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Steps to a cup of coffee

While sipping on my cup of coffee, grateful that the buzz I was getting was considered legal, I couldn’t help but think about how coffee is made and the curious sequence of events that lead to the perfecting of the beverage now in my hands.

The more you learn about the steps required to produce a good, healthy cup of coffee, the more you begin to wonder how it is that we even have coffee today.

From tree to cup it takes a staggering 15 steps to get you that perfect cup of coffee!

The next time you rush through your morning cup before dashing off to work, spare a thought for each of the people involved in these steps that made it possible.

 

Seeds spend their first year planted in nurseries where they are carefully tended, watered and sheltered from the sun. Once they grow to between 18 and 24 inches, they’re tough enough to withstand the full sun and are removed from the nursery and planted in the field.

Left to their own devices these trees could grow as high as 20 feet but that would make harvesting a little tricky so they are generally pruned to around 8 to 10 feet. It takes between 3 to 5 years before the tree begins to produce coffee berries, also known as cherries because of their shape and red color.

Once ripe, these berries have a bright, deep red skin that covers a fleshy pulp and two little coffee beans in the center encased in a protective skin.

  

While there is a general time that the berries ripen, they tend to do it in stages which means that you can’t pick the whole lot at once. 

This means that you’ve got to go out and pick the ripe berries, come back 8 to 10 days later to pick the next ones, and then come back another 8 to 10 days later to get the stragglers.

This is a fairly labor intensive job which calls for good eyes and nimble fingers! The advantage of picking by hand is that it allows for a more selective harvest. Being able to pick the berries only once they’re good and ready to go makes for better quality coffee. Unripe berries will have poorly developed beans and these will result in coffee with a bitter taste and sharp odor.

On average a good picker will pick around 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day and only 20% of that weight will eventually become coffee.

What we’re really after are the two little beans at the center of the fruit.


To ensure that only the best beans pass onto the next step the coffee cherries are first sorted. There are a few ways to do this.

The simplest sorting that happens is by hand but winnowing the beans or using a large sieve to remove debris, stones, and twigs is also used. 

To make absolutely sure that only ripe, good berries are used, the processor may also sort by water immersion. The cherries are thrown into a tank of water and the density difference between ripe and unripe cherries makes the unripe ones float to the top for easy extraction.

Now we’re left with only the best of the best and it’s time to free those beans from the pulp.

The pulping process is all about getting rid of the skin and the pulped fruit (mucilage) that surrounds the beans.

Within 24 hours of the cherries being picked, they are put through a depulping machine that removes the skin and most of the pulp. This pulp and skin is usually discarded to be used as compost.

After depulping, the beans still have some pulp attached and are ready for the fermentation process.

The fermentation process is where the microbial reaction of bacteria and yeasts break down the sugars in the mucilage to produce acids.

It’s these acids that will be responsible for adding depth and complexity to the coffee. There are three main ways of processing the harvested cherries through the fermentation stage. Each process has its own logistical pros and cons and the process can have a significant effect on the taste of the final product.

The pulped beans are sorted by size and then thrown into fermentation tanks.

After 12 to 48 hours of fermentation in the tank, the naturally occurring enzymes dissolve the layer of mucilage surrounding the beans.

The beans are then washed thoroughly in fresh water to stop the fermentation process and to remove the last of the pulp.

This leaves the beans covered in just a thin sheath, or parchment, called the endocarp.

This process allows the farmer to carefully control how much fermentation takes place and results in a more consistent coffee with clean and complex flavors.


The beans need to be dried until they reach a moisture content of around 11%. The drying is either done mechanically or by laying them out on a large, flat space in the sun.

The cherries are raked regularly throughout the day to get them to dry evenly and to make sure that they don’t develop mold or bacteria. If it looks like it might rain the farmer has to run around frantically to cover the cherries.

It normally takes around 2 to 4 weeks until they dry to the point where they have an 11% to 12% moisture content.

Once properly dried you’re left with parchment coffee which is the beans with just the parchment surrounding them or what’s left of the bits of dried fruit and skin if they were dry processed.

In this form, the coffee can be stored for several months or even years depending on the temperature and humidity. 

For the time that they are in storage they are put into sacks and stored on pallets in a way that allows for good airflow and that keeps them away from any moisture.


Milling is the final stage in the process to get those little coffee beans out into the open with all the other layers removed.

The two steps in the milling process are hulling and polishing.

Hulling
The beans are thrown into a machine where they are milled to remove the parchment covering the beans as well as the skin and any leftover dried fruit in the case of dry processed coffee.

They’ve got to do this carefully so that they get all the little bits off without damaging the beans.

Polishing
If you’re extra fussy about having your beans shiny then the coffee goes through an optional stage of polishing where any of the silver skin left on the beans is removed. 

Once the hulling process is completed you’re left with beautiful little dried out light brown coffee beans.

Before sending the whole batch off for roasting the coffee needs to be graded. Some fortunate people actually get paid to taste coffee and call it work.

After staring sagely at the beans for a while they make an initial judgment of the quality of the coffee based on the appearance of the beans. Then it’s on to the tasting, or cupping.

A sample of the beans will be roasted in a laboratory roaster, ground and then infused in boiling water. After letting it stand for a few minutes the cupper (taster) will then smell and taste the coffee.

Regardless, the end result of this theatrics is that the coffee is graded as to its quality and suitability for blending with other coffees.

Now it’s time to fire up the roaster.

Roasting coffee is part science and part art. Inside those raw coffee beans is the potential to make a great cup of coffee.

The trick is to take the acidity and flavors of each individual batch into account and then regulate the roasting temperature and duration to balance or enhance these. Typically this involves rotating them in a roaster that gets up to around 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

At about 400 degrees Fahrenheit the fragrant oil inside the beans (caffeol) begins to come out of the bean. This stage of the roasting process is called Pyrolysis and is what ultimately gives the coffee its flavor and aroma.

The duration of the roast will result in different characteristics and flavors from the lighter Medium and Full City roasts to the richer and darker Vienna and French Roasts.

Once the roasting process has been completed the beans are cooled by water or air to stop them developing further due to the heat trapped inside them.

Once the coffee is roasted the clock starts ticking.

You’ve got a limited time to grind those beans and get a delicious cup of coffee from them. It’s not only time that’s against you but air, moisture and UV rays all conspire to undo all the hard work that’s lead up to this point.

Because of this, the packaging that the roasted beans are stored in is more than just a marketing exercise. To protect the beans from air and moisture the packaging is sealed really well so that even if it’s on the shelf for a few weeks the beans will still be fresh once the seal is broken.

The packaging material is also opaque so that the beans are shielded from UV rays. Some coffee packaging will incorporate a one-way valve. Roasted beans will still de-gas for some time after they’ve been roasted so these one-way valves allow the carbon dioxide to escape the bag without allowing any oxygen in.

When you open that bag of beans next time imagine all the work it went to get the coffee into your cup ! 

Finely the beans are ground depends on the method that will be used to brew the coffee. The next time you’re enjoying your espresso, cold brew, or cortado, spare a thought for the amount of work that went into getting it to you.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Learn how coffee is made. From Bean To Cup!