Did you realize coffee beans are actually seeds? Like sunflower seeds, coffee beans that haven’t been through drying or roasting can actually be planted to grow new coffee plants.
Here’s the whole journey those beans go on before they end up in your coffee maker—step by step:
After they first sprout, young coffee seedlings are generally allowed to grow for a few days before they’re transplanted into optimized soils.
These soils are specially formulated for optimal growth of coffee plants. The seedlings need to be watered frequently and shaded from intense sunlight until they’re strong enough to survive being planted in their permanent growing location.
Depending on the local climate, planting is usually done during rainy parts of the year so that the roots can grow in moist soil.
The time it takes for coffee plants to bear fruit is approximately 3 to 4 years after they’re first planted. The fruit of coffee plants, referred to as “cherries,” change from their original green, unripe color to a vibrant red color. The red cherries may be bright red or dark, but both shades indicate ripeness. Coffee cherries ripen at different rates depending on the local temperature and the elevation they’re planted at.
Many people in the U.S. who have never visited a coffee bean farm think of coffee as something that only grows high up in the hills, or way, way up in the mountains, but it’s actually grown at several different altitudes.
Here in the States, we just happen to be most familiar with the iconography (i.e. marketing) of coffee growing up in green South American hills, or on the sides of mountains. Coffee is certainly grown that way in many places, but those aren’t the only places coffee beans can thrive—not by a long shot.
Cherries ripen much faster in higher temperatures and at lower elevations. The altitude is also one of many factors that affects the amount of caffeine in the coffee beans, as well as the way they taste.
Once the cherries are ripe, the coffee can be harvested by hand or harvested by machine. As you’d expect, hand harvesting usually happens on small farms, and it’s an extremely labor intensive process. Cherries mature at different rates, so they need to be visually examined to make sure they are ripe before they can move to the next processing step.
On larger farms, especially where the land is more flat, coffee cherries may be collected using mechanical harvesting. These harvesters are often diesel-powered machines with hydraulic motors, shakers, and conveyor belts. They “pick” the fruit by straddling the trees and using their powerful motors to vibrate them. The coffee falls off the tree and is collected by conveyor belt before making its way to the holding bin. Some mechanical harvesters have a “cleaner fan” system on-board that separates the cherries from extra unwanted material during the harvesting. Pretty cool.
After they’re harvested, coffee cherries need to be processed ASAP or they’ll spoil. The next step is to remove the skin from the coffee beans. There are a couple methods used to do this, the newest involving a pulping machine that squeezes the skin off wet coffee beans without damaging them.
Before being taken to the market, the coffee beans are dried, then hulled. Hulling removes the dried husk of the beans.
In some cases, beans go through another step called polishing that helps remove any slivers of husk that have been left behind after the hulling step.
Beans are then sorted and graded based on their size and weight. They’re checked for flaws, including color inconsistencies, and any abnormal beans are removed. In some instances, these lower quality beans are taken for processing and sold as low quality coffee, but most of the time they’re simply discarded.
Even after all this, at this stage in the processing, the coffee beans are still considered “green.” They need to be roasted in order to turn them into the type of coffee beans you think of when you picture coffee beans. At this point, beans can be roasted light, medium, or dark.
Beans can be roasted using different methods: In recent decades, coffee companies have been using air roasting machines to produce higher quantities of coffee at minimal expense. (Black Insomnia uses the superior drum roasting method, which you can read about in detail here.)
After beans are roasted, they begin losing quality immediately, so coffee needs to be packaged immediately.
Whole coffee beans get packaged right away in special air-tight packaging to shield them from exposure to air, light, and moisture. Ground coffee goes through an additional step where it’s mechanically ground before it’s packaged.
Want to learn more about shielding your coffee from the elements, and how to keep it as fresh as possible? Check out some of the best methods to store coffee.