There’s no such thing as instant coffee…
We drink around two and a quarter billion cups of it every day, but do we know how it made its way into the cup sitting before us? The next time you sit down to your favourite roast, take a moment to appreciate how this labour of love found its way to you
Most coffee is grown on small farms and, like wine, the ‘terroir’ of the coffee plant (its particular environmental habitat) plays a big part in the formation of the unique flavor character of the bean.
The coffee bean is a seed that likes lots of water and shade. It grows best near the equator in warm humid climates. Though there is usually only one harvest each year, some varieties of coffee plant will keep producing fruit for decades. The main regions where it is grown are Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Brazil, Kenya, India, and Ethiopia.
There are 2 main types of bean:
Robusta, which is easier to grow, cheaper and has a higher caffeine content, accounts for about 75-80% of world production. It grows best at altitudes of between 100-800 metres. It has a neutral taste and is often used for espresso blends and instant coffee.
Arabica, which is harder to grow and pricier, accounts for 20% of world production. It grows best at altitudes of between 1000-2000 metres. It has a wide variety of flavors and is used for high quality blends.
After about 4-5 years from when they were first planted, coffee ‘cherries’, the fruit that coffee seeds come from, are ready to be harvested (and yes, you guessed it, they are a similar size, shape and colour to cherries).
The cherries are still generally picked by hand due to the uneven terrain they are grown on and because of variety in ripening times. Quality can be compromised if the fruit is not picked when ripe. Machines are therefore often only used with lower quality harvests.
The harvest is picked over and ripe fruit is separated from unripe. The ripe fruit is then weighed and transported to a mill for processing.
The cherries must be de-pulped within 24 hours to prevent spoilage. De-pulping is the separating of the coffee seeds from the outer flesh of the fruit.
There are 2 main ways of de-pulping:
This is the oldest method, and is used in countries where water is scarce. Here the fruit keeps its outer pulp on before being milled. It is dried in the sun and raked and turned throughout the day for even drying, and to prevent spoilage. This may continue for several weeks until the cherries’ moisture level drops to 11%.
Here the beans are separated from the pulp (or ‘mucilage’) in a ‘demucilager’ harvesting machine. They are sorted by ripeness and size, whereby ripe beans sink in water. They are then moved into fermentation tanks. The fermentation is said to improve the body and flavor of the beans. Again, the cherries are dried until their moisture level reaches 11%.
Hulling: Machines remove the parchment layer or husk.
Polishing: The beans may still have a silver skin on them so they are sometimes polished to remove this. Polished beans are considered superior to unpolished.
Grading and Sorting
The beans are now graded and sorted by weight and size, and any defective beans are removed either by hand or by machinery.
Now the green coffee is bagged and loaded onto containers onto ships and shipped all over the world.
But take a moment here to reflect: It is estimated that some 5 million people are involved in coffee growing and processing across the world. And yet, often under 10% of the retail price of coffee is earned by the exporting nations.
Tasting and Grading
When beans arrive in the importer countries they are usually sample roasted in small batches and tested for quality and taste – a process known as ‘cupping’. Here the taster (or ‘cupper’) evaluates the beans by sight, smell and taste to ascertain quality. Cuppers decide whether to blend batches or bean varieties, or to keep them as single origin to achieve the desired roast.
Roasting transforms green coffee into the aromatic brown nuggets that we buy by the bagful. Beans are roasted at different temperatures and durations to enhance certain qualities in the beans. The bean’s origin and how it was processed helps determine how it will be roasted. All these variables are used by the master roaster to develop different flavor profiles.
The magic happens when the beans reach an internal temperature of 400 degrees. They begin to turn brown and the oil known as caffeol begins to emerge which produces the flavor and aroma we all love.
Grinding and Brewing
Almost there! Now the coffee is ground coarsely or finely depending on how it is to be brewed. This ensures you get the most flavor out of your beans and into your cup.
The length of time the grounds will be in contact with water determines the grind: the finer the grind, the more quickly the coffee should be prepared. So, a finer grind for an espresso machine, and a coarser grind for a dripper or a French press. Take your pick of brew method and grind accordingly – but remember this: coffee releases up to 60% of its aroma within 15 minutes of it being ground!
So there you have it! The coffee bean odyssey: years in the making; moments in the taking.
After all the love that went into bringing you that coffee, all that’s needed now is the right cup to fully appreciate the elixir in front of you.