Monday Morning Jolt | Coffee Beans – From the Soil to the Roaster
I’m very passionate about coffee and find everything about it interesting, including where coffee comes from. No, there is not a coffee stork. Coffee usually originates in countries nearest to the equator in mountainous regions like Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya. These are the best places to grow Arabica beans.
Arabica vs. Robusta *ding ding ding*
In one corner, we have Arabica boasting its rich flavors, but complicated harvesting. In the other corner we have Robusta boasting it’s simple harvesting, but as Corby Kummer said in The Joy of Coffee, “The chief flavor attribute of Robusta… is that of a brown paper bag.” Looks like the coffee shop is going to choose the Arabica beans! But don’t worry Robusta, I’m sure you’ll find your way into a can on a grocery store shelf.
To illustrate how coffee beans go from soil to roaster we will look to a model plantation in Costa Rica called La Minta which is owned and operated by Bill McAlpin.
Here the coffee trees look like bushes because they are kept so small. This makes them easier to pick and easier to keep shaded by larger trees. All of the picking is done by hand because the beans do not all ripen at the same pace. The workers will only pick ripe ones and come back a day or two later for the others. The beans are actually the seed of the cherries that are found on the tree.
The pickers bring in their cherries to be weighed, and get paid according to how many ripe berries the bring in. The pickers are given a fair wage that makes many boarding countries jealous. McAlpin also gives a variety of benefits to his employees including free vegetables from the La Minta plantation.
After the pickers have all turned in their cherries, the cherries are bagged and loaded onto trucks and are taken 25 miles down a winding road to the processing mill. If the truck driver loses any beans he will be charged accordingly. That is why the drivers drive so slowly and don’t finish until nearly midnight.
The cherries will begin to ferment quickly – which will give the beans an undesirable flavor – so everyone must keep working through the night. Since these cherries are high quality, they will go through a “wet” process for cleaning. In this process the cherries stay in constant contact with water using a carefully planned Rube Goldberg machine.
After the washing is complete the cherries no longer have their skin and are left with the pulp and the bean. They are then dried on a patio for 1-3 weeks and are constantly raked so they dry evenly. Sometimes however, they are dried in a mechanical drum for 2-3 days. After drying, the beans resemble a pistachio with their light brown shell and green bean within.
When an order comes in for the beans, they are put through a final sorting. The beans are not polished but have a matte finish. A group of women sort through every single bean since there is no machine that can detect the color and ripeness of a bean. After sorting, the beans are shipped by boat and only take about 3 weeks to get to the roaster.
An interesting side note to all of this is that any bean that isn’t perfect isn’t thrown out but instead sold to Costa Ricans. Many coffee producing countries serve the worst coffee because all the good stuff is shipped out of the country.
The whole process needs many skilled workers and is timed perfectly. Arabica beans are given the most care and have the best flavor. Robusta beans are grown in full sun, picked and sorted mechanically, and are rarely fair-trade. When you know all that goes into the process, it is not hard to see why a cup of coffee at a shop costs more than a cup brewed from a can at the grocery store.
For a more detailed explanation I would highly recommend you read The Joy of Coffee.
Information for this article taken from The Joy of Coffee, Corby Kummer, 2003, Pages 5-21
Amanda is the Team Barista Extraordinaire for EDR. Perk up your week with her every Monday right here on Eat.Drink.Repeat.