How coffee is made- The journey from a single coffee bean to delicious cup of coffee.
Let’s travel together…
While sipping on your favorite cup of coffee, have you ever wondered the journey coffee takes before it reaches your cup?
Between the time the seeds are planted, picked, processed, and packaged for distribution, coffee beans go through a series of processes to produce a delicious, healthy cup of coffee.
In this article, we are going to walk you through the seed to cup journey- from the time coffee is grown, processed, roasted, until the time it reaches you.
That brown coffee bean you buy from the coffee store was once a green pit.
So, let’s take a look at how coffee is made.
Type of Coffee Plants
Coffee is made from the two plant species namely: Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta.
Coffea arabica comprises of 70% of the world’s coffee market and is believed to produce coffee with deeper flavors and enhanced qualities. However, other regions like some African countries and Vietnam appreciate the bitter, earthy flavors in robusta. Besides, some cultures have opted to blend the two types of coffee in a bid to enjoy flavors from both sides.
Typically, coffee trees grow well in tropical regions, especially in countries that are found between the tropic of Cancer and Capricorn, the region known as the bean belt by coffee fanatics.
Coffee plants can reach the height of 15 to 20 feet tall and usually look like evergreen shrubs.
Coffee trees are usually characterized by wide, glossy leaves with modestly looking white flowers that look like those of most citrus plants.
Coffee beans (or coffee cherries) then come out from the flowers. Usually, coffee beans are green when in their early stages of growth but will change colors to yellow, orange, and then red before weathering out.
With that, here is how coffee is made from seed to cup.
Step 1: Coffee Planting
Our bean to cup journey begins with planting the seed which is usually a single coffee bean.
Planting coffee isn’t just a process of burying a few seeds on the soil and expecting them to grow to become the coffee beans we buy in coffee shops.
Usually, after harvesting, some of the coffee berries are set aside to be used as seeds for coffee planting. The seeds are grown in nurseries where they are taken care of, watered, and protected from the sun- think about the seedlings you saw in your neighbors’ tree nursery or the one you have in your garden.
The seedlings stay in the nursery until they grow strong enough to endure the full sun when they are then transferred to the field- when they reach the height of between 18 and 24 inches.
Note that pruning is required to keep the coffee trees from growing tall to 20 feet as this could make harvesting a difficult task.
The coffee trees will be taken care of for around 4 years before they start to produce coffee berries, sometimes called cherries as they usually have cherry-like shape and color.
Ripe berries look bright with a deep red skin that encases a fleshy pulp and two small coffee beans located at the core and held by a protective cover.
Step 2: Coffee Harvesting and Picking
Once coffee trees grow strong in their nurseries to endure full sun, they are transferred to a large and open field where harvesting of the coffee berries can be done easily with machines.
Harvesting is usually done as a community affair where the whole family, friends, and other coffee farmers come together to help with the picking.
Coffee berries don’t mature at the same time and that’s why coffee harvesting and picking is done in stages.
You might have to come back to pick the ripe berries several times before you complete harvesting the first batch of planted coffee.
Coffee Harvesting Methods
Harvesting of coffee berries is done via two methods: selective harvesting and strip harvesting. The two methods have their good and bad sides.
Note that coffee berries are harvested once they are ripe- this is around 4 – 7 years after planting.
i. Selective Harvesting
Selective harvesting is the picking of the ripe coffee berries by hand. The unripe berries are left on the tree to be picked later when they are ready- this could be after 1 week or two. Also, overripe coffee is picked separately.
Selective coffee harvesting is done in cycles until all the ripe coffee is picked completely from the field.
Usually, pickers will have baskets hung around their waists. It’s quite a laborious process. Pickers will empty their full baskets into one large bag. The cherries will then be separated from debris that could have found their way into the collection bags and the coffee berries are transferred to weighing machines so that payment can be decided depending on the weight of the coffee berries.
The good thing about this method of harvesting coffee is that only the ripe coffee berries are picked. The less the unripe coffee berries are in the harvested coffee the higher the prices producers get.
In fact, this method of coffee harvesting is said to produce high-quality coffee fruits.
Selective Harvesting isn’t without its downsides though.
Since the method involves picking coffee berries by hand, it is labor-intensive and requires a lot of pickers who might not get good pay.
Sometimes pickers demand higher pay which becomes a challenge for coffee producers who aren’t able to afford the increase in wages. Besides, as many people are migrating from rural to urban areas, the available rural workforce also decreases.
ii. Strip Harvesting
Strip Harvesting is the other method of harvesting coffee. As the name suggests, with this method of harvesting coffee, the coffee berries are stripped from the coffee plant all at once. This means that both the ripe and unripe coffee berries are stripped from the coffee tree.
Strip harvesting is done in three ways:
a) Manual stripping
In this method, coffee berries are picked by hand where pickers where all the coffee berries are harvested in a canvas and then transferred to the coffee bags for weighing. Usually, payment is based on the weight or volume of coffee fruits picked.
b) Mechanical stripping
This method of strip harvesting works the same as the first but as the name suggests, this one involves some mechanical aid.
Pickers use derricadeiras, mechanical tools that resemble Freddie Kruger’s hands fixed to a weed whacker.
In this method, coffee berries are harvested in a canvas and then pickers use mechanical strippers to hit the coffee berries. From there, the coffee is then transferred to collection bags and weighed.
c) Mechanical harvesters
The third method of strip harvesting coffee is done with mechanical harvesters. Mechanical harvesters are machines that were first used in the early 1970s and use vibrating and rotating mallets to separate the coffee fruit from the tree by hitting then the fruits are put into collection containers.
The machines can be adjusted to reduce the harvesting of unripe beans by reducing the speed and vibration rates of the mechanical harvesters.
Also, the bottom mallets can be taken out at the initial harvesting as the coffee at the upper part of the tree ripens quickly.
Once the harvesting of the upper part of the beans is completed, the lower mallets can then be fixed to harvest the berries at the bottom of the coffee tree.
The good thing about Strip Harvesting is that it doesn’t require a lot of pickers. Besides, harvesting is done fast because machines are used instead of human labor.
The downsides of this method of harvesting coffee fruits is that it leads to higher levels of maturation as both ripe and unripe coffee berries are harvested. The quality of the produce surfers which means the sale value also surfers hence producers get less profit.
So, which is the best method of harvesting coffee?
Undoubtedly, Selective Harvesting is the best method of harvesting coffee. Nevertheless, in areas where rural labor is insufficient and labor wages are higher, like in Brazil, Hawaii, and other regions, coffee producers have opted to use machines.
Ideally, the method of harvesting coffee depends entirely on the availability of pickers and the cost of harvesting.
Step 3: Coffee Sorting and Selecting
Once the coffee cherries have been stripped from the coffee tree, chances are that there are both the ripe and unripe ones. Also, there must be debris, leaves, and coffee tree branches that must be removed before the cherries are taken to the next stage.
This is where sorting and selecting takes place. This is usually done by specialists and is done either manually or mechanically where an optical lens is used to identify color differences which set aside the ripe and unripe cherries.
When sorting is done manually, the beans are winnowed or passed through a large filter so that only the beans are left.
During this stage, water may also be used to make sure only the ripe and good berries are used. In this case, the cherries are immersed in a water tank to allow the unripe cherries to float to the top so that they can be removed easily.
Once the unripe and overripe cherries have been removed and only the ripe ones are left, pulping is done.
Step 4: Pulping/Crushing The Cherries
The cherries are then crushed to remove the skin and mucilage that covers the beans.
Here, a machine is used to mechanically get rid of the skin of the coffee cherry. The pulp and outer cover is used as compost but some people make tea from the skins. From here, the beans are ready for fermenting.
Step 5: Initial Processing/Cherry Processing
Usually, cherries are processed immediately after harvesting to avoid spoilage. Certain factors will determine how the cherries will be processed which include the available resource, location, etc. The two coffee processing methods used are:
i. The dry method
The dry, ‘unwashed’ or natural method of processing albeit being the oldest is the simplest and still popular in regions with a scarcity of water. In fact, more than 60% of the world’s coffee is dry processed. This method of cherry processing is popularly used by producers with small scale farms.
Here, harvested cherries are spread out on a large compound under the direct hot sun and are left for around 15 to 20 days. The cherries are spread on drying beds where air circulates freely and are raked and turned multiple times each day to make sure they dry completely and prevent fermentation.
During the night, the berries are covered to keep them from coming into contact with moisture and in the event of rain.
Dry processing can take up to 3 weeks but sometimes the period can be less than that depending on the weather. The moisture content of the picked cherries needs to be less than 11% before storage. Once the cherries have dried completely, the outer cover will change to black and fragile. At this stage, you can easily take out the outer layer.
ii. The wet method
Wet processing also known as the ‘washed’ method is the opposite of dry processing. This is the latest method of removing the out layer of the coffee cherries where plenty of fresh water is used.
The freshwater helps to both clean the cherries and remove unripe and overripe cherries, the same way as the first method.
In this method, the picked cherries are put into large tanks filled with fresh water to soften the outer case and pulp. From there, the cherries are emptied into a pulping machine where the husk and pulp are removed and washed away from the encased beans (perhaps that’s why it is called ‘washed’ method). This is done carefully to prevent damaging the beans.
The beans are then hand-picked by weight through water channels and by size in rotating drums. The sorted beans are then put into large water-filled tanks and are left to sit for around 48 hours and enzymes are added to aid in the removal of the sticky substance. While in the large water-filled tanks, beans are stirred regularly to dissolve the mucilage completely.
As a rule, the mucilage needs to be removed completely so that the beans are left with the flavor they had before wet processing was done. Once the mucilage has dissolved, the beans are washed frequently to get rid of any outer skin left.
The beans are then spread in dry sun for around two days, much the same as the Dry Method.
In the event there is no sun, the beans are dried in large drying machines to speed up the drying time.
From here, the beans are classified into different grades.
How Producers Decide The Processing Method to Use
Ideally, coffee producers strive to produce the most profitable, delicious, and flavorful coffee as possible. However, sometimes this is affected by the environment in which cherry processing is done.
To decide what processing method to use, producers will often be guided by the amount of rain that has fallen.
In this case, if there is too much rain, producers cannot use dry processing. If there are no rains, producers use dry processing.
Step 6: Storage
After cherries have been harvested and dried the final product you have is parchment coffee- these are the coffee beans with an outer layer.
Depending on the temperature and humidity of the surrounding, green coffee beans can stored for many months and years.
The beans are stored in sacks on pallets with good air circulation and away from any moisture.
As a rule parchment coffees are stored in a cool, dry, dark place.
Step 7: Milling
Coffee milling is the last stage in the coffee processing journey and is meant to remove the little coffee beans from the skin.
The dried coffee beans (parchment coffee) are put through two milling processes namely:
Hulling: Where the dried husk (exocarp, mesocarp, and endocarp) is removed.
Polishing: Where any silver skin that could have remained after the hulling process is removed. Sometimes this process is skipped by millers as it is optional anyway.
i. Coffee hulling process
This process is meant to separate the parchment skin, also known as ‘pergamino’ from the coffee bean.
Usually, the parchment is the outer papery substance in a coffee bean.
Once the coffee cherries have dried the parchment skin becomes dry and can easily be taken out.
If wet processing was used, hulling will help to get rid of the dried husk covering the coffee bean (the exocarp, mesocarp and endocarp/parchment).
During coffee hulling, coffee beans are put into a machine called a ‘huller’ where they are milled to get rid of the coffee parchment encasing the beans and the skin and any cover that could have remained after dry processing.
This is done carefully to avoid damaging the beans.
If dry processing is used, dried coffee cherries are stored in special silos in bulk until they are taken to the mill for them to be hulled, sorted, graded, and bagged. With the other cherry processing methods, hulling is done immediately after coffee cherries are dried.
ii. Coffee polishing process
As mentioned above, coffee polishing is optional and is usually done to remove any silver skin that could have remained after coffee cherries were dried. This leaves the coffee beans shining. It doesn’t make any difference to the taste though.
After coffee beans are hulled, the remaining coffee beans are dry and light brown. Now, this is where the coffee world leaves coffee drinkers confused because these brown beans are called ‘green coffee’
Step 8: Coffee Grading / Cupping
Before the whole batch is taken for roasting, coffee is graded.
Did you know that there are people who are paid to taste coffee?
Yes, they watch the beans closely for a while and can tell the quality of the coffee beans just by their appearance.
Small quantities of the beans will be roasted in a lab roaster, crushed, and then dissolved in hot water. The beans are left dissolved in the boiling water for a few minutes then the taster ‘cupper’ will smell and taste the coffee.
Usually, the process is called ‘nosing’ and is meant to grade coffee based on its quality and suitability to be used with other coffees.
Step 9: Distribution
The coffee you usually enjoy was probably transported from the place it was produced and processed, to where you bought it, via planes, trains, or automobiles. This happens in the distribution stage in the journey from seed to cup.
The green beans are sold in smaller batches in bulk to different sellers and distributors until they reach your local coffee roasters.
Sometimes when there are many links in the distribution chain, the gap between the consumer and the producer widens such that the middlemen benefit more than the farmer.
This can also affect the standards set during the production of coffee by the farmers. That’s why organizations have been formed to allow farmers to sell directly and fairly to consumers in what is called direct trade and fair trade.
Fair Trade Organizations aid coffee producers by offering them favorable trading conditions.
Here are the two methods of coffee trade:
i. Direct trade
Direct trade is where the traders that sell coffee to consumers source it directly from the farmers/producers. This is meant to help the farmer get a better price by eliminating middlemen in the distribution chain.
ii. Fair trade
The organizations tasked with facilitating fair trade consider several factors including labor practices, ecologically friendly agricultural practices, etc.
As you can see, the few the middlemen in the distribution channel the better the price the producer gets on their produce.
Step 10: Roasting
Roasting is the process meant to give the coffee beans unique flavor and aroma. This usually happens after the beans have been distributed to your local roasters.
Coffee roasting is a tricky process though and when not done correctly; it can hurt the flavors and aromas in your cup of coffee.
Here, coffee roasters take into account the acidity, flavors of the coffee batches, and then adjust the roasting temperature and duration to keep everything (acidity and flavors) balanced or improved.
Usually, beans are roasted in a coffee roaster with temperature up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Depending on the time taken during the roasting process, you will end up with Medium, Full, or Darker roasts.
Once the beans have been roasted, they are then cooled by water or air.
The Physical Changes During Coffee Roasting
Roasting is the process of converting the green seed to the aromatic, delicious, and flavorful bean we make coffee with.
There are certain physical changes that happen during the process.
When beans are roasted, they are transformed physically and chemically.
Usually, coffee beans are dense and solid. But when roasted, they change physically. Here are the physical changes that take place when coffee beans are roasted.
Before coffee beans are roasted, they are blue-green. But after roasting, they change to brown due to the formation of melanoidins. Melanoidins are the compounds produced when sugars and amino acids are heated together.
The silver skin will also get out during roasting. The final color of the beans is what consumers and roasters use to classify the beans according to quality and profile.
Size & Porosity
The cell walls of coffee beans are perhaps the strongest of all the plants in the same species. The walls have outer rings that strengthen the cell to keep them stiffer.
During roasting, as the beans are put under higher temperatures and the water is transformed into gas, the pressure levels inside the beans increases.
This way the structure of the cell becomes rubbery.
The inner part pushes out toward the cell walls and the center part is left with gas. This increases the bean volume and reduces the mass.
Roasting also makes the beans more permeable and less dense and can dissolve the flavors and aromas easily when infused in hot water- that’s why your cup of coffee is delicious
Moisture & Mass
Processed and dried beans have 10-12% water, but when roasted, the water reduces to 2.5%.
The loss of water and conversion of some dry matter into gases reduces the overall mass after roasting.
Coffee beans are rich in oils and lipids. Since coffee roasting involves high temperatures, the higher pressure at the center makes these compounds to move from the center to close to the surface of the beans.
Step 11: Packaging
After coffee beans are roasted there is no time to waste. The coffee beans are easily spoiled by air or moisture. That’s why it’s important to package them properly.
To keep the roasted beans from coming into contact with air and moisture, they are packaged in air-tight bags to allow them to stay fresh for the time they will stay on the shelf.
Why Roasters Use a One-Way CO2 Valve?
The roasted beans need to be packaged in an opaque material to protect them against UV rays. Some materials have a one-way valve.
Note that even after roasting, coffee beans will still de-gas and that’s why the one-way valve is included in the packaging material as it allows carbon dioxide to escape the bag and prevents oxygen from coming inside.
But sometimes the one-way valves aren’t good as they allow volatile aromatics to escape together with the carbon dioxide but due to the gas that accumulates inside the bag, it’s important that it is left to escape, lest the bag of coffee explodes.
Step 12: Grinding
As usual, coffee grinding should be done with a good coffee grinder right before brewing coffee.
For instance, if you intend to use a French Press, then you need to grind your beans fairly coarsely. Medium to medium-fine grinds is suitable for drip coffee makers.
If you use an espresso machine then grind your beans super fine.
Even though blade grinders don’t cost too much, you’d better use a burr grinder as this will give you more consistent and finer grinds.
Burr grinders are also less-noisy especially if you will have to brew coffee early in the morning when neighbors are still asleep.
Step 13: Brewing
How coffee is made from seed to cup ends here.
Brewing is the art of making coffee after grinding the beans.
Note that while this is the final stage, it can make or break all the hard work and effort put in all the other stages above.
This is where one needs to use a suitable coffee maker to brew a delicious and flavorful cup of coffee.
Step 14: Drinking
Chances are that when drinking that delicious cup of coffee you have never spared a thought for the amount of work and time it takes before it gets to you.
After thousands of miles and 13 steps from seed to cup, what started as a bean grown near the equator has now been transformed into a collection of flavors scents all in once cup?
The next time you enjoy your espresso shot, a cup of cold brew or cortado, think about the farmers, pickers, tasters, distributors, roasters, and many others involved in the seed to cup journey on how coffee is made.
How Coffee Is Made: FAQs
How is coffee made from beans?
Coffee berries are first picked, processed then dried. The unripe and overripe ones are separated before and only the ripe ones are dried and roasted, packaged, and ground. The grinds are then brewed with water boiled to a certain temperature hence coffee is made.
How is coffee processed?
Coffee processing is the act of taking out the bean from the fruit.
The two main coffee processing methods are dry, also known as ‘unwashed’ or natural processing where coffee cherries are dried under the sun before the fruit is crushed to remove the bean; wet, also known as ‘washed’ processing where water is used to take out the bean from the cherry and then spread under the sun for drying.
How many times can you harvest coffee beans?
Harvesting of coffee is done in cycles since it doesn’t ripe at once. Normally, depending on the coffee type, newly planted coffee trees will take approximately 3 to 4 years to produce fruit.
The fruit produced is what it called coffee cherry and will be bright, deep red when it is ready for harvesting. Harvesting is done once per year.
During harvesting, coffee pickers will return back typically after 8 to 10 days to pick ripe coffee throughout the harvest season for around 4 to 6 months.
What is the difference between washed and unwashed coffee?
Washed coffee is high-quality coffee but the washed method requires skill and water. Besides, the washed method produces fruitier, brighter and cleaner coffee.
On the other hand, unwashed coffee results in complex, smooth and heavy-bodied coffee.
What are the 4 types of coffee beans?
The four main types of coffee beans currently in the market are Arabica, Robusta, and the less known Liberica and Excelsa.
What is washed coffee processing?
Washed coffee processing also known as wet processing is when coffee cherries are put into a tank full of fresh water in a bid to remove the fruit covering the seeds.
What is the best container to store coffee in?
To store coffee properly, always use an opaque glass, non-reactive metal or ceramic container with an airtight seal.
If you use clear glass or plastic containers, keep them away from sunlight.
How long can you store coffee beans?
If you want your beans to have a longer shelf life then store them in an airtight container away from air, moisture, and sunlight. This way, your whole bean can last up to nine months and instant coffee can stay for up to twenty years before they become stale.
What is milling coffee?
Milling coffee is usually done in two ways:
Coffee hulling: The act of removing the whole dried husk (exocarp, mesocarp, and endocarp) from the dried coffee cherries.
Coffee polishing: Where any silver left on the beans after hulling is removed by machine. The first process of milling coffee (hulling) is a must but the second one (polishing) is optional.
What are the grades of coffee?
Typically, high-quality coffee is graded A, AA, AAA or grade one. From there, we have the A grade, AB grade, X grade, and Y grade (unroasted beans that are green/low-quality coffee).
There you have it: How Coffee Is Made – 14 Steps From Seed to Cup.
Have you ever tried to imagine the steps coffee takes from the time the seed is grown until the time you enjoy it from the comfort of your coaches?
Well, you could be forgiven to think that coffee doesn’t take a whole lot more before it becomes the delicious cup you kick start your day with.
But from our article, you can see that coffee goes through laborious and involving steps.
Did you like our article? Do you think we skipped a step?
If so, drop us a line in the comment section below.