Most everyone is familiar with the morning pick-me-up drink known as coffee. But do you know how its farmed, harvested and processed before it is roasted to produce your latte? Here’s a short tutorial to illustrate just how labor intensive it really is.
Type of Coffee Plants
Coffee comes from one of two plants in the genus Coffea; these are Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta (or Coffea canephora, depending on which botanist you ask). Of the two, it is arabica that is the most appreciated for its deeper flavor and richer qualities, though some regions such as Vietnam and parts of Africa prefer the bitter, earthy flavors in robusta.
While arabica makes up 70% of the world’s coffee supply, some cultures are beginning to find a new appreciation for robusta and are blending the two species of beans for unique flavors.
The coffee plants are evergreen shrubs that can grow up to 15-20 feet tall. Their wide, glossy leaves and simply looking, white flowers are similar to that of the flowers on most citrus plants in appearance. The flowers eventually give way to the beans, often called coffee cherries, that begin green, then ripen to yellow, orange, and then red before drying out.
How Coffee Is Processed
Before coffee ends up in your cup, it has to go through numerous processing steps. First, the green beans are picked by hand. Since they grow in such small clusters and the plants are so big and bushy, and often planted in tropical rainforests, mechanical harvesting is rarely an option and often harms the coffee bean in the process. The beans are dried out before milling.
Then the coffee goes through a wet process or dry process. In the wet process, lots of water is used to separate the good beans from the bad ones and remove the mucilage that surrounds the bean. This method is often seen as ecologically unsound as the wastewater is considered a pollutant.
In the dry process, the coffee beans are dried on large cement slabs out in the sun. The dried beans are then milled and hulled. The dry method can bring out some of the richer flavors in the beans but is more persnickety as the beans can turn brittle if too dry and mold if not dried enough.
After cleaning, the beans are milled to remove the rest of their fruit from the bean. The beans are then sorted, graded based on color and size, and shipped around the world.
At this point, the coffee beans are roasted in order to bring out their flavors. The amount of roasting greatly affects the flavor by caramelizing the various tannins, sugars, and proteins. Once the coffee beans are roasted, they can be packaged for sale.
How does the farming altitude affect coffee?
Have you ever been in a grocery store and noticed an elevation description on the coffee packaging? Or have you seen coffee labeled Altura, SHB, and HG?
The altitude at which a bean is grown has an affect on the beans flavor. Coffee grown at higher elevations tends to be of higher quality, and with that high quality comes more complex flavor notes than coffee grown at lower elevations. Why is this so, you ask?
The difference in flavor and quality is due to two factors, water and temperature. At higher altitudes cooler temperatures slow down the growth rate of the coffee plant. At a slower growth rate the plants focus more on reproduction. The plant then devotes more energy to bean production which in turn produces more of the sugars that create those amazing tasting notes in your favorite coffee. Higher elevations also have better drainage than places lower in the watershed. Better drainage leads to less water in the beans concentrating the flavors created by the sugars.
So what altitude should you look for when picking out beans? Well it’s really up to you and your flavor preferences. Beans that are grown at higher altitudes, above 1,300 meters (4,500 feet), tend to be more “acidic” and translate to flavors like fruits and berries in the cup. This may be labeled as SHB, super hard bean, or Altura, which is Spanish for height. If you are looking for a coffee that is more mellow and has a smooth taste a bean grown at a lower altitude would be best. Take a look at the chart below and use it as guide to find your new favorite bean.