Walk into any coffee shop or grocery store, and you’ll find an impressive shelf of different coffee beans to choose from.
Sit down at your local cafe and you’ll be offered a latte, a long black, or a flat white.
But, have you ever wondered where that delicious cup of coffee comes from?
In this post, we look at what coffee beans are, how and where they grow, how they are harvested, and how they end up as the coffee beans we all know and love.
What are coffee beans?
All coffee beans come from the Coffea coffee plant. They’re commonly referred to as beans, but they are actually the seeds of a kind of fruit called a cherry.
Coffee plants are of evergreen trees belonging to the genus Coffea that are cultivated in over 70 countries across the globe. Coffee beans are simply the seeds inside the fruits of these trees.
The best-known coffee bean is the Arabica variety, although several other species are also widely cultivated (more details later in this article).
Where do coffee plants grow?
Most coffee beans are grown and produced inside a wide band of land called the coffee belt. This belt is located between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, includes 70 countries, and has the ideal combination of tropical climates and altitudes for coffee plants to grow.
The table below shows the top 20 coffee producing countries in the world.
|60 kilogram bags
|Papua New Guinea
Coffee beans grow on shrubs, which are plants that grow close to the ground. Coffee plants like to grow in warm locations and are typically shade tolerant — meaning they grow well when there’s little sunlight.
The growth cycle of a coffee plant
As you would expect, a coffee plant starts out as a seed. It is placed in warm soil, covered by a thin layer of earth. It needs to soak up the sun, but it can’t be allowed to dry out; you want the soil to be moist.
After 4 to 8 weeks you will see a sprout and then after approximately a year, the coffee plant will reach 12 inches tall.
Coffee growers will gradually expose the young plants to more sunlight so that the plants become hardened and are ready for transplanting to the plantation.
It takes about five years for a coffee plant to reach maturity.
A mature plant can be expected to yield approximately 0.45 kg (1 lb) of roasted coffee per year.
How are coffee beans harvested?
Three methods for harvesting coffee are hand picking, strip picking, and machine picking.
Hand-picking produces higher quality and typically more expensive coffee beans. Specialty coffee growers generally hand-pick the ripe coffee cherries and leave the unripe ones to mature.
This selective harvesting method results in less sorting and also yields higher quality coffee beans because of the fact that there is less need to discard unripe cherries.
Because all the unripe cherries are left on the plant, getting all of the cherries from a cherry tree sometimes requires ten harvests.
Strip harvesting involves taking all the coffee fruit off the trees in one go. But, instead of allowing the cherries to ripen fully before picking them, strip harvesting happens when a certain quantity of fruit is ripe enough for harvest.
This method is less labour and time-intensive and therefore cheaper than selective picking, but the downside is that some cherries are picked when they are not ripe.
Coffee harvesting by machine is by far the more efficient, so long you have the environment to do so.
Machines for harvesting coffee cherries are expensive, but the cost of labour is significantly lower because a single worker can keep the machine running.
These machines shake the trees, causing ripe and unripe coffee cherries to fall. Workers then need to sort out the harvest later or simply sell it as lower quality.
The viability of machine picking is sometimes limited by the availability of flat land on which to use the harvesting machines. In Brazil, where the terrain is fairly flat, machine picking is fairly common.
How are coffee beans processed?
Once farmers have picked and sorted the coffee cherries, they need to extract the two seeds within each fruit and process these into what is known as green beans, ready for roasting.
When coffee beans are exported to roasters in local countries e.g. beans from Brazil sent to Australia, they are sent as green beans.
The four common coffee processing methods are natural, washed, wet hulled, and honey processed. Each of these processes can add or reduce desired attributes to the final product.
Below we take a look at the two most common processing methods:
Natural processing of coffee is the most traditional way to process coffee. Coffee cherries are picked from the trees, spread out in thin layers to dry in the sun.
The cherries dry out and the skin and dried fruit flesh are then removed mechanically. The coffee beans are then stored for a period of rest before being packed up for sale.
Washed, or “wet”, processing, the other main way to process coffee, is when the fruit flesh is mechanically stripped from the bean before drying.
After the coffee beans are taken from the fruit, they go into a water tank where natural fermentation will clean them of any residual fruit flesh.
After the coffee beans are fermented, they are washed to remove any leftover flesh and then dried.
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Roasting is the final step in the process that prepares the beans for brewing delicious coffee.
Coffee roasting transforms green coffee beans into brown ones. It is the process by which coffee beans are heated to make their aroma and flavour more intense. Roasting can be done in different ways, which can create different flavours.
Coffee often is roasted close to where it is consumed because green coffee beans are more stable than roasted beans.
Traditionally, coffee has been roasted commercially on a large scale. However, in recent decades, the specialty coffee trend has seen small-scale commercial roasting growing significantly with the growth of coffee shops serving high-quality single-origin coffees, and more people making specialty coffee at home.
Common types of coffee beans
Of the four main types of coffee beans, Arabica and Robusta are the most common, followed by Liberica and Excelsa. Below we summarise the characteristics of each variety.
Arabica coffee beans are by far the most popular coffee bean. They make up almost 60% of the world’s coffee production. Despite their popularity, they are harder to grow since they need special conditions to develop properly such as an altitude of around 2,000 meters above sea level.
Arabica beans have a smooth body and a complex flavor, which makes them the preferred coffee of specialty coffee drinkers. You can buy them at local coffee shops or anywhere else that sells good quality coffee.
Robusta beans are second on the list in popularity. They are used for instant coffee because they are less expensive and tend to be of a lower quality than Arabica beans. However, robusta beans also appear in many blends because their strong aroma and slightly bitter taste balances other less favourable notes.
Many coffee producers, especially those in Brazil, have started to grow more and more Robusta beans. They are known to resist diseases better than other beans and grow well in less favourable climate conditions.
Liberica coffee is native to central and western Africa but has also gained popularity in Southeast Asia due to its resilience against most coffee diseases. Most of the cherries that the Liberica produces come in irregular shapes and colours, making for a unique-looking bean.
Liberica beans have a floral aroma that is quite different from Robusta, the other type of coffee bean. This adds a smoky flavour to espresso, and Liberica beans tend to be woody and nutty in flavour.
Grown in Southeast Asia, Excelsa coffee beans are now considered to be part of the Liberica family. The difference is that Excelsa coffee beans are roasted very light and don’t have the same characteristics as other Coffea family members.