Despite consuming it every day, most of us may still be searching for answers to even basic coffee questions like: Where do coffee beans come from? How is coffee processed or made? And so on.
The journey your beans take before reaching your cafetiere or bean to cup machine is a long one. So read on to find out more!
- Popular exporters of coffee include Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Vietnam, Uganda and Ethiopia.
- Countries that are nearer the equator tend to be better for growing coffee beans.
- Arabica coffee is grown as bushes at high altitudes and rainy climates.
- Robusta coffee is grown as trees and can thrive even in lower altitudes and slightly drier climates.
Only specific climates and altitudes are conducive to growing coffee beans.
This means that coffee is usually grown in warmer climates where the temperature never drops below 15°C (59°F) and that experiences 1500-3000 mm (60-118 inches) of annual rainfall.
The countries that produce coffee are all located near the equator such as South America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Arabia. With some of the biggest coffee exporters being Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Vietnam, Uganda and Ethiopia.
The specific conditions of each country’s climate impact its coffee plants and their flavours. Of course, each coffee manufacturer will strive for their own unique set of nuances. But below are some of the main flavours you can find in different places:
Brazil: Many people describe Brazilian coffee as having a nutty taste to it and being heavy-bodied (or “strong tasting”).
Central America: Places like Costa Rica and Guatemala are known for their light and sweet tasting coffee beans.
Colombia: These coffee beans can often be characterized through their signature caramel tones and chocolatey hints.
Indonesia and Vietnam: Unlike most other countries, the Robusta coffee bean species is grown here. Meaning the coffee beans tend to be less acidic but heavy with a smoky, woody element a little like unsweetened dark chocolate.
Kenya and Ethiopia: The coffee from Africa is renowned for juicy and fruity notes; some can find it a little tart and acidic in comparison to Brazilian coffee.
The beans we commonly use for mainstream coffee are the Arabica species and the Robusta species.
Arabica tends to be used in premium, artisan coffee and looks more like a bush with dark green, waxy leaves and red cherry-like berries.
Arabica usually grows better at higher altitudes and can often be seen to be growing in hilly areas. In spite of being more challenging to grow, it still makes up roughly 60% of global coffee production.
Robusta tends to be used for mass-produced coffee. It grows similar berries to Arabica. But unlike Arabica, Robusta grows as trees that can reach up to 10 m (33 ft) high.
Robusta can be grown between sea level and about 800 metres. And it can thrive in harsher, hotter environments with temperatures up to 30°C (80°F).
It takes around 3-4 years for the newly planted coffee trees to bear fruit.
The Arabica plant self-pollinates making it fairly easy to grow for farmers. However, because it thrives at higher altitudes, farmers are usually farming on hillsides and so machinery becomes more of a struggle.
And although the Robusta species can grow to 10 m (33 ft), farmers often keep it at a hand-picking level. Doing so helps the Robusta plant in its cross-pollination.
The most common way to harvest coffee beans is by hand-picking. After all, compatible harvesting machinery isn’t always readily available for hilly farmland terrain.
Employed pictures wait until the cherries on the coffee bean tree or bush (depending on the species) turns a deep red colour. This colour means that the beans are ripe.
There’s usually one large harvest a year but some countries can see their coffee plants flower twice a year. Curious about what it’s like for the coffee growers and the workers? Find out more in our article on fair-trade coffee.
How Does Coffee End up in My Cup?
As you’ve probably expected, there is a lot of work that goes into the coffee bean process. We’ll try to summarise it in a succinct way, but if you’d like to learn more, check out our guide to how coffee is made.
- Cultivating – The coffee cherries on short trees and bushes.
- Harvesting – The cherries are then picked when fully ripe and red.
- Processing – The cherries using either the “wet method” or “dry method”. The bean is then separated from the pulp of the cherry.
- Fermenting – The beans are then fermented in a big tank to ensure any leftover skin is broken down and all that’s left is a bean that feels rough to the touch.
- Milling the beans – Depending on how the beans were processed, this is where either the parchment layer of the cherry or the dried husk is removed using milling machinery.
- Sorting and ranking – The beans are filtered to remove any that are defective, damaged, or too small.
- The beans are then bagged and transported to different organisations where rigorous coffee tasting will take place.
- Once the coffee beans have received the tasting approval; they’re roasted into the aromatic brown bean that we’re used to buying. Roasting usually takes place within the imported countries so freshly roasted beans meet the consumer as quickly as possible.
- Finally, the coffee is ground either by you at home, a coffee shop or a production company for instant coffee.
Coffee is believed to have originated from Ethiopia where there is a widely known story of a farmer that accidentally discovered it. According to the tale, the Ethiopian farmer noticed his goats always became more energetic after they had eaten the berries on the coffee tree.
But the earliest officially recorded mention of coffee is in the 10th century by the Persian physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi. Historians believe coffee was then brought to Europe through trade in the 15th century, and eventually reached America in the 18th century.
Brazil is by far the largest coffee producer. In 2020 alone, it produced a staggering 4.3 million 60-kg sacks of coffee! In other words, 258 million kilograms (roughly 569 million pounds) by itself.
The second largest coffee supplier is Vietnam. And while it still produced an impressive 2.3 million 60-kg sacks of coffee in 2020, it’s still at approximately half of what Brazil produces annually.
Brazil has has held its reigning title of “largest coffee producer” since the 1800s. The rapid growth in export may well have been due to the wealth and large amounts of plantation owners in Brazil combined with the easy transport access to America where coffee was in high demand. To learn more about the history of coffee; check out our article on the colonisation of coffee.
Brazil is also an excellent climate for coffee being that it produces coffee beans with lower acidity, which thus makes them more palatable. Brazil also happens to be the 5th biggest country in the world with a lot of flat terrain for industrial level farming.
Processing the bean means to wash the parchment, skin, and pulp off the bean. There are different ways to process coffee but the three most common ways are washed, natural, or honey. Let’s break each method down:
- Washed: Perhaps the most common technique. The bean is placed in a fermentation tank and allowed to dry out while any skin or pulp residue breaks down. It is then washed with clean water and left to dry out on raised beds.
- Natural: This process is called the “natural way” because the sun pretty much does all the work. Ripe berries are left to dry out slowly. Once completely dry, any leftover fruit is stripped away with a depulping machine. Because the fruit has been left on the bean for so long; this coffee tends to taste juicier.
- Honey: Honeyed beans are left out to dry but any pulp and fruit left on the beans remain. The end product is a bean that still has fruity residue on it. This method is becoming increasingly popular thanks to its sweet and fruity taste.
Surprised about the time and effort that went into the cup of coffee you’re drinking right now?
Most people are. As coffee becomes more artisan, coffee processing becomes ever more detailed and intricate.
So if you’re fascinated and want to learn more, check out the different types of coffee you can explore. Or learn more about how much caffeine is in your coffee as well as how much you (and the average person in your country) consumes per day!