The trip coffee takes from bean to mug

Tip your baristas. And the harvesters, farmers…



o matter where it was poured — your home pot, a fair-trade shop or the gas station around the corner — the cup of coffee you had this morning likely had its origins in one of a handful of places in South America, Africa or Asia. The trip it took was likely a long and difficult one, and not just for the beans.

“I’d say 99 percent of the work that’s done to produce coffee is already done before it reaches our roastery,” says Zack Burnett, managing partner at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in Jacksonville, Florida. “There’s so much labor that goes into it that most people don’t even think about.”

“Most of the coffee that we drink comes from Brazil and Vietnam. Those are the two biggest producers, followed by Colombia,” Burnett says. “Colombia you see a lot because it’s marketed more. It has that image of being better quality coffee and, overall, it is.”

“In Vietnam they grow a species of coffee called Robusto. It has really high production levels, and it’s very resistant to pests and diseases. It doesn’t have the same high-quality characteristics as other commercially-produced coffee, which is called Arabica.”

Coffee harvest // image by Zack Burnett

But that’s not to say that Arabica automatically equals better-tasting coffee.

“Everything from how the coffee is grown to how the coffee is processed has an effect on how the coffee will taste,” says Camilla Yuan, production roaster at Temple Coffee Roasters in Sacramento, California.

“For instance, the terroir of the farm, the amount of rainfall in the region and the altitude of where the coffee trees are planted are all examples of factors that affect the overall quality and taste of the coffee.”

Coffee beans are actually the seeds of “cherries” which grow on the Coffea plant. To produce the best-tasting cup, the cherries must be harvested at the peak of ripeness — when they reach a sort of bright red color. Those harvested before that time, when the coffee is too green, produce a sour flavor. Harvest them after, and the sugars will be over-developed, making the coffee taste like vinegar or mold.

Coffee cherries before harvesting // image by Zack Burnett

Harvesting the cherries at the right time, however, has gotten tougher. Years ago, before climate change began producing unpredictable weather patterns, coffee farmers could set their watches by the rains. The plants would flower, and all the cherries could be picked at about the same time.

Now, the rain might be a month late or a month early, with sporadic showers throughout the season, causing the cherries to ripen unpredictably, too. So human harvesters must go through and pick the ripe fruits one by one, an expensive process that’s usually reserved for the finer Arabica beans.

Mechanical harvesters which strip all the cherries off the branch at once are more common. Of course, this yields cherries at all stages of ripeness, but those which are over- or under-ripe aren’t thrown out. “All coffee in the world that is picked is sold to somebody,” Burnett says. “Once it arrives here, people just roast it really dark, which covers up a lot of those defects.”

After harvesting, the beans are usually processed in one of two ways. In dry processing, the beans are spread on a large surface in the sun to dry. They’re raked and turned throughout the day to prevent spoilage. Depending on the weather, this process can continue for several weeks for each batch until the moisture content of the cherries drops to 11 percent.

Coffee burlap bags hold all the coffee still in its raw, green form before roasting // photo by Natalie Quach

With wet processing, cherries are passed through a depulping machine to remove the skin and pulp, leaving only the bean behind. The beans are then separated by weight and transported to large, water-filled fermentation tanks.

They remain in these tanks for between 12 to 48 hours to remove the slick layer of mucilage (called the parenchyma) that is still attached to the parchment (a papery covering when dry, like the kind on a peanut). These beans are then dried in much the same way as the dry-processed beans.The beans are then hulled to remove the parchment.

Grading and sorting is next, done by size and weight, and beans are also reviewed for color flaws or other imperfections. Defective beans are removed either by hand or by machinery. Beans that are unsatisfactory — due to unacceptable size or color, over-fermentation, insect damage or other factors — are removed. Then, finally, the green coffee beans are bagged and shipped to roasters around the world.

Roasting is the final step on the beans’ long journey to your cup. “If you tried to make a cup of coffee with green coffee, you wouldn’t taste anything since green coffee is the pit of a coffee cherry. Through roasting, flavors from the green coffee are released, which creates the aromatic and tasty qualities of roasted coffee beans,” Yuan says.

image on left by Zack Burnett // image on right by Natalie Quach

“Before these coffee seeds become what the general public sees them as — brown, these ‘green’ coffee beans have an olive green color to them and smell similar to green peas.”
In its 3,000-square-foot Roasterie, Temple roasts 800 pounds of coffee a day in a vintage Probat UG 15, built in the 1950s.

Bold Bean’s roasting facility is about 6,000 square feet. “Most of the small roasters use machines like ours, which is called a drum roaster. There’s fire underneath that heats the drum, and the air roasts the coffee,” Burnett says. There are also air roasters and conveyor belt systems, which are often employed by larger companies.

They’re all doing the same things, though — browning the green coffee beans to a desired temperature to bring out the unique characteristics of that particular coffee. Those are things like sweetness, mouth feel, aroma, acidity and flavors such as peaches, chocolate or vanilla.

“If it’s grown in a certain farm in Guatemala, we want it to have strong flavors, and we want those flavors to be clear,” Burnett says. “The more people pay attention to the differences, the more they will see that every coffee is not the same.”

Roasting time can be 10-12 minutes with machines like Bold Bean’s and Temple’s, or as little as 45 seconds on a conveyor system.

“Typically, a drip roast profile is around ten to eleven minutes and an espresso roast profile is about fourteen minutes,” says Yuan. “Having the coffee in the roaster longer during an espresso roast profile allows the acidity of the coffee to be balanced out with a caramelized sweetness, resulting in a better tasting espresso shot.

Camilla Yuan in Temple Coffee’s roasting area // image by Natalie Quach

A shorter roast profile for our drip coffees results in a coffee that has a balanced sweet acidity and complex flavor notes.”

The finished product can then, finally, be bagged and sent to consumers, restaurants and coffee shops. The barista takes it from there.

“By informing our customers about how each of our coffees are processed, we can help educate them about the meticulousness, quality, and the standards the farmers we work with hold themselves to,” Yuan says.

“Through this, the hard work of the farmers we’ve developed relationships with are also highlighted and customers can appreciate the hard work that goes into coffee.”