasted coffee. (Imagine how many trees it takes to produce enough beans for your annual coffee consumption!)

PickerMountain

Coffee cherries must be picked individually – during harvest, coffee farms come alive with troops of tireless pickers.  Many pickers are migrants that travel from farm to farm for food, lodging, and a small wage. As these remote mountain paradises can be dangerous, work is done in groups to protect pickers from thieves and natural predators. At the end of the day burrows, mules, and workersfile down the mountain trails for the main road with sacks and barrels of beans on their shoulders and head. From there, the coffee is brought to the mill, or Beneficio, where the cherries are processed into exportable green coffee.

BeanWashing.JPG
Here’s where the beans are washed post-harvest.
BeanRunOff.JPG
Run off from post-bean cleaning

At the processing plant, the cherry seed is separated from the husk before being washed, dried, and sorted. Cleaning processes are complex and require constant monitoring of the moisture level as water initiates a fermentation process that can sour the coffee. The three major processing methods are wet, dry, and, semi-washed (a combination of wet and dry). Most coffees from Central and South America undergo ‘wet processing’ while coffees from Indonesia and Africa are often semi-washed. Dry processing is less common and practiced in places like Yemen where there are many small farms located far from processing mills. Dry processing works best when picked husks must be preserved for long periods of time (24+ hours) after picking.

Once the beans are fully dried and in a state of ‘pergamino’, the parchment skin is removed. Samples are then carefully identified by specific lots and sent out to brokers and roasters around the world. Coffee is shipped in jute or burlap sacks weighing between 130-150 pounds. The large sacks are piled into containers, taken to a port, and loaded onto ocean vessels. The beans that do not make the quality cut will probably be consumed domestically.

Once the beans are fully dried and in a state of ‘pergamino’, the parchment skin is removed. Samples are then carefully identified by specific lots and sent out to brokers and roasters around the world. Coffee is shipped in jute or burlap sacks weighing between 130-150 pounds. The large sacks are piled into containers, taken to a port, and loaded onto ocean vessels. The beans that do not make the quality cut will probably be consumed domestically.

The bean’s life on the farm has ended and a new journey awaits it at anxiously anticipating roasters. To learn more about coffee farms, the preparation process, or roasting, please visit our blog.

 

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