Coffee is 1 of the most popular beverages consumed round the world and is grown in several countries such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, India and Africa.
Although there are currently about 140 different species of coffee plants, only 2 main species make up the majority of the world’s coffee production. They are Coffea canephora (commonly known as Robusta coffee) and Coffea arabica (commonly known as Arabica coffee).
Grown at high altitude, Arabica coffee is floral or fruity in character, quite acidic, and with a low caffeine content. It is usually grown in subtropical regions in the 16-24 degree latitude range and equatorial regions with latitudes less than 10 degrees. Robusta Coffee, on the other hand, is characterized by a more intense bitter taste and stronger body, and usually grows at lower altitudes.
We’ve outlined below the key stages of growing, processing and distributing coffee from start to finish.
Stage 1 – Seed Planting
All coffee originate from coffee seeds, which spend their 1st year being grown in specially designed seed nurseries. Here, they are carefully planted, watered and sheltered from the sun, until they grow to between 18 to 24 inches in height.
Once that happens, they are then removed from the nurseries and planted in an open field, where they grow into mature coffee plants. After about 3 to 5 years, the plants begin to produce round coffee berries, which when ripe have a bright red skin covering a fleshy pulp and 2 coffee beans in the centre.
Stage 2 – Harvesting And Picking
The next stage will be the harvesting of the coffee berries, which is carried out using either the “Strip Picking” or “Selective Picking” method. Strip Picking is when all the berries are removed from the branches at one time, regardless of whether they are ripe or not, and it is done either by hand or by machine.
Selective Picking, on the other hand, is done only when the berries are fully ripe. In this method, only berries that are at the peak of ripeness are picked individually by hand, and this process is repeated several times every 8 to 10 days.
Stage 3 – Sorting
Once the berries are harvested, they are then sorted to ensure only the best beans pass onto the subsequent steps. Such sorting can be done either by hand or by using a large sieve to remove debris, stones and twigs.
Another method is via water immersion, where the berries are thrown into a tank of water and the density difference between ripe and unripe berries makes the unripe ones float to the top for extraction.
Stage 4 – Fermentation
The berries subsequently go through a fermentation process, where bacteria and yeasts break down the sugars in the pulp to produce acids.
There are 3 main ways of processing the berries during this fermentation stage – low fermentation (wet processing), medium fermentation (semi-washed) and high fermentation (dry process).
Low fermentation is the most common way of fermenting coffee. The skin and most of the pulp surrounding the beans are removed by a machine (pulping), and the beans are thrown into fermentation tanks. For medium fermentation, the berries also have their skins removed, but this time the sticky flesh layer of the pulp is left around the beans.
Lastly, for high fermentation, the berries do not go through the pulping process at all, but are instead spread out – skin and all – on a large even surface to ferment while drying in the sun.
Stage 5 – Drying
Regardless of the fermentation process used, the beans need to be dried until they reach a moisture content of around 11%, which normally takes about 2 – 4 weeks.
In the case of wet processing, the fermentation has already taken place and now it’s a matter of drying the beans. If however the berries went through the semi-washed or dry process, then it is at this point that the beans both dry out and ferment at the same time.
The beans also need to be raked regularly throughout the day, in order to get them to dry evenly and to ensure they do not develop mold or bacteria.
Stage 6 – Storage
Once the beans are properly dried, they can be stored for several months or even years, depending on the temperature and humidity of the surroundings. The beans are typically placed into sacks and stored on pallets, in a way that facilitates good airflow and keeps them away from any moisture.
Stage 7 – Milling And Grading
Milling is the next stage in the process where the coffee beans are brought out into the open with all of their other layers removed. The 2 main steps in the milling process are hulling and polishing.
During hulling, the beans are thrown into a machine which removes the thin layer of parchment covering the beans, as well as the skin and any leftover dried fruit. After that, the beans might go through an additional step of polishing, where the beans are made to look more shiny by removing the silver skin around them.
Once milling is completed, the beans are then assessed by professional coffee graders, who will grade the quality of the beans based on appearance, smell and taste.
Stage 8 – Distribution
Finally, after going through the abovementioned 7 stages, the coffee is now ready to be transported to various places where they are needed, by an integrated network of ships, planes, trains and trucks. It is at this stage where coffee is distributed all round the world, or across specific regions within countries.