That coffee you’re drinking? It’s had a long journey to reach you.
From the day it was planted in the ground to the day it reached your cup, around five years may have passed. And, the beans that went into making your coffee may have traveled thousands of miles.
If you’ve ever wondered about the different steps coffee goes through on the way to your home or local coffee shop, here’s our guide to the basics of coffee production, from farm to brew.
How coffee is made
Step 1. Coffee Planting
Coffee beans are the seeds of the fruit that grows on the Coffea plant.
This plant is native to East Africa, specifically Ethiopia and Sudan, but is now grown commercially in over 70 countries worldwide.
By volume, Brazil is the country that produces the most coffee, followed by Vietnam.
There are two main types of coffee, arabica and robusta. Robusta is hardier and more tolerant of different growing conditions, while arabica produces a more refined drink.
Arabica accounts for around 70% of worldwide coffee production.
Coffee plants are usually grown in nurseries for the first six months to a year, after which they are transferred to a plantation.
After being transferred, it takes another two to four years before a coffee plant begins producing coffee.
Optimal growing conditions for coffee are hot, dry weather followed by a period of rain.
Without these conditions, yield can be dramatically reduced, affecting the income of coffee growers.
Watch this video to learn more.
Coffee-producing countries are found in a band around the world between the two tropics.
Step 2. Coffee Harvesting
When mature, coffee plants begin producing a fruit known as ‘coffee cherries’.
Most plants will produce fruit once a year, although in some particularly fertile areas, two harvests, a primary and secondary, are possible (1).
The seeds of these plants are coffee beans, and the ripeness of the fruit when harvested determines the flavor of the drink the beans produce (2).
The best – and most expensive – coffee is harvested by hand: trained coffee pickers are able to select the best, ripest fruit for harvest.
Hand-picking is highly labor-intensive, and some coffee is harvested by machine.
Known as “strip picking”, this method takes all beans from the coffee plant indiscriminately.
This latter method is faster but less selective and produces an inferior end product.
Step 3. Coffee Processing
After harvesting, the fruit needs to be processed. Essentially, there are two ways to do this, the “dry” method and the “wet” method.
The dry method is the traditional way of processing harvested beans.
After sorting and cleaning by hand, the coffee cherries are left to dry naturally in the sun until the moisture content reaches around 11-12.5%.
They are regularly raked to ensure even drying.
This process can take up to four weeks, although it can be expedited through the use of machines.
In the wet method, the coffee cherries are pulped, separating the flesh and the skin from the beans.
After this process, the beans are left with an outer skin, known as mucilage.
The beans are left to ferment for up to 48 hours, during which time the mucilage is naturally broken down.
Finally, the mucilage is washed away with water, after which the beans need to be dried, either in the sun or by machine.
At this point, the beans are left with a fine hull known as the “parchment” – coffee beans at this stage are known as “parchment coffee beans”.
The two different processing methods have different effects on the final flavor of the coffee produced.
Step 4. Coffee Milling
The next step in the process, before coffee beans are ready for sale, is to remove the parchment (for wet-processed beans) or the entire husk (for dry-processed beans).
This process is known as “milling” and is carried out in special machines.
Some beans go through an additional process known as “polishing”, where any remaining skin is also removed.
However, it is debatable whether this actually improves the quality of the coffee.
Step 5. Coffee Beans Grading and sorting
Before they are ready for export, beans need to be graded and sorted.
During this step, the quality is evaluated depending on size, weight and color.
They are sieved to sort them by size, and at this stage, any defective beans are removed.
This may be done manually or by machine.
The grading process is different in each country, but we can take Kenya as an example.
Kenya is known to produce some of the world’s best Arabica beans and the beans are graded according to a scale.
The best beans are known as AA beans.
They are the largest and contain the highest quantity of aromatic oils.
These fetch the highest price at auction. These are followed by AB, PB, C, E, TT and T, in order.
These beans are worthless as they decrease in size.
Other regions use other systems, but the concept is the same.
Step 6. Coffee Export
Having reached this point, beans are ready to be sold and are stored in bags.
The standard bag for storing coffee is the 60kg bag, and a country’s coffee production is measured in how many of these 60kg bags are produced (3).
Since green beans can retain their flavors for up to a year, they are not roasted by the producers.
Once beans are roasted, the clock is ticking and the flavors we value so highly are lost within about two weeks.
For this reason, roasting is done shortly before brewing. More on this later.
Step 7. Coffee Beans Evaluation
Before coffee can be sold, it must be evaluated by a professional.
The first test is a visual one, and the coffee beans are inspected to establish their physical quality.
Next, the coffee is tasted – or “cupped” as it is technically known.
A small quantity of the beans is roasted, and the resulting brew is evaluated for things like flavor, aroma, acidity, aftertaste and body.
Just like wine, the end product is affected by a whole range of factors, including where it is grown, the soil it is grown in, sunlight, rainfall and many others.
For this reason, no coffee is ever quite the same as another, and even coffee harvested from the same farm differs from year to year.
An experienced cupper can identify tiny differences in coffees, and the result of this taste test affects the price of the coffee as well as whether it will be blended with other coffees to improve the final drink – again, in much the same way as happens with wine.
Step 8. Coffee Beans Roasting
Green coffee beans have no flavor, and brewing a drink from unroasted beans would not produce that familiar delicious drink we all love.
Over 1000 coffee aroma components are known, and to activate and release them, the beans need to be roasted (4).
Varying the temperature at which beans are roasted and the length of time for which they are roasted affects the coffee the beans will produce.
In general, the longer the beans are roasted and the higher the temperatures to which they are exposed, the darker the beans will become and the stronger the final flavor will be.
As we mentioned before, after beans are roasted, there is a time limit on their optimal condition for brewing.
During roasting, coffee beans become loaded with carbon dioxide, and for the first couple of days after roasting, they give off a lot of this gas (5).
You need to allow the beans time to expel CO2 before you use them to make coffee. If you try to brew the beans too soon, the coffee will not have had enough time to develop the necessary flavors and aromas.
After a few days, the amount of carbon dioxide being given off becomes much less.
Depending on the beans, they need to be left for a few days to a week before you can use them.
After this time, oxidization begins, and this is the process that leads to coffee to lose its flavor.
Even with the best storage methods, there is nothing you can do to prevent oxidization, meaning that two weeks after roasting, the beans are already deteriorating.
so roasted beans are only at their very best for around a week or so.
Step 9. Coffee Beans Grinding
Assuming you have freshly roasted beans that have been stored correctly and are ready to be brewed, the single factor which has the greatest effect on the coffee that ends up in your cup is the grind.
It is essential to understand which type of grind is suited to which type of coffee.
Different grinds of coffee are suitable for different methods of preparation, and a French press, for example, requires a very different grind from an espresso.
The major factor is how long the coffee is in contact with the water.
As a general rule, the longer the coffee is in contact with water, the coarser the grind should be, and vice versa.
With a French press, the contact time is relatively long, perhaps over four minutes.
Coffee intended for use in a French press requires a coarse grind of coffee.
On the other hand, with espresso, the water is only in contact with the coffee for a short time, under 30 seconds.
This means the grind needs to be much finer or the desirable flavors will not have the time to escape from the coffee.
If you use a fine grind for a French press, unwanted flavors will escape into your drink and the resulting cup will be bitter and unpleasant.
If you use coarse-ground coffee to make espresso, it will be flavorless and will resemble nothing more than dirty water.
Step 10. Coffee Brewing
The final step on the coffee’s journey from the seed to your cup is brewing.
If you have good quality, freshly-roast coffee beans that have been correctly ground for the method of coffee you plan to use, you should be able to produce a delicious cup of your favorite drink.
However, there are still pitfalls that can spoil your cup at the final stage in the process.
There is an art to making coffee and you should learn the best way to use whichever technique you are using.
Factors like the amount of coffee, the amount of water and the steeping time all combine to make the perfect – or not so perfect – cup.
We can take French press coffee as an example again. You should grind the beans just before brewing the coffee.
After grinding, the process of oxidization is vastly accelerated, and coffee begins to lose its flavor in a matter of minutes.
It is better to weigh the amount of coffee rather than leaving this vital consideration up to arbitrary guesswork.
For a four-cup French press, you need about 27-30g of coffee and 430ml of hot water.
The water should be below boiling since boiling water also destroys some of the delicate flavors of coffee.
Total steeping time is about four minutes. Less than this and the coffee will have no flavor.
Longer than this and bitter, unwanted flavors will begin to escape and spoil the drink.
The same is true for other methods and you need to learn the correct way to prepare the drink.
There is also an element of trial and error, but this is part of the joy of making high-quality coffee at home.
With practice and experience, you will soon be able to brew the perfect cup of coffee just the way you like it.
Step 11. Enjoy Your Coffee
The coffee has finished its long journey from seed to your cup, and all that remains for you to do is sit back, smell the delicious aromas that fill the room and enjoy another cup of your favorite brew.
An exciting journey, full of love
So, coffee production is really not that simple!
There are lots of careful steps between seed and cup that ensure the coffee you drink is the best and most delicious cup possible.
A lot of people have given that coffee a lot of love during its exciting journey all the way from where it was planted to its final destination.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our article and we hope you’ve learned something new too.
Do you have anything to add about the journey from seed to cup?
If you do, please leave us a comment as we love hearing from you – and if you enjoyed reading about how coffee is grown, please don’t forget to share!