No matter where you go visit in the world today, you will find a coffee shop or cafe. The big commercial shops now popular in the States, the unique coffee houses of the Middle East, and the traditional quaint cafes of Europe and Latin America. Coffee has become the drink of choice for most people around the world. But I wonder how many people actually know the hard work and long journey behind those tasting little beans.
Like most things in nature, the coffee plant is very unique in where is grows. As a tropical plant, it only grows in areas around the Earth’s equator between the tropical zones. After about 3-4 years, the now mature coffee tree gives clusters of beautiful, fragrant white flowers that become the coffee berry almost a year later. Inside the little red or sometimes yellow coffee cherry is the 2 bean seed that we use to make coffee. Each little tree will provide the farmer with only about a pound of beans, crazy right. The two most commonly grown varieties are Arabica and Robusta, and the one you want to drink as a specialty coffee fan is always Arabica. You know all those labels and descriptions that talk about the altitude the coffee was grown in, well that is because Arabica only grows up high and that is what gives those little beans such unique flavors and sweetness. Robusta beans are usually used for the large commercial store brands and other coffee uses. Enough about the plant, that was my gardener side coming out.
So as you may have already guessed, coffee is actually grown in a ton of places, but most are lower income countries. Each country and each region within a country gives us very unique flavors. Most growers are small coffee farmers who together with their families and farming neighbors harvest the cherries over three times as they ripen. The important thing to learn here is that coffee farming is a slow process that requires tons of hard work but in the end does not pay the farmers much. More on that in the next post.
Once the cherry is ripe, most coffee crops are picked by hand. That is because that awesome tasting coffee we love grows in the hills and mountains and tractors don’t work well up there. The hard working laborers/farmers who pick the coffee are in really good shape, they pick up to 100-200 pounds of those cherries a day. They are then paid for the total weight of coffee they picked. And you would never know that in most countries the laborers are women. Impressed yet!
So now you have a bunch of coffee fruit that needs to be processed in one of three methods to get the beans out. The Dry (Unwashed or Natural Process) method is the traditional way and simply involves drying the cherries in the sun, while turning them during the day for several weeks. If you like a smooth and heavy-bodied cup of coffee, then look for coffees with this process. In areas where water is more available, they use the Wet (Fully washed) method that pulps the fruit off the beans and is then fermented in water to remove the remaining pulp. This type of coffee is for those of you who prefer a less acidic balanced coffee with more of the fruity notes. The newer less common Honey method (Semi-washed/wet or Pulped natural) is basically a mix of the two previous methods, partial wash and then left out to dry. But the Semi-washed varies from region to region, sometimes it’s fermented a little, sometimes it’s washed a little more. Now the result is more of an earthy, heavy bodied, coffee with mild acidic Each method really just depends of what is available to the farmer and yes each method creates a unique flavor profile in the beans.
At this point, we have green fresh coffee beans that are usually sorted by hand and get to export. The final product is exported through different means either directly by the farmer, through farming cooperatives, and in most cases by large coffee export-importers. Then they arrive at the coffee roaster who roasts the beans in large or small batches. Each batch of processed green coffee must be carefully roasted to bring out its unique flavor characteristics. The fresher the roasted coffee, the best flavor the coffee will give you.
Now you know everything about where your cup of coffee comes from! Well almost everything. So go and explore all those different speciality coffee beans, you will be surprised at the uniqueness grown and processed in each country and region.