At one time or another, we have all heard people complaining about the price of coffee. More expensive than a gallon of gas, many wonder, if it is plentiful and grows on trees, why does it cost so much? Is the price justified? The short answer is yes, but if we just were going to answer the questions with one word, there wouldn’t be a need for an entire article, now would there?
In subsequent articles, we’ve highlighted the ideal growing conditions for coffee, how and where beans are grown and when their ideal harvest is. From there to coffee maker or espresso machine, however, are many, many steps. Each one is vital to its processing and no single one can be sped up or omitted.
Unlike some fruits and vegetables, when coffee beans are red and ready to harvest, a machine cannot come through the fields and pick them. For one thing, they are on a tree, but for another, beans don’t all mature simultaneously. As such, one branch may have anywhere between 10 and 50 beans (depending upon the variety) and each one ripens in its own time. This means that a person must come through several times on each tree until all the beans are picked. The consequences of picking green beans are two-fold. The taste is more bitter and like everything that grows on a tree, it’s just immature and not ready to consume. The full flavor hasn’t evolved yet. The other is that in all likelihood, whoever is purchasing these beans from a farmer will likely discard the green beans for the aforementioned reason.
If a farmer has between 100 and 200 or more trees on his or her farm, picking coffee, one bean at a time, is nothing if not laborious.
There are two types of processing methods: Wet and Dry. Utilizing the wet method requires first removing the skin from the fruit prior to drying. This can only be done by hand. The beans are then soaked in water and are sorted through a simple process of elimination. Bad or beans that aren’t fully ripened float to the top and the remainder will settle to the bottom. Next comes the fermenting and washing stage.
Any remaining pulp on the bean is carefully removed and discarded and then each bean is inspected, again, by hand for insects or otherwise undesirable objects. Using lots of water, several gallons, depending on how many beans one has, the beans are washed. This generally takes between 24 to 48 hours. At the conclusion of this process, beans should have gone from a slightly slimy texture to one that is hard and almost rock-like. The majority of farmers do this by hand. However, some of the more industrial processors do this by machine. It doesn’t speed the process, it just means it’s more automated.
The preferred method in Central and South America and in the Caribbean is dry processing. Sorted coffee beans are inspected for, again, anything undesirable – dirt, insects, leaves, whatever shouldn’t be in your coffee cup. Beans are then rinsed, rather than soaked and left out to dry in the sun. Using a rake, similar to that which you remove the leaves from your backyard, over the next few days the farmer will rake through the beans over and over again. As with anything, time is critical. Left in the sun too long, the beans will be too bitter and unpleasant, left too short, the flavor just won’t cut it. It’s a fine balance that only an experienced coffee farmer knows all too well. Another critical balance thing that applies to dry processing is being mindful of Mother Nature. Once you have decided to dry process your beans, allowing them to get soaked in the rain means you have ruined an entire batch. Given how often it rains in the tropics, where all coffee beans are grown, this means keeping a watchful eye out all the time. It can be sunny one moment and a flash rain can seemingly come from nowhere!
Once your coffee is dried, it’s now time to remove the outer layer of dry skin. There is something referred to as parchment that is between the bean and the original skin. After processing this will become cracked and must be removed.
Sorting and Cleaning
A third manual cleaning takes place of each bean to ensure they didn’t pick up anything whilst they were drying or being wet processed. Then beans are sorted according to size. Next they are sorted by color: darker beans in this bin, medium in another and light in a third. No this isn’t some discriminatory act, the darker the bean, the richer the flavor, generally speaking. That oil or sheen you see on your beans is natural. Nothing has been added or depleted from your beans.
And To Your Cup
Now that the beans are cleaned, processed, sorted and they may now go to wholesalers who act as middle people between farmers and the companies whose names you see on bags or cans in the store. Some are ground up and some are packaged in their bags as is. Bear in mind that this process started five years ago when the trees were first planted. It can take between 3 and 5 year from planting a coffee bean tree to it fruiting. From the picking process to being delivered to the wholesaler can take anywhere from 2 to 4 months.
When you receive your next Gevalia delivery of your favorite coffee or blend, as you’re savoring every drop of the rich flavor and taking in its aroma, you may come to appreciate it even more than you already do. Several hands went into ensuring both you and the other estimated 150 million American coffee drinkers enjoy their cup o’ Joe.