Where Do Coffee Beans Come From And How Are They Grown?

Lift that cup to your nose and let the aroma fill your nostrils. There's nothing like it. You may be surprised to learn coffee is actually a fruit. The Coffee beans start their life on a small shrub. They're the seeds of a coffee cherry ready for harvest when the fruit is bright red. Each coffee cherry is carrying the precious cargo of two blue beans. We don’t care about the fruit, we only want to get our hands on those little blue gems, and the method used to accomplish that makes all the difference in the taste and quality of the coffee in your cup. When you buy a bag of roasted coffee beans, have you ever thought about where those beans came from and how they are grown? Coffee is the second largest commodity traded in the world, and four hundred and fifty million cups are consumed every day in America. In Finland, it is estimated that every person will consume twelve kilograms of coffee in their lifetime. But how did that black gold end up in our cup? Let’s take a deeper look.

Coffee beans come from one of two plants in the genus Coffea; either Coffea arabica or Coffea Robusta. There are several varieties within each, but specialty coffee is dominated by coffee from the Arabica bean family and makes up more than seventy percent of world consumption. Cheaper blends and commercial coffees may use some Robusta beans for their dark, earthy, and consistent flavors. Coffee plants grow in tropical regions between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and each growing region has a unique flavor profile. The plants are evergreen shrubs that grow up to seven meters tall. They have wide, glossy leaves and white flowers similar to citrus plants. The white flowers give way to coffee cherries, that begin green, then ripen to yellow, orange, and then red before being harvested. The maturing takes place between May and October and is ready for harvest eight or nine months after the coffee plant has flowered.

Most coffee farmers plant around six hundred and fifty coffee plants per acre and can expect a yield of two kilograms of coffee cherries per annum. Amazingly, a coffee plant can bear fruit for up to fifty years, though the last twenty of these will have a much lower yield. The important condition needed for a coffee plant to grow is the presence of a temperate climate with no frost, ample sunshine, and lots of water. Typically, coffee is grown in damp, fertile, well-drained soil beneath a shaded canopy where sunshine is in abundance every day. More than 200 million farmers grow coffee for economic survival, but large coffee plantations account for less than twenty percent of the world's coffee production. For small operations, coffee will be the major source of revenue, supported by other smaller crops grown on the same land. Producers of specialty coffee will pay more attention to how the coffee bean is grown, and choose farms based on quality, region, altitude, irrigation, fertilization, sustainability, and harvesting. Yield is a less important factor than quality. If you purchase "single-origin" beans, it means the coffee has been harvested from the plants on a single farm. Coffee farming is labor-intensive, and given the most prominent growing regions, it is often the largest contributor to employment and economic development for the community.

Harvesting the coffee cherries

Coffee growing is old in tradition, and the harvesting of coffee cherries hasn’t changed much over the years. The ripened coffee cherries are picked by hand, or at least that’s the case for good quality coffee beans. Coffee cherries ready for harvesting are crimson red, while green, yellow, and black cherries must remain on the coffee plant for further maturation. An experienced picker knows the cherries to select, and that's why the picking is done by hand. Large commercial operations will use machines for harvesting, stripping the coffee plant clean of cherries whether they are ripe or not, resulting in a poorer quality coffee yield. After hand-picking the cherries, workers check the cherries for blemishes and defects, reserving only the best cherries for processing. Because the coffee cherries mature at different times during the growing season, harvesting continues over a two or three-month period.

How is coffee processed?

Remember, two coffee beans are cocooned by each cherry. To get at the coffee beans, the pulp has to be removed, and the beans dried. This is what is referred to as “coffee processing. There are three main ways of separating the coffee beans from the fruit; washed, natural, and honey

Washed processing coffee

During washed processing, the coffee cherries are pulped by machines, removing the outermost skin. Once that has been done, the coffee beans are still wrapped in a gooey case. This is a sweet layer that also must be removed to create coffee. This is accomplished by fermenting the mucilage by soaking the beans in water for two or three days while amino acids and sugars are extracted. The longer the coffee beans remain in the water, the stronger the coffee. But we’re not done yet. After the mucilage is removed, the coffee beans are still covered with a parchment layer. It too must be removed. The beans are spread out on Raised beds and left to dry. After drying they are the coffee is then ready for consumption.

The washed processing method is used throughout Latin America and most of East Africa. In Kenya, farmers use a slightly different process, fermenting the beans twice instead of once.

How does washed coffee taste? Through washed processing, all of the cherry pulp is removed leaving the coffee beans with a clean and complex flavor. You get a coffee that has a nutty and chocolate character, with floral overtones. Coffee beans processed using the washed method costs more because large amounts of clean water are needed for the separation of the coffee bean from the pulp.

Natural processing coffee

The natural coffee processing method is sometimes referred to as dried processing. It is the oldest coffee processing method and is predominantly used in Ethiopia and Brazil. After the cherries are picked, they are cleaned, removing any twigs, stems, and broken cherries. Next, the cherries are placed on drying beds and left to dry in the sun. During the drying process, the coffee cherries are turned frequently, ensuring even drying of the coffee. Any cherries that overripen are removed. The process takes around four weeks. At this stage, a dried-out cherry covers the beans. The remainder of the fruit is stripped away in a hulling machine.

How does natural process coffee taste? Well, with natural processing not all of the pulp is removed from the beans. The pulp residue gives the coffee beans a fruity and citrus-like flavor. The quality of these beans is less consistent because over-ripe cherries can result from uneven drying, however, sun drying creates a smooth, strong coffee.          

Honey processing coffee

Slow down! It’s not done with honey. It’s a rather scientific process. The inner layer of the cherry, called the mucilage, is responsible for the sweetness of the beans. The mucilage is referred to as “the honey.” When processed using the honey method, some of the mucilage is intentionally left on the beans, to provide a slightly sweet taste. It’s a delicate balancing act; leave too much of the mucilage, and the coffee will be way too sweet for the palette.

The honey method of processing does not involve any fermentation and is dried in the same way as natural processing. The big difference is that some of the inner layer, or "honey," is left on the bean. In Costa Rica, honey processed beans are categorized by color. The beans range in categories from “black” to yellow.” The more pulp left on the bean, the darker the color assignment.

How does honey process coffee taste? Coffee beans processed with the honey method have a strong sweetness much like brown sugar. It maintains a citrus character to the coffee but is not bright like with the natural method. Some prefer these coffee beans since it is creamy, smooth, and the fruit is not overpowering.

Is there anything such as sustainable and green coffee farming?

It takes a lot of land, coffee plants, water, and labor to supply the world with its daily fix of coffee. As with any type of agricultural growing, humans need to be stewards of the land and farm according to sustainable practices. Coffee is no different, and there is a new global awareness of the impact coffee growing has on the planet.

The first step in sustainable coffee farming is the production of organic Coffee Beans. These are coffee beans produced without the use of herbicides or pesticides. Not only is the environment being protected, but coffee consumers are getting the healthier product produced in an eco-friendly way. As a coffee lover, you ought to restrict your buying to organic beans. Make certain you are buying USDA-certified organic beans by checking out our Chamberlain Coffee Bags. We source all of our coffee from farms dedicated to sustainable growing practices.

Farms that grow coffee plants beneath a shade canopy, provide a thriving habitat for birdlife, reducing the need for herbicides and fertilizers, and promoting biodiversification. Shade-grown coffee is known for both sweetness and complexity.

A practice that is becoming popular on micro-farms, is the growing of coffee plants among other crops and vegetation. This approach is akin to social forestry and has a positive impact on community sustainability. Over its lifetime, a single coffee plant can produce more than two thousand cherries making this approach viable for small villages and rural homesteads.

Sustainable coffee farming uses less water than traditional farming practices. Organic matter, such as composted coffee pulp and fertilizers is spread under coffee plants reducing the amount of water required for irrigation. Also, water leftover from the cherry processing is recycled and used for coffee plant irrigation.

From the farm to bean, to cup

Coffee has a long history dating back centuries. Few other drinks have garnered as much imagination, fascination, experimentation, and social dialogue. It is the drink of kings and peasants alike. It is full of as much mystery as it is knowledge, and can bring about social change and improve conditions in the most desperate parts of the planet.

When you buy a cup of coffee at your neighborhood coffee shop, think about the farmer and ask yourself where do coffee beans come from? They are the ones who cared for the coffee plants, carefully picked the cherries, sorted them, processed them, and sent the beans to market. They are the ones concerned about sustainable growing practices, quality, and community. On average, only one cent, that's right, one single cent, of what you paid goes to the coffee farmer. As coffee lovers, it’s up to us to put pressure on suppliers and retailers to insist on organic beans and sustainably sourced. That’s the key to protecting the coffee farmer and truly celebrating the bean!