The Life of a Coffee Bean—Where Does Our Coffee Come From?
Every time we have a steamy cup of joe in front of us, we seldom think about how this coffee came to be. Let's explore.
Sure, the coffee was brewed in our home or in a shop, but where did the beans come from and how did they get here?
Birth of a Bean
While coffee beans are grown all around the world, the biggest producers of coffee are in order:
- Brazil (producing near 6 million pounds)
- Vietnam (producing near 4 million pounds)
- Colombia (producing near 2 million pounds)
- Indonesia (producing 1.5 million pounds)
- Ethiopia (producing near 1 million pounds)
So why the coffee comes from so fay away? There are two primary species of coffee that are grown for consumption—Arabica (75% of world production) and Robusta (25% of world production). We at Waka Coffee use Arabica beans for our premium instant coffee! Arabica plants are characterized by a large bush with dark green leaves. The fruits mature within 7 to 9 months and do not contain a lot of seeds. Robusta plants are much smaller and shrub like and the fruits take longer to mature—around 11 months.
Coffee beans require two primary climates to grow properly: subtropical regions and equatorial regions. These regions of the world are sometimes called the coffee band! Equatorial regions are good for growing coffee because of its continuous rainfall, therefor allowing the coffee plants to continuously flower and mature at a steady and slow rate.
Slow development of the plant leads to a richer and more developed taste of the final product of coffee. Subtropical regions which have wet and dry seasons allow coffee to grow at lower altitudes, but are more rigid in the time frame when coffee can be grown. Arabica beans are usually grown in equatorial regions and require substantial rain fall (1,200-2,200mm per year) and grown at 60-75ºF. Robusta coffee is much easier to grow and can withstand more varied and harsh temperature. They can grow in warmer temperatures and lower altitudes and produce more fruits per tree than Arabica. Even though Robusta coffee plants produce more fruits per plant, Arabica is more enjoyable and matures more quickly (making it the most used bean for coffee in speciality coffee shops).
The biggest factor affecting the taste of coffee is the altitude it was grown in. Higher altitudes (between 900-1500m) provide the best growing conditions for coffee beans. Because tropical climate still allows for high rainfall, higher climate also accounts for a cooler temperature. Cool temperature and high moisture let the coffee plant to grow at a steady rate and ensure that the plant is not subjected to extreme temperatures or weather patterns.
The beans will yield a different taste as it goes higher and higher in elevation. Generally, the lower the elevation, the blander and more unimpressive the taste of the coffee. Arabica beans require higher elevations, which is another reason it is preferred. Robusta beans generally do not contain the depth of flavor that Arabica beans do because they grow at lower climates and have less time to mature happily.
To simplify the effect that altitudes and temperatures have on coffee, let’s compare the growing process to sleeping. Some of the best sleeps come from a nice and cozy temperature that is not disrupted by intense weather changes. Nothing disturbs a good dream more than a gust of freezing wind or the disrupting flashes of thunder and lightning. People wake up refreshed and ready for the day after a stable and quiet night, just as coffee beans mature the best after a long season of cozy temperatures and sufficient nutrients! Stability is key.
Ok, so our coffee cherries are firm and bright red—time for harvest! There are two primary ways in which coffee is harvested. The first is called selective harvesting which involves picking only the ripe fruit by hand. The unripe coffee is kept on the tree to get harvested later on, and overripe fruits can be taken off the tree or left on. Every few weeks, the plants will be re-inspected and harvested again. Obviously, selective harvesting is a very laborious and time-consuming practice but it does ensure only the best fruits are being harvested to turn into coffee.
The second method of harvesting is called strip harvesting. In this method, all coffee fruits are “stripped” from the plant altogether by a machine. Strip harvesting can be done in several different ways—by manually knocking all berries off of specific branches, machine strippers to knock, berries off the plant, or by using a harvesting machine that requires putting the entire plant through a civ-like-machine to collect all of the berries. While strip harvesting might be faster and requires much less labor, it yields a group of berries that have different levels of maturation. There could be more unripe and overripe berries that are harvested than with selective harvesting.
Transportation and Roasting
Once the coffee beans have been harvested, they are ready to be processed and shipped. Because most coffee beans are produced near the equator, they need to travel a long distance to arrive at our tables. Most beans are packed into cargo containers or trains that take them to various countries and regions of the world. The green beans are delivered to coffee companies where they roast, dry, and prepare the beans for distribution.
After the beans are roasted and packaged, they are then shipped off to stores or coffee shops (usually by truck) to be purchased and brewed by coffee lovers everywhere!
Finally, the cute little brown beans have made it all the way from the equator to our table—what a joy! Now it is time to finally brew up a cup of joe. Coffee beans are ground up into a dirt-like grainy consistency by blender or coffee grinder. Consumers have the choice of purchasing pre-ground coffee or can grind the beans themselves. Hot water is filtered through the coffee grounds, extracting the flavors of the bean from the coffee beans in liquid form. Filters are used to ensure there are no grounds left in the mug. Customers that prefer the same beloved coffee taste, minus the hassle of making it often choose quality instant coffee instead.
Finally, after this epic journey, we are left with a steamy and wonderful cup of coffee.
Coffee beans certainly undergo a large journey to get from the ground to our table—slow clap for coffee beans and all of the people who make it possible for us to drink coffee every day!