Coffee: From Seed to Cup
Serving hundreds of coffees a day, it’s sometimes strange to think that our menu of delicious coffee drinks all originate from the soil and one small little seed – the coffee bean. When choosing coffee beans and blends, it’s helpful to know how the entire process works, from planting to harvesting and drying to milling, as each stage can have a strong effect on the final taste of the coffee you drink.
We’ve put together a 10-step guide to help you understand the entire coffee process and if you’re anything like us, it will just make you love your coffee that little bit more!
The 10 Stages of Coffee:
1. Planting & Growing
The coffee bean is actually a seed. When dried, roasted and ground, it’s used to brew coffee but if the seed isn’t processed, it can be planted to grow into another coffee tree. Coffee seeds are generally planted in large beds in shaded nurseries. The seedlings will be watered frequently and shaded from bright sunlight until they are hearty enough to be permanently planted. Planting often takes place during the wet season, so that the soil remains moist while the roots become firmly established.
The best coffee is grown at higher altitudes, typically between 4,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. The beans mature slowly at the higher elevations due to cooler nights, allowing the sugars to develop and creating a dense, sweeter coffee bean. Arabica coffee represents approximately 70% of the world’s coffee production and is typically grown between the Tropic of Capricorn (the southernmost latitude where the Sun can be directly overhead) and the Tropic of Cancer (the northernmost latitude). Coffee plants require mild temperatures – neither too hot nor too cold (a heavy frost will destroy the plants) and about 60 inches of rainfall yearly.
Depending on the variety, it can take up to four years for a newly planted coffee tree to bear fruit. The fruit – called the coffee cherry – turns a bright, deep red when it is ripe and ready to be harvested – usually about eight months after the flowers blossom. Typically, there’s one major harvest a year, though in countries like Colombia, where there are two flowerings annually, there is a main harvest and a secondary crop.
In most countries, the crop is picked by hand in a labor-intensive process, though in places like Brazil where the landscape is relatively flat and the coffee fields very expansive, the process has now been mechanized. Whether by hand or by machine, all coffee is harvested in one of two ways:
Strip Picked – all of the cherries are stripped off of the branch at one time, either by machine or by hand.
Selectively Picked – Only the ripe cherries are harvested, and they are picked individually by hand. Pickers rotate among the trees every 8-10 days, choosing only the cherries which are at the peak of ripeness. Because this kind of harvest is labor intensive and more costly, it is used primarily to harvest the finer Arabica beans.
A picker averages approximately 100-200 pounds of coffee cherries a day, which will produce just 20-40 pounds of coffee beans. Each worker’s daily haul is carefully weighed, and each picker is paid on the merit of his or her work. The day’s harvest is then transported to the processing plant.
3. Sorting & Processing
Once the coffee has been picked, processing begins as quickly as possible to prevent fruit spoilage. A preliminary sort is done to remove items like twigs, rocks, and unripe/overripe cherries. This sort is accomplished with screens and separation through floating in water. Depending on the location and local resources, coffee is then processed in one of two ways:
The Dry Method is the age-old method of processing coffee, and still used in many countries where water resources are limited. The freshly picked cherries are spread out on large surfaces to dry out in the sun. In order to prevent the cherries from spoiling, they are raked and turned throughout the day, then covered at night or during rain to prevent them from getting wet. Depending on the weather, this process might continue for several weeks for each batch of coffee until the moisture content of the cherries drops to 11%.
The Wet Method removes the pulp from the coffee cherry after its harvested, so the bean is dried with only the parchment skin left on. First, the freshly harvested cherries are passed through a pulping machine to separate the skin and pulp from the bean. Then the beans are separated by weight as they pass through water channels. The lighter beans float to the top, while the heavier ripe beans sink to the bottom. They are passed through a series of rotating drums which separate them by size. After separation, the beans are transported to large, water-filled fermentation tanks. Depending on a combination of factors – such as the condition of the beans, the climate and the altitude – they will remain in these tanks for anywhere from 12-48 hours to remove the slick layer of mucilage (called the parenchyma) that is still attached to the parchment. While resting in the tanks, naturally occurring enzymes will cause this layer to dissolve. Once fermentation is complete, the beans will feel rough to the touch and are rinsed by going through additional water channels, before they are ready for drying.
If the beans have been processed by the wet method, the pulped and fermented beans are now dried to approximately 11% moisture to properly prepare them for storage. These beans, still inside the parchment envelope (the endocarp), can be sun-dried by spreading them on drying tables or floors, where they are turned regularly, or they can be machine-dried in large tumblers. The dried beans are known as parchment coffee, and are warehoused in bags until they are readied for export.
5. Milling the Beans
Before being exported, parchment coffee is processed. Hulling machinery removes the parchment layer (endocarp) from wet processed coffee. Hulling dry-processed coffee refers to removing the entire dried husk – the exocarp, mesocarp and endocarp – of the dried cherries.
Polishing is an optional process where any silver skin that remains on the beans after hulling is removed by machine. While polished beans are considered superior to unpolished ones, in reality, there is little difference between the two. Grading and Sorting is done by size and weight, and beans are also reviewed for colour flaws or other imperfections. Beans are sized by being passed through a series of screens and are also sorted pneumatically by an air jet which separates the heavy from the light beans.
Defective beans are removed either by hand or by machinery. Beans that are unsatisfactory due to deficiencies (unacceptable size or color, over-fermented beans, insect-damaged, unhulled) are removed. In many countries, this process is done both by machine and by hand, ensuring that only the finest quality coffee beans are exported.
6. Exporting The Beans
The milled beans, now referred to as green coffee, are loaded onto ships in either jute or sisal bags and loaded in shipping containers, or bulk-shipped inside plastic-lined containers.
7. Tasting the Coffee
Coffee is repeatedly tested for quality and taste. This process is referred to as cupping and usually takes place in a room specifically designed to facilitate the process.
First, the taster (usually called the cupper) evaluates the beans for their overall visual quality. The beans are then roasted in a small laboratory roaster, immediately ground and infused in boiling water with carefully-controlled temperature. The cupper smells the brew to experience its aroma – an essential step in judging the coffee’s quality. After letting the coffee rest for several minutes, the cupper breaks the crust by pushing aside the grounds at the top of the cup. Again, the coffee is smelt before the tasting begins.
To taste the coffee, the cupper slurps a spoonful with a quick inhalation. The objective is to spray the coffee evenly over the cupper’s taste buds, and then weigh it on the tongue before spitting it out. Samples from a variety of batches and different beans are tasted daily. Coffees are not only analysed to determine their characteristics and flaws, but also for the purpose of blending different beans or creating the proper roast. An expert cupper can taste hundreds of samples of coffee a day and still taste the subtle differences between them!
Roasting the green beans chemically alters the hundreds of compounds found in a coffee bean and results in the rich aroma and flavor everyone loves. Roasting is generally performed in the importing countries because freshly roasted beans must reach the consumer as quickly as possible. Most roasting machines maintain a temperature of about 550 degrees Fahrenheit which seems pretty high, but the beans are kept moving throughout the entire process to keep them from burning.
When they reach an internal temperature of about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, they begin to turn brown and the caffeol (a fragrant oil locked inside the beans) begins to emerge. After a few minutes of roasting, popping sounds from inside the roaster indicate that the beans are well on their way to being properly roasted. The beans are undergoing a chemical process that includes a conversion of starches to sugars. This process called pyrolysis is at the heart of roasting and it produces the flavor and aroma of the coffee we drink.
Most of the coffee served in MCCC is roasted in Vancouver by Pallet and this close proximity to Whistler means the beans are extremely fresh when they get to us! Pallet’s delicate roasting process centres on the bean itself, taking into consideration its origin, varietal, and processing style: in this way Pallet are able to unlock the bean’s naturally unique characteristics. We opt for medium roast over a dark roast as the flavour profiles are more delicate and there is a much better balance between acidity and body. With a medium roast, you’ll still be able to taste the original coffee, but the beans’ brightness will be complemented with a fuller body that is introduced by the roasting process. When drinking a dark roast, you’re almost exclusively tasting notes from the roast alone. Because the original coffee’s qualities are mostly lost at this roast level, it’s difficult to pick out the characteristics of a specific coffee’s origin.
Using the right roasting equipment helps too; even the best coffee can be ruined when roasting with poor equipment. Pallet roast all their coffee using two Joper Roasters, a 3kg and 15kg, to ensure they can always get the best quality and quantity. With Joper’s state of the art roasting profile system and the ability to finely regulate and adjust both air flow and gas power, they are able to create roast profiles that efficiently bring out the amazing natural flavours and characteristics of the carefully selected coffee beans.
9. Grinding the Coffee
The objective of a proper grind is to get the most flavour possible into a cup of coffee and that is what we specialise in at MCCC. How coarse or how fine the coffee is ground depends on the particular brewing method. The length of time the grounds will be in contact with water determines the ideal grade of grind. Generally, the finer the grind, the more quickly the coffee should be prepared. That’s why coffee ground for an espresso machine is much finer than coffee brewed in a drip system.
At Mount Currie Coffee Co, we continually adjust the grind of our espresso coffee throughout the day, to make sure the flavour remains just right and the pour time is correct. Room temperature and how long the beans have been exposed to air, can all play a part in how the coffee responds to the grinding process. We make sure to keep all our coffee sealed whether in bags or in the grinder hoppers, to maintain absolute freshness.
In a drip coffee system, the contact time should be approximately five minutes – at MCCC our brew coffee usually takes four minutes to pour using exactly 100g of freshly ground coffee. For coffee using a French Press, the contact time should be between two and four minutes.
Espresso has an especially quick brew time – the coffee is in contact with the water for only 20-30 seconds – at MCCC we usually run 18-19g espresso shots for 28-30 seconds for our Pallet Benchmark and Decaf beans, and continually test the flavours throughout the day to see if anything needs adjusting. Just a few seconds to short or too long can dramatically alter the taste of the coffee – making it too bright or too bitter.
Cold brew, on the other hand, is usually steeped overnight for about 12 hours – giving it a rich flavour which isn’t too bitter. A good cold brew should offer a smooth, almost sweet flavor and texture (compared to hot brew) because cold water doesn’t extract the bitter compounds of coffee as readily as hot water does.
If you have any questions about the coffee we serve and how we make it, don’t hesitate to come in to our Whistler or Pemberton store and ask!