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A Coffee Bean’s Journey from Tree to Green Coffee

27 January 2021
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Have you ever wondered what happens on a coffee farm? For one, your coffee beans are actually seeds and are called ‘coffee cherries’. And second, it can take up to five years before these coffee beans reach you.

Let’s take a look at the fascinating journey your coffee bean takes before it’s sent to the roastery. 

It Starts with a Seed

Your coffee bean’s great adventure starts with a humble seed. Freshly farmed (unprocessed) coffee beans are planted into rich soil in the nursery and left for about a month or two. Once these seedlings are big enough, they are planted for production where they are left to grow into coffee trees.

Factors such as country of origin, climate, soil, altitude, wind and rainfall, will influence how the coffee will eventually taste, giving the coffee bean its unique taste profile.  

At this stage, the waiting game begins—coffee trees can take up to five years to produce fruits (Arabica trees take seven years!), which are the little cherries where the coffee beans are extracted from.

It will take about another nine months before these coffee cherries are ripe enough to harvest.  

Harvesting 

coffee cherries on a coffee plant
Coffee cherries have to be harvested in stages because they don’t ripen at the same time. Photo from Daniel Reche.

Coffee cherries can be a temperamental fruit and may not ripen all at once. While some cherries from the same cluster are already red and ready to be harvested, some may still be green or yellow and need more time.

As a result, harvesting takes place in stages over a number of weeks. 

This is where the skills of a seasoned picker come in, carefully selecting and hand plucking only the ripest coffee cherry. But this also makes harvesting labour intensive as a lot of man-hours are devoted to it.

As a solution, most small-scale coffee farmers use this as an opportunity to involve the whole community, employing seasonal workers or even other farmers to help out with the harvest. This is how purchasing from roasters that source from small-batch farmers can help support an entire community

Further Sorting and Selection

To save time, some coffee farms use machinery to harvest coffee cherries which means they have a mixed bag of ripe and unripe cherries, with some stones, leaves and twigs in the mix.

Once the debris is removed, the cherries are sorted via water immersion. Unripe cherries are less dense than ripe ones so they float to the top, making them easier to separate. 

Pulping: Breaking Down the Coffee Cherries 

Now that we have the best coffee cherries from the lot, the process of extracting the coffee bean begins. The pulping stage focuses on removing the skin and pulp that surround the beans.

This is usually done within 24 hours of harvesting and with the help of special milling machinery. While the machine helps to remove the skin, it does not remove the pulp entirely so the beans move on to the next phase. 

Fermenting: Getting to the Bean 

The final outer layer (called parenchyma) that surrounds the bean is broken down through natural fermentation. The beans are placed in water and left for up to 72 hours to allow the naturally occurring enzymes to break down this layer until it disintegrates. 

Some farmers skip the pulping step and opt to naturally dry the coffee cherries under the sun right after sorting and selection.

This can take up to six weeks but once completely dry, the coffee beans can then be extracted from the cherries. 

Drying 

drying coffee beans on the ground
Coffee cherries can be left to dry naturally before extracting the beans from the fruit. Photo from MarcusVU.

Whether or not the farmer chose to naturally dry the coffee cherries as they are, or without the skin and pulp, the extracted coffee beans are still left to dry until they reach 11 per cent to 12 per cent moisture content.

This ideal moisture content preserves the beans until they are ready for export and roasting. The beans can be machine-dried but if they are left to be dried under the sun, they are raked regularly to ensure they dry evenly and don’t develop mould and bacteria.  

At the end of the drying stage, you get parchment coffee, which are coffee beans encased in paper-like skin. In this state, the beans can be stored for several months (or even years, under the right conditions) until they are ready to be milled.

Milling: Say Hello to Green Coffee 

scooping coffee beans into the palms of a person
The milling stage helps get rid of the leftover skin and pulp from the bean. Photo from muramatsud104.

The final stage in your coffee bean’s journey before roasting is the milling step which removes the parchment casing and any other skin and pulp leftover from the drying process.

This is done with the help of a milling machine which does the job delicately so as to avoid damaging these precious little coffee beans. Some farmers go through an extra step where they polish the silver skin off the beans to get dried out light brown coffee beans. 

These milled beans, also known as “green coffee” are then stored in jute or sisal bags then shipped all over the world, where they will be evaluated and tasted (known as cupping), then sent to coffee roasters which prepare them in familiar, ready-to-grind formats. 

There really is more to the coffee bean than meets the eye — and it has definitely ‘bean there and done that’. Knowing what your little bean has gone through sure brings coffee appreciation up to a whole new level.

Now that you have a better appreciation for coffee beans, it’s time to invest in a reliable coffee machine to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Click here for the best technology-driven coffee machines in the market.