Coffee - The Birth of the Bean

Man planting beans.

Coffee's Flavorful Path

Coffee grows in more than 50 countries with warm, humid climates, at altitudes ranging from sea level to 6,000 feet and above. Two main species of coffee are traded commercially -arabica and robusta.

The arabica tree produces a fine quality coffee; the highest grades of arabica coffees are sold primarily by gourmet retailers. Arabica beans are delicate and flavorful and sell at higher prices because of their quality and limited availability. Because the arabica tree is susceptible to disease, frost, and drought, it requires very careful cultivation with just the right climatic conditions.

The robusta tree, which bears more coffee cherries, is hardier and more resistant to disease. Although generally not found in gourmet shops, robusta beans are often used in the processing of soluble (instant) coffees and popular commercial blends.


Cultivation of coffee trees begins with planting the seeds, which in three to five years will become full trees. The seeds are planted in potting soil and tended in nurseries for 9 to 18 months, until they reach a height of 18 to 24 inches. The seedlings are then transplanted to permanent groves blessed with a balance of sunshine, shade, and rain. Temperatures of approximately 70 F are ideal, especially for arabica trees.

For the next 18 to 24 months the plants are fertilized, pruned, and weeded. The white, jasmine-scented flowers soon follow. It is not uncommon, however, to find blossoms, green berries, and ripe red cherries on the same branch of a tree.


Two coffee beans, covered by a silvery skin and parchment, lie inside each red cherry, although nature occasionally provides only one bean from a cherry, known as a peaberry. Coffee bean disection. When the green berries ripen to a bright red, they are sweet to the taste and ready to pick.

While a robusta tree yields 2 to 3 pounds of green coffee a year, an arabica tree- because of its delicate nature-yields only 1 to 1.5 pounds. This is the equivalent of approximately 2,500 cherries or one pound of roasted coffee per tree.

Harvesting high-grade arabica coffees is very labor intensive because only the ripest cherries are selected for processing. Workers must return to the trees more than once, as all cherries do not ripen at the same time.

Generally, workers hand pick the cherries, although harvesting times and practices often vary with the growing region.


In processing proper care and concern are crucial to the ultimate flavor of coffee in the cup. Preparation of the cherries to be marketed falls into two processing categories- the wet method (washed) and the dry method (unwashed or natural). The processing method used will affect the flavor of the cup.

In the wet method, the pulp is removed mechanically. To loosen remaining pulp, the cherries are placed in a large, clean concrete tank to ferment. The beans are then poured into water and thoroughly washed. They are drained and spread out to dry in the sun or dried mechanically. Next, hulling machines remove the parchment and silver skin to reveal the green beans, which are then sorted and graded for various levels of quality.

In the dry method, the cherries are spread out in the sun on patios or drying mats. Turned by rakes several times a day, the beans dry in one to two weeks. when dry, they are transferred to hulling machines for removal of dried husk parchment and silver skin in preparation for sorting and grading.

Gourmet coffee (arabica) can be processed by either the wet or dry method. For example, Colombian, Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Kenyan, Hawaiian Kona, and Mexican coffee beans are processed by the wet method. Most Brazilian coffees, some Ethiopians, and some Indonesians are processed by the dry method. Once the beans are sorted and graded, they are bagged and transported to ports for warehousing and shipping.

Exporting and Importing

In dollar volume traded, coffee is second to oil in international trade. The economies of many countries greatly depend upon the successful cultivation and harvesting of coffee beans. Coffee producing countries must meet the quantity demands of the consuming countries, as well as the demand for quality coffee.

Although some coffee is grown in Hawaii, the United States imports the majority of its coffee. Through the principal ports of New York City, New Orleans, and San Francisco comes one third of the world's coffee supply, all destined for U.S. consumption. The major producers of coffee imported into the United States are Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Angola, Ivory Coast, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Kenya, and Indonesia.

Gourmet coffee retailers order from specialty roasters or roast their own coffees to provide the freshest, finest quality beans. Like you, roasters and retailers of green and roasted coffee beans carefully select their merchandise for quality. They examine coffee beans for imperfections and for small, broken beans, which roast darker than the rest and give a burnt taste to brewed coffee. Specialty merchants generally will not accept coffees containing broken beans or other defects that negatively affect the flavor of the brewed coffee.

Cupping.Testing Quality Taste

Coffee cup and spoon.

Before purchasing roasters and retailers usually conduct a cup-tasting to evaluate the flavor, aroma, and body of the coffee. Cup- tasting also called "cupping" tells a great deal about the coffee that a careful scrutiny of just the beans cannot.

Although a coffee's aroma, body, and flavor vary according to how and where it is grown and processed, certain characteristics are expected in each fine coffee. Cupping not only reveals these distinct qualities but also identifies coffees that can be used in flavorful blends. Only after it meets the rigorous requirements of the taster's test will a gourmet coffee be offered to you, the consumer.

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