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From Coffee Tree to Coffee Cup

From Coffee Tree to Coffee Cup
The fruit is referred to as “Cherries”.

The fruit is referred to as “Cherries”

Coffee trees

The coffee tree is a tropical evergreen shrub that grows between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. These trees produce 12 species of coffee, but far and away the species that produce the Arabica bean and the Robusta bean are the most common. It is these beans that are used to make most coffee beverages. Of these two it is Arabica beans that is grown for high-grade and specialty coffee. Robusta beans are generally used for lesser-grade coffee and instant coffee. However, not always. There is some high-grade coffee that is of the Robusta variety.

Coffee farmers start their coffee trees out as seedlings grown in nurseries. In six months to one year, these seedlings grow to the point that they can be transplanted into the ground. After growing for about three years the trees will begin to produce harvestable fruit. The fruit is referred to as “Cherries”

Coffee is generally harvested once per year. It takes up to nine months for the cherries to grow to harvestable size. Harvesting coffee is a labor-intensive process even if the cherries are machine picked. Given that some cherries ripen sooner than others creates a dilemma for coffee farmers. If all the cherries are harvested at one picking there will be many cherries that are not yet ripe. These cherries will go to waste. If cherries are only picked when they are ripe it means a lengthy harvest period with high labor costs. This condition is worse for a small farmer than for a large one. It is also one of the reasons small-batch specialty coffees are so expensive

Illustration of a 'Typica' coffee plant leaf and beans.

Typica, the orignal source of Arabica beans.

Coffee Variety

There are many different varieties of coffee beans. The Arabica bean, for example, which was the first coffee species to be cultivated and now represents about 60% of global coffee production, has around six popular varieties. The original variety is Typica. It was the first tree to be grown, and all the other varieties are genetically distinct versions of Typica. These differences might be manifested in different characteristics of trees and cherries, or different taste characteristics. Some differences are the result of the environment that the trees are growing, and some from harvesting methods. Regardless of the differences, Typica is the original source of all Arabica beans. These changes over time came about from natural mutations as well as deliberate cross-breeding.

Photo of a person hand-picking coffee beans.Hand-picked method


Harvesting coffee is a difficult and sometimes hazardous undertaking. The reason is that most Coffee trees are grown on mountainsides because Coffee needs to be grown at higher altitudes in order to grow at the right temperature. In these conditions, coffee cherries must be hand-picked and that exposes the picker to falls and injuries. There are locations where Coffee is growing at high altitudes but in flats and plateaus. In these conditions, machines can be used.

When harvesting by machine the tree is shaken by the machine to knock the cherries loose. The method is fast and labor-saving, but it results in unripe cherries being harvested among the ripened ones. These cherries must be separated from the ripe cherries, and there is little use for them. By in large, they are wasted.

In hand-picking there are two basic methods of harvesting. One is strip picking where both ripe and unripe cherries are picked. This results in waste much like machine picking. The other method is selective hand-picking. This is how high-quality specialty coffee is harvested. While only the ripest and best cherries are selected it is also the most labor-intensive, and costly.

Photo of coffee beans being washed by hand.Wet or honey process


The processing of coffee after it is harvested is critical to its ultimate quality in the cup. Coffee processing is best described as the actions and procedures to ensure that a harvest maintains its quality, and is free of damage and defects.

After coffee cherries are picked they are taken to a wet mill where the beans are separated from the flesh of the cherries, and the drying process takes place. The wet mill takes coffee from its cherries stage to the parchment stage. The parchment is a covering over the bean. In this stage, the coffee is safe for storage until hulling and shipment.

There are two fundamental processing methods. Dry processing or natural processing, and wet processing. The dry process method is the oldest method of processing coffee. It begins, by spreading the coffee cherries out to dry in the sun. The cherries are then regularly turned to prevent mold, fermentation, and rot. Once fully dried the outer layers of the cherries are removed, and what remains of the cherries is stored for sale. Because of how this process can affect flavor, it is typically considered suitable only for lower-quality coffee.

The washed process is used to remove all of the flesh from the coffee cherry before it is dried. The harvested coffee cherries have their outer skin and the fruit flesh removed by the machine. The coffee then goes into a clean tank or a trough where the rest of the flesh is removed by fermentation. After fermentation, the coffee is washed to remove leftover debris. Then it is ready for drying. But in some places where the sun is unreliable machines dry the coffee.

Wet processed coffee is more acidic, complex, and clean. “Clean” means free of negative flavors and harshness.

Coffee in burlap bagsCoffee burlap bags

Hulling and shipping

When coffee beans leave the wet mill they are still enclosed in their parchment layer. At this stage, the moisture content of the beans is low enough that they can be safely stored without fear of rotting. Traditionally, coffee is stored at this stage for 30 to 60 days. This storage period is called “In Reposo” (at rest). At the end of this storage, the coffee beans are hulled to remove the parchment covering. The hulling takes place in a dry mill. Hulling is done by a machine. These dry mills will have the equipment to grade and sort the beans. After hauling the green coffee beans are examined for color and defects. Finally, the beans are placed in shaking sieves with varying hole sizes to be sorted for bean size. After separation by size, the beans are hand graded. This is a time-consuming process that is costly, but it is essential to providing quality coffee.

After hulling and grading the coffee beans are put in bags (generally jute or burlap) that weigh between 132 - 152 pounds (60 to 69 kg). The better coffees have synthetic protective bags that go inside the burlap bags. In some cases, the coffee beans are vacuum-packed and shipped in boxes. This is usually for exclusive coffee for large buyers.

Most coffee is shipped from the growing regions by ocean freight in shipping containers. Ocean freight is by far the most cost-effective way to ship coffee beans, however, it comes with the risk that the beans will be exposed to heat, moisture, and contaminants, all of which might damage the beans or degrade their quality. Another major issue with ocean freight is the length of time it can take for the bean to ship from the port of departure, and the delays that can take place at the port of entry. Being exposed all this time to heat, humidity, and other environmental conditions can damage the shipment.

The global coffee trade

The global coffee trade is considered to be separated into two categories: “Commodity” coffee and specialty coffee. Commodity coffee is not traded based on quality. It is simply a commodity…coffee. Where it was grown or how it was harvested and processed is not a concern. It is simply another food commodity. Specialty coffee is coffee where quality is of primary importance in it is trading.

There is a global price for coffee, and it is based on commodity coffee. It is what Coffee goes for on the commodity exchanges. It is based on a bag of coffee, as a unit of purchase, however, it is traded on a large scale by the shipping container, which has around 300 bags per container. While very little coffee is traded on exchanges, the exchange is referred to as the C – Price and it functions as a minimum price that producers will accept. This price provides some coherence to coffee trade pricing. From this price, a premium is added to the C - Price for certain coffee for a number of reasons.

The C- Price for coffee is a macro price that is based upon supply and demand, but this supply and demand function is influenced by large traders and money-making opportunities that exploit market inefficiencies. The C – Price does not completely reflect the production cost of the coffee, and this can drive growers out of business. As a reaction, the fair trade movement started.

Fair trade certified logo.

The fair trade system is not a comprehensive meditating system that protects all growers. The basis of the fair trade system is that it guarantees a base price considered to be sustainable. It is a premium above the C – price if the market rises above the fair trade base price. It is a model that is designed for cooperative growers, and thus not available for or benefiting single independent growers. For this reason, the specialty coffee industry looked for other ways to obtain their beans in a manner that was fair to the grower. Among them are Relationship Coffee, Direct Trade Coffee, and Fairly Traded Coffee.

Relationship Coffee is coffee that goes from the producer to the roaster and is based upon a sustainable relationship between them. It is a collaborative effort to increase quality growing but at a fair and sustainable price.

Direct Trade is the system that attempts to eliminate and minimize third-party involvement between the producer and the grower.

Fairly Traded Coffee is a process where there is good transparency, and where fair prices have been paid to the producer. This is an uncommon process and is used as a sort of substitute for a certified fair trade coffee

The essential purpose of each of these methods is to reduce the add-on causes between producers and roasters. And to provide incentives for the producer to grow higher-quality coffee. However, it is the case that third parties can improve efficiency and otherwise provide better prices for the producer and better quality coffee.


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