As you walk into your favorite cafe, the aromas of steaming espresso and subtly sweet pastries invade your senses.
The baristas bustling behind the bar, the patrons talking and working amongst themselves, the almost tangible hospitality…this cafe feels like home.
As you glance over the daily offerings, you notice that every coffee was grown someplace far, far away.
Ethiopia. Brazil. Papua New Guinea. How is it that you consume this foreign product as readily as you do water?
How exactly does a coffee bean find its way from Ethiopian soil, to your macchiato?
What is Seed to Cup?
If you’re intentionally reading this post, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the term “seed to cup.”
If not, maybe you’ve heard of “farm to cup coffee” or the “seed to sip” journey. Basically, it’s the life-cycle of the common coffee bean.
We in the specialty coffee industry take an almost inordinate amount of care when observing the phases of coffee production.
We look at how the coffee was grown, where it was grown, how it’s harvested, how it’s hulled, how it’s shipped, how it’s roasted…the list goes on.
Each little coffee bean has a story to tell. To most people, these stories manifest as flavors, aromas, and experiences. However, to the caring craftspeople of the industry, these stories speak of community and relationships.
Good coffee is impossible without community.
Farmers, green coffee buyers, roasters, cafe owners, baristas, and a multitude of others, make up this community.
We work to bring good coffee to good people. We also strive to promote a decent quality of living for hard-working farmers and coffee mill workers abroad.
Without these relationships, quality coffee couldn’t exist.
Farm to cup coffee isn’t rocket science, but it is quite a bit to take in.
Knowing this information is more than just a possible HQ trivia answer – it’s actually useful for brewing and enjoyment.
So without further ado, let’s break down the coffee cultivation and production process.
Why is Knowing this Important?
Processing, coffee varieties, and roasting techniques tell us things about coffee; deep important things. There’s a reason coffee bags contain a plethora of gibberish on them. This information gives us clues about a coffee’s characteristics. It’s important for:
- Predicting body and acidity (looking at processing)
- Determining optimal brewing parameters (looking at altitude)
- Understanding tastes, aromas, and mouthfeel (looking at origin, varietal, processing)
Of course, these aren’t the only reasons we care about a coffee’s origins.
To fully appreciate the craft of coffee, we must know its nature. Just touching the surface will get us nowhere. The true potential of every bean is predestined by its beginnings.
Continuing on, we will discuss the steps of the seed to cup story. For the sake of this article, we organized the steps into four phases:
I. The Coffee Plant – Cultivation
Coffee begins as a berry-like fruit on a tree.
This comes as a shock to many.
The brown beans that drip into our cups every morning started as a berry?
Yes. Yes it did.
And the coffee beans we know and love aren’t beans at all.
They are the seeds inside of the coffee cherry. Each cherry yields two seeds (we see this as two beans).
However, sometimes there is only one seed in the fruit. When a cherry yields only one seed, it’s a mutation known as a peaberry. Note that seed and bean are used interchangeably throughout the post. [Every so often, you’ll come across a bag of roasted peaberry beans. It’s delicious.]
So When is Coffee Harvested?
The average coffee tree takes around four years to develop and yield fruit.
If pruned and picked properly, the tree will increase in fruit yield as the years go by.
These coffee cherries are handpicked throughout the fruiting season by careful farmers. Ripe coffee cherries are picked first, and the unripe cherries are left to grow.
The Types of Coffee
This species accounts for most of the world’s coffee, especially craft coffee. Arabica is known for its unique flavor profiles and brew quality. It’s grown in the geographic Bean Belt – presiding 10 degrees south and north of the earth’s equator. For best quality, Arabica coffee is grown at an altitude of 900-1900 meters (the higher the altitude, the higher the density, which attributes to complex flavor).
Not as preferred as Arabica coffee, but if done well, they yield a heavy body and rich oil content. Robustas are commonly blended with arabicas as a “coffee oil enhancer.”
Within the Arabica and Robusta species, there are thousands of varietals (or varieties) of coffee. These exhibit different cultivation characteristics and different tastes.
To put quantity into perspective:
The coffee tree yields three pounds of green coffee (coffee after processing) a year! That’s not a lot. High-yield trees are priceless.
In short, processing happens when coffee seeds are removed from the fruit.
[We also included the shipping and buying steps in the Processing phase, as these steps greatly affect the process of curating specialty green coffee.]
After coffee is harvested, the fruit and mucilage of the coffee cherry must be removed. The seed removal process greatly affects coffee’s overall flavor and profile. Let’s look at a few.
Known as dry processing, natural processing is the act of drying the coffee to remove the fruit from the seeds. The freshly picked coffee cherries are placed on patios or mats and left to dry. This takes around three weeks. Once dried, the dried-out fruit husks are removed, leaving the seeds.
Natural Flavor profile:
High body, low acidity, vibrant fruity flavors
With this process, coffees are de-skinned via pulping machine and then left to soak and ferment. The pulp still clings to the seed, but it eventually falls off during the fermentation process (lasts hours or a couple of days). The beans are then washed and dried on patios/mats or via machine (around a week).
Fully Washed Flavor profile:
Medium body, high acidity, bright balanced flavors
Pulped natural (aka Honey process)
The honey process is like a natural and washed hybrid. The coffee is de-skinned, but instead of being left to ferment, it’s dried like a natural processed coffee. This means that the mucilage is left to dry on the bean (1-2 weeks).
Honey Process Flavor profile:
High body, low acidity, mellow and consistent flavors
Where is Coffee Processed?
Depending on the farm, coffee is either harvested on site or at a larger facility.
Sorting (dry milling)
This is when the coffee is sorted by bean size.
It may not seem like much, but the dry milling phase makes a huge impact on overall quality.
If the beans are sorted by size, the roaster will have a much easier time achieving consistency.
Similar size beans have similar densities (density is vital to address in the roast phase).
It’s important that green coffee is shipped and roasted within a year of harvest. If not, the beans’ flavor profiles could be compromised.
Also, note that shipping is a sensitive step in the processing phase.
If something goes awry in the shipping process (beans getting damaged, etc.), those beans will not be a viable product for sale.
How are Coffee Beans Transported?
Usually via boat.
The beans are received and reviewed by quality graders and/or green coffee buyers. These individuals sample roast and cup the beans.
The coffee is graded on the defects, flavors, aromas, and other characteristics.
Once a grade is reached, the green, unroasted coffee is sold to roasters and cafe owners!
Now we can breathe. After ALL OF THAT – after the coffee is harvested and processed and shipped – the little green coffee seeds can now be roasted to perfection.
Essentially, roasting is cooking.
It’s making green coffee brown.
It’s complex on a food science level, but it’s simple on an outside-looking-in level.
Some roasters focus on the science side of the process while others are more “feely” and artistic in their approach.
A multitude of chemical changes takes place during the roasting phase.
One of the processes that bring upon change is pyrolysis (decomposition of organic materials).
Another example of change is the Maillard Reaction (caramelization of sugars).
Roasters take their knowledge of the altitude, origin, and varietals of the coffee, and they cross-reference it with their knowledge of chemical changes like pyrolysis.
Roasters strive to understand the moisture content, density, and flavor profiles of coffee.
Understanding a coffee’s characteristics is the best way to develop a killer roast profile.
Yup, now the part that we all know and love.
Drinking coffee is the last step in the chain.
Ironically, it’s where most of us begin our coffee journey.
Unfortunately, some coffee lovers will never learn of the seed to cup journey.
Which is a shame, as this journey is the reason we can do what we do!
We enjoy coffee because of the care of this global community, and it’s an honor to play a part.
For some coffee consumption and brewing tips, check out one of our other posts! There’s always more to dig into.