Coffee beans come from a cherry-like fruit. The bean itself is more of a pit than a bean when it first appears in coffee bushes. This fruit and later bean is quite sensitive and the way each lot is tended, the way cherries are picked, washed, dried, and roasted determines the aroma inside the bag. That is why coffee bags have such lengthy labels, and the more specialized it is, the more there is to say.
We’ve covered in this article how wide coffee production is and what a difference it makes. No bean is truly the same and the steps that turn the coffee cherries into beans determine what it is that we brew at home every morning.
Here is an introduction to the three main processes to turn a coffee cherry into a coffee bean.
Picking coffee is a labor intensive process as coffee cherries don’t ripen at the exact same time. Industrialized plantations simply have machines that rip the beans from the bushes and collect large amounts of coffee in no time. This process is efficient and makes the coffee quite cheap, but on the other hand, some immature cherries are mixed into it and this adds some bitterness to the final product. Minor bitterness can go undetected to the untrained palette, and it is a fairly common taste on generic coffee. On top of the change of flavors, these machines tend to scratch the cherries and if the scratch reaches the bean, the taste of the coffee changes as it affects oxidation and later fermentation. Yes, that is how high maintenance coffee is.
Now, for the more refined specialty coffee, coffee farmers grab baskets and hand pick the mature cherries. This is quite labor intensive, but it is the only way to guarantee the quality of the cherry and later the bean. Picking by hand allows the coffee farmers to remove only the fruits once they are truly ready and avoid bruising or scratching the cherry.
The Natural Dry Process
Once picked, the coffee cherries are laid on a rack or air bed to dry for about four weeks. In more rudimentary farms, they may simply lay it on bricks to keep them clean. During this time, farmers rake the cherries and turn them daily to avoid mold and ensure that they are evenly dried. If it rains, they cover them to avoid over moisturizing the beans. This is called a natural process because neither machines nor chemicals are used to remove the cherries. Instead, the sun, the air, and the raking and shaking on behalf of the farmers slowly removes the fruit pulp and reveals a coffee bean. At this point, these beans are off-white or what many call a bone color.
Once dried, the beans are put to rest in order to seal the flavors and avoid inconsistent moisture. In fewer words, it prevents rotting. The beans rest for around 60 days depending on the natural conditions around the farm. This step is a good reminder that even though coffee is grown in bushes and comes from a cherry, it is still neither a fruit nor vegetable. Just like wine, the fruit ceases to exist and an aged commodity appears. This aging period is not deeply researched, but it remains as a crucial practice as it has proven to seal moisture and guarantee the freshness of the coffee while shelved in a store or at home.
At this point, the coffee bean is surrounded by a layer of parchment and during the hulling process it is mechanically removed. The more technologically advanced machines grade the coffee and sort through faulty beans during this process, but in simpler farms, that is a whole other step.
Given the lengthy and consuming process required to turn a coffee cherry into a roastable bean, not to mention the necessity for good soil and generous weather, there is a lot that can go wrong. As coffee is labeled by regions, it must reach a certain quality label in order to be sold as specialty coffee. During the grading process, the beans are analyzed for color and size. Later a sample is taken and tasted. This step is called cupping and it consists of roasting, grinding, and brewing a sample of the coffee and tasting the flavor of the batch for the first time.
In case the beans don’t reach their expected grade, the coffee will be sold for a cheaper price and without a label. That’s better than wasting a whole crop, but also a constant motivation for farmers to take care of their craftsmanship and the product that represents them.