Wednesday, 13 August 2014 13:20

Coffee: How does coffee grow? How is coffee made?

Coffee may be the most highly celebrated and consumed bean across the globe (technically, it’s actually a seed)... However, despite the fact that countless people around the world include the rich, aromatic beverage in their daily routines, most know very little about the manner in which coffee makes its journey from seed to cup.

Let’s explore this fascinating process.

  • Latin Name:


  • Growth:

    It is estimated that there are anywhere between 25 and 100 species of coffee plants, but in the commercial coffee industry there are only two main species, arabica and canephora--the latter of which is more commonly known as robusta. Coffee arabica represents approximately 70% of  coffee produced, while robusta accounts for the other 30% of the world’s coffee.

    Nearly all coffee is grown between latitudes 25 degrees north and 30 degrees south of the Equatorial zone, where high altitudes, mild tropical climates, frequent rain and rich soil are most conducive to the coffee tree’s growth.

    Coffee derives from the genus Coffea, which contains over 500 genera and 6,000 species of tropical trees and shrubs. Coffee plants can range from small shrubs to tall trees, with leaves that vary in size from ½” to 15” in size.

    Although they are capable of growing up to 30’ high, coffee trees are generally pruned short for cultivation. The leaves of most coffee trees and shrubs grow in waxy green pairs, opposite each another, and coffee cherries grow along the tree’s branches changing from green to red as they ripen. It takes the cherry approximately a year to mature after the tree’s white, fragrant flowers blossom. Like the cacao seed, coffee grows in a continuous cycle, with all stages of development from flower to ripe fruit present on the tree year-round. However, in most coffee producing countries, there is only one harvest per year.


  • Harvest:

    It takes a freshly planted coffee tree approximately 3 to 4 years to begin producing fruit after it has been planted. In most countries where coffee is produced, coffee cherries are picked from the tree by hand, although in some areas the process is mechanized.

    There are two methods by which coffee is harvested: It can either be strip picked or selectively picked. In the strip picking method, all cherries are removed from the branch simultaneously, either by hand or machine. In the selective picking method, only ripe cherries are harvested with pickers rotating between the trees every 8 to 10 days. Because this method is more labor intensive and costly, it is used primarily to harvest finer arabica coffee beans.

    Processing the Cherries

    The ripe red coffee beans are called cherries and must be processed quickly after they are picked, otherwise spoilage occurs. There are two methods by which coffee cherries are processed, known as the dry and wet process methods.

    The dry method is used in countries where water resources are limited. The cherries are laid outdoors to dry in the sun immediately after they are harvested, then raked and turned throughout the day. They are covered when it rains and at night to prevent any moisture from re-entering the fruit. This process may take up to several weeks, depending on the climate and weather conditions in the area where the cherries have been harvested. Once the moisture level has been reduced to 11% the dried cherries are transported to warehouses for storage.

    The wet process involves several steps through which the pulp is removed from the freshly harvested cherry and the bean is then dried with only the cherry’s parchment skin still intact. The cherries are first run through a machine that separates the pulp and skin from the coffee bean. The pulp is then washed away with water, and the beans are passed through water channels where they are separated by weight. As the heavier, ripe beans sink to the bottom lighter beans float to the surface. Next, a series of rotating drums further separates the beans by size before they are transported to large, water-filled fermentation tanks where they remain from 12 to 48 hours to remove the last layer of mucilage (or parenchyma) from the parchment skin. The beans are rinsed once more after fermentation, and then laid out either in the sun or on warehouse floors, where they are left to dry until they reach 11% moisture. Once dried, these beans are referred to as “parchment coffee”.


    Milling and Preparation for Shipment

    After drying, coffee undergoes a machinated milling process. The entire dried husk of the cherry must be removed from dry processed coffee beans at this stage in production, whereas only the parchment layer must be removed from a wet processed bean. Some beans then undergo an optional polishing process, although this makes no marked difference in anything but the aesthetic quality of the bean.

    Following milling, coffee beans are graded and sorted by size and weight, and inspected for flaws and imperfections. Beans of unsatisfactory size or color, or with any other imperfections such as insect damage or over-fermentation, are removed either by machine or by hand as they run along an electric conveyor belt prior to shipment.

    Once they have undergone the milling process, coffee beans are known as “green coffee” and are ready to be transported.

    Roasting and “Cupping”

    Throughout the entire production process, coffee must undergo repeated taste tests to ensure its quality. These tests are performed at each stage in production by a “cupper” who evaluates the beans before roasting. They are then roasted in a small and controlled laboratory roaster that analyzes qualities of the coffee including its “nose” (aroma) and taste. When the samples pass inspection during the green coffee stage of production, the batch is finally ready to be roasted in the final stage of coffee preparation.

    Green coffee must be roasted before it reaches the rich, aromatic brown beans that consumers purchase for brewing. Roasted coffee beans are sold either whole or ground, depending on consumers’ preferred brewing method.

    Most roasting machines maintain a temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, with coffee kept moving throughout the entire process to prevent it from burning. When coffee beans reach 400 degrees Fahrenheit, they begin to turn brown and the oil locked inside of them, known as caffeol, begins to emerge.

    The roasting process used to release the caffeol is known as pyrolysis. Once beans are removed from the roaster, they are immediately cooled by air or water. Roasted beans must reach the consumer as quickly as possible after they have undergone pyrolysis. Due to this, green coffee beans are usually roasted in the country to which they have been exported.


  • History:

    Coffee traces its heritage to Africa, where the original domesticated coffee plant is said to have been grown in Harar, in eastern Ethiopia. However, the first documentation of coffee drinking and commerce occurred in the mid-fifteenth century in the Yemeni district of southern Arabia.

    By the middle of the sixteenth century, coffee had spread to Egypt, Persia, Turkey and Syria. In the Middle East, public coffee houses called qahveh khaneh became important social gathering places, establishing coffee--sometimes referred to as the “Wine of Araby”--as the focal point of culture and commerce.

    Coffee made its way to Europe by the 17th century and found similar popularity in coffee houses such as the “penny universities” in London, where one could purchase a cup of coffee for a penny and engage in intellectual conversations with fellow coffee drinkers. The beverage made its way to the New World by way of the colonists in the 1700s.

    As demand for coffee increased in the 17th and 18th centuries, European countries sought to wrestle away the Arabian monopoly on coffee, and plantations emerged in their own tropical-climate territories. The Dutch were the first to successfully grow coffee trees in what is now modern-day Indonesia. Through the Dutch and the French, coffee production spread throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America during the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Today, coffee is a multibillion dollar industry throughout the world. Approximately seven million tons of green coffee is produced worldwide each year.

  • Top Producers:

    The top five green coffee producers, according to statistics provided by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2011, are: Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

  • Varieties:

    There are two major varieties of coffee known as coffee arabica and coffee robusta (canephora).

    Coffee arabica constitutes approximately 70% of the world’s coffee production, and on the world market generally demands a higher price than coffee robusta. This is because arabica coffees are grown at higher altitudes (2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level) where the terrain is more difficult to access, and the growing conditions produce a finer, milder aromatic coffee. Arabica trees require much more care and attention than robusta coffee.

    Coffee robusta is generally grown in western and central Africa and in southeast Asia. These plants are more hearty and disease- and parasite-resistant than coffee arabica, making them easier and thus less costly to cultivate. The robusta can withstand higher temperatures than arabica and can grow at lower altitudes. Robusta coffee also contains approximately 50 to 60 percent more caffeine than arabica coffee varieties. It is primarily used for blends and instant coffees. Coffee robusta accounts for as much as 30% of the world’s coffee.

    One very strange and controversial variety of coffee is called kopi luwak - it is made from the excrement of civet cats that eat a diet strictly limited to coffee beans.  The civets are caged and force fed the beans.  Theoretically, as the beans pass through the digestive system of the cat, they are broken down and fermented by natural enzymes in order to enhance the taste.  They cost five times the amount of normal coffee beans, yet professional cuppers (tasters) have unanimously agreed that the taste is distinctly inferior to that of traditionally harvested coffees.  The higher cost seems to reflect the rarity of the coffee rather than the taste. The controversy stems from the poor conditions in which the civets are kept: small cages, limited diet, isolation from other cats - all leading to high mortality rates.

  • Top Health Benefits:

    The health benefits and risks:


    - Increases energy levels and brain function.
    - Less likelihood of having Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease or dementia.
    - Fewer cases of liver and colorectal cancers, heart rhythm problems and strokes.
    - Coffee is high in antioxidants, nutrients that help prevent tissue damage caused by oxygen-free radicals.
    - Coffee contains magnesium and chromium which help the body metabolize insulin and control blood sugar. It also contains vitamins B2 and B5.
    - Lowers the risk of liver diseases and depression.


    - Coffee may increase blood pressure in those with elevated blood pressure.
    - Adding cream and sugar to coffee adds calories and fats that may increase cholesterol levels and contribute to obesity.

    -There is no correlation between coffee drinking and increased rates of cancer and heart disease as previously believed.

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