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Coffee Production Explained

5 JUL 2019
01

Most people are familiar with brewing coffee. However, brewing is but the last step of the coffee process, and many people don’t know about all the stages needed to get from the farm to the brew. In this week’s post, you’ll learn all the facts about how those glorious rich-brown beans reach your cup.

Even though there are some variations, regular coffee production is a process that involves eight steps, every one of which has a direct impact on coffee flavor and quality. Not counting brewing, these steps include cultivation, processing, drying, milling, sorting and grading, storage, roasting and grinding.

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Cultivation

Everything starts at a coffee farm, where a farmer plants a coffee bean that will grow into a plant called a Cafeto. Coffee beans are actually the seeds of the Cafeto’s fruits.

After years of labor and caring for the Cafetos, these produce hundreds of small red fruits called coffee cherries, each with two beans inside. Farmers then harvest or pick the cherries by hand or with machines. The best coffee farms selectively handpick only the ripest, healthiest cherries in order to get the best coffee possible.

Post-Harvest Processing

After harvesting the cherries, growers immediately process them. There are a couple of processing methods, but the most common by far are the traditional wet and dry methods:

In wet processing, the cherries are pulped with the help of machinery or by hand and then they are fermented in water for around 24 to 36 hours (hence the name wet process) to remove the mucilage and expose the husk with the bean inside. Finally, they are thoroughly washed with more water.

In dry processing, the whole cherries are sun-dried for several weeks, until they’re dry enough to hull. This usually gives coffee a sweeter and fruitier taste compared to wet processed or washed coffee.

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Geisha coffee beans are laid out in rows to dry out in the sun at Hacienda La Esmeralda, one of the world's most famous coffee estates in Panama

Drying

After processing the cherries, wet-processed coffee is traditionally dried to about 10-11% moisture either by sun drying in large patios or raised beds, or in industrial tumble dryers. Producers have to turn the coffee every few hours to ensure uniform drying and to avoid molding and unwanted fermentation.

The dry beans inside the husk are referred to as “parchment coffee”, and can be stored in jute bags for months before being processed further.

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Coffee beans with (right) and without (left) the silver skin (middle)

Milling and Polishing

The next step is to remove the husk (known as hulling). This is done at a mill with the aid of machinery. Once the husk or parchment is removed, the beans are referred to as “green coffee”.

Some producers also polish the separated beans to remove the silver skin, a very thin film that covers the bean. However, many experts agree that this is unnecessary, as doing so doesn’t impact flavor.

Sorting and Grading

Green coffee is sorted by weight, size, density and color. The best beans are usually the largest, heaviest and darkest colored ones.

Each lot of sorted beans is then graded according to different criteria such as size, origin, farming and processing methods used, average number of imperfections per sample and, of course, according to how good it tastes in a cup – known as “cup quality”. As you may imagine, grading has a direct impact on price.

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Storage

After sorting and grading, green coffee is stored in warehouses inside jute bags to be later sold directly or at auctions to roasters like us here at NOC.

Roasting

Green coffee is roasted in specialized ovens in which the roaster can control the temperature-time curve and airflow. This means he can fine tune how fast temperature increases, what the maximum temperature will be, how long he will roast the beans, etc. We can’t stress enough how important the roast is to ensure coffee quality and consistency, which is why Sam, NOC’s head roaster, continuously monitors every variable when roasting either our single origin beans or our signature blends.

Grinding

Roasted beans are ground into small particles to help maximize the extraction of flavors and aromas when you brew your coffee. Grind them too fine and you’ll end up with an over extracted brew; grind them too coarse and you’ll go the other way. As an example, espressos normally call for a finer grind while French press calls for a coarser grind.