The past few decades have brought agriculture front and center. From organic and fair-trade farming to crop sharing to the farm-to-table movement and beyond, it’s clear Americans are becoming increasingly informed and invested in food.
Coffee isn’t excluded from this shift toward transparency and sustainability. The terms “fair trade” and “organic” are quite common in the industry. However, it’s not as common to wonder about the life cycle of a coffee bean as it is to trace the path of, say, an ear of corn to the dinner table.
The reason for the emphasis on food over drink is likely a simple truth: Everyone eats food. Not everyone drinks coffee. (Although here at Coletti we can’t imagine such a thing!) To bring coffee into focus, we’d like to take you on a journey from seed to shipment.
Where Does Coffee Grow?
Coffee comes from the cherry-like fruit of a small bush or medium-size tree. What we call a coffee bean is actually the seed of the fruit. While the coffee cherry is edible, it’s generally treated as a byproduct of processing and is either discarded or used as fertilizer.
Coffee plants grow best in high-altitude, tropical climates. (A certain variety of coffee grows in low altitudes, but we’ll get to that in a future post.) This is evidenced by the list of the world’s top coffee-producing countries, including Honduras, Guatemala, Columbia, and Vietnam.
Two Methods of Processing Coffee Beans
A fun fact about the coffee plant is that its fruit ripens at varying speeds. This is part of what makes harvesting coffee so labor intensive. In mountainous areas, coffee cherries are picked by hand, and the cherries must be sorted between ripe and unripe. In lower altitudes, coffee is more easily harvested with machines.
Once the beans are picked and sorted, quick processing is crucial to avoid potential for spoilage. There are two methods used, dry and wet. Dry processing is the oldest method, and its first phase, the actual drying of the beans, can take weeks because it’s contingent on weather conditions.
Wet processing removes the skin and pulp from the seeds, which are then sorted for ripeness and size and transported to fermentation tanks. They’ll remain in the tanks until the mucilage, a slick layer covering the bean, is dissolved. Afterward, all that’s left is a parchment-covered bean, ready for the drying patio.
In both methods, the goal is to get to a bean completely free of skin, pulp, mucilage, and parchment. Parchment coffee refers to unhulled beans, which can be used for brewing, although it’s an uncommon practice.
How Coffee is Distributed
Once processed, green coffee beans are transported by ship or plane to their destinations in importing countries around the world. Recent stats show that coffee-producing countries export around 9 million tons of beans each year.
For centuries, coffee has been transported in jute or sisal sacks made of plant fibers. In the early part of this decade, in response to growing global demand for coffee, plastic super sacks entered the market for shipping. While lacking the visual appeal of hand-stamped gunny sacks, super sacks can significantly lower costs for distribution, ensuring coffee lovers around the world can get their fix.
Learning the steps of growing and processing coffee gives you a new appreciation for morning’s favorite beverage. What was the most surprising takeaway from the information in this article? Share with us in the comments below!
Danielle Costello is a freelance writer and editor with a special interest in great coffee. After spending a few decades exploring life in bigger cities, Danielle now resides in Morgantown, West Virginia. A mom of two young boys, exercise enthusiast, and dog-rescue advocate, she spends her free time making healthy meals and savoring disrupted sleep.