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From The Ground Up: The Life Cycle Of The Coffee Bean

From the Ground Up: The Life Cycle of the Coffee Bean

Coffee is such an ingrained part of daily life that it’s easy to take it for granted. It’s in the cabinet when you wake up; you brew it and begin your day. You stop by a café between meetings and there it is, ready for you. But the journey each bean in your joe undergoes is remarkable—and the way each step is handled has an impact on the finished product in your cup. The journey from the ground, to being ground up, is worthy of some coffee talk.

Seed to tree

Most people don’t know that coffee is a fruit. Well, maybe not fruit the same way apples and bananas check the “fruit” box on the nutritional pyramid, but coffee beans are harvested from trees that grow and produce the coffee fruits containing the beans we use to make everyone’s favorite drink.

Processing refers to the steps in taking the coffee fruit and extracting the part that will be exported, the beans themselves, and preparing them to be shipped and eventually roasted.

After a seed is planted (the coffee bean itself is actually a seed), it can take three to four years for the plant to produce bright red, purple, or yellow fruit known as coffee cherries. The coffee tree must be grown in a very particular climate, with very specific environmental factors. Once the tree has grown and starts bearing fruit, usually there will be one major harvest time each year where farmers pick the cherries.

Part of the process

Next, the cherries need to be processed. Processing refers to the steps in taking the coffee fruit and extracting the part that will be exported, the beans themselves, and preparing them to be shipped and eventually roasted. This can be done in multiple ways, usually in either what is known as the dry method or the wet method.

The dry method of processing is the traditional one, since it’s so simple that the coffee makers of centuries past were able to do it without the aid of any of our modern technology—the newly picked cherries are spread on a wide surface to dry in the sun. They’re turned and raked a few times each day so they don’t spoil (mildew is a real worry if you don’t move the cherries around) and then covered at night or during rains. This can take as long as a few weeks, and only stops when they reach the perfect level of moisture remaining (around 11%). Then the skin and pulp of the cherry are peeled off, leaving the coffee bean.

Coffee roasting is as much a science as it is an art.

The wet method does this the other way around; the skin and underlying pulp around the bean are removed before the drying process, with specialized pulping machinery. As the name implies, a lot of water is involved in this process—submersing the cherries in water is a good way to tell which cherries are unripe and should be discarded since bad cherries will float while the rest sink. After the machinery does its job, the beans are left in fermentation tanks in which the remaining pulp, called the mucilage, sticking to the bean will dissolve. This can take anywhere from half a day to two full days. Then the beans are dried in a method just like the cherries are in the dry method, out in the sun over several days or weeks.

After whichever processing method is used has completed, the beans are cleaned, polished, graded, and sorted by various characteristics (size, weight, color, etc.), then examined for imperfections. Then they’re bagged and exported.

Green coffee, exporting, and a careful roast

Beans ready for shipment are called “green coffee,” which are then bagged in jute or sisal bags and exported to their destination. Here at South Slope Coffee, we source our coffee from farmers all over the world—from Guatemala and Colombia to Ethiopia and Kenya. And we work only with exporters that pay coffee producers well for their product, those that save on costs by reducing the stops along the way between coffee producer and the roaster and then use that savings to take care of the farmers.

When the coffee arrives at a roaster, like South Slope Coffee, that’s where the magic happens. Each batch is carefully brought to a temperature within specialized equipment that will unlock the flavor and personality of each different kind of bean. The different roasting profiles of different beans means that the roasting process needs to be calibrated to a precise degree and timespan to avoid ruining the batch. You can’t just bring the equipment to a certain temperature and throw the beans in—there’s a delicate way of doing things so that you don’t burn the beans or drag out the process. Coffee roasting is as much a science as it is an art.

From there, the beans come to you, or wherever you get your coffee—ready to be ground and enjoyed. Want to learn more about where your coffee comes from? Be sure to check our blog regularly for more insights. And if all this bean talk has you hankering for a cup, check out our online shop where you can order exceptional blends from all over the world, roasted to order, and delivered to your door.