The Coffee Bean's Journey from Seedling to Cup
For thousands of years people have derived pleasure from drinking coffee. This flavoursome beverage with its delightful aroma is often the first thought of the morning, and the perfect way to kickstart the day. As well as having a reputation for boosting energy, drinking coffee is thought to help improve memory, mood and concentration. Coffee beans also contain high levels of antioxidants and other compounds that are believed to offer health benefits for a number of common medical conditions. Coffee is one of the world's most important commodities. It is consumed worldwide, and its production provides employment for millions. Throughout history it has been the subject of folklore, customs and myths, and in many cultures coffee houses and cafes have provided a hub for people to meet and an opportunity to socialise.
Legends exist telling of how coffee beans were first discovered. One of the most popular is the tale of Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat herder, who observed how his goats became energised and playful after eating the red berries from a bush. It is said he took the berries to a local monastery, where disapproving monks threw them onto the fire, so creating a wonderful aroma that resulted in them brewing the embers with water to drink. Whilst truth in such legends may be questionable, it is believed that coffee was being drunk in Ethiopia as far back as the 9th century.
Coffee is currently produced in more than 65 countries. When Frank Sinatra sang, 'They've got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil', he certainly had a point, since Brazil is known to produce around 40 percent of the world's supply. Other main suppliers are Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Ethiopia. Most of the world's coffee growing countries can be found in the coffee 'Bean Belt', an area of land that lies between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn where the climate and conditions are best for growing coffee.
There are many different species of coffee, but the two most common are Arabica (Coffea arabica) and Robusta (Coffea canaphora). There are several varieties of the Arabica coffee tree and they account for more than 60 percent of coffee produced. Arabica originates from Ethiopia and is recognised as the first species of coffee ever cultivated. It predominantly grows in subtropical climates with high altitudes; Brazil, Columbia and Central America are principal areas of cultivation.
There are two main species of Robusta trees, mainly grown in Brazil, Central and West Africa and South East Asia. They thrive at lower altitudes, in hotter temperatures, and require less rainfall. Robusta plants are more resilient to pests and diseases such as leaf rust, since they contain significantly more caffeine, which has anti-microbial properties and is poisonous to insects. As the beans are usually grown on plantations, they are easier to cultivate and commercially cheaper to produce. Robusta beans have little acidity but are more bitter than Arabica beans. They are more often used to make instant soluble coffee, and for espresso coffee making.
Before being harvested, Arabica coffee beans appear a darker shade of green to Robusta, and their shape is oval, and flatter than Robusta's rounded shape. When roasted, Arabica beans produce a milder, more aromatic flavour compared to Robusta's stronger taste, which has been described as earthy, woody, harsh, or even like burnt rubber. The most superior coffee blends are made up of 100% Arabica, but cheaper alternatives are made by mixing Arabica with Robusta beans. The price of Robusta beans can be half the price of Arabica. There are, however, many good quality Robusta blends that can easily rival an inferior Arabica blend.
Coffee trees are evergreen plants that can grow as high as ten metres, but for ease of harvesting are normally kept much shorter. They have dark green, waxy leaves and bear white, fragrant flowers, that appear a few years after planting. The fruit, or cherries, that form can take up to nine months to ripen. Some types grow in clusters on the branch and others are evenly spaced along them. The coffee beans inside are the seeds of the fruit, the size of bean being dependent on variety. Coffee trees are continually producing fruit; the same tree can be seen bearing blossoms and cherries at varying stages of ripeness.
When the cherries first appear they are green, and gradually change to red as they mature. The raw fruit is best picked when perfectly ripe. Coffee beans grown in mountainous regions pose more of a challenge to those cultivated on flat land, where machines can effectively work by shaking the fruit loose from the trees, or they can be strip-picked. Otherwise cherries have to be picked by hand, making production costs more expensive. On the plus side, this can ensure only ripe cherries are picked, whereas machine harvested or strip-picked ones need to be sorted to separate ripe from the unripe ones that also fall down. This can be done by hand or use of a flotation tank, where ripe fruits sink to the bottom.
The cherries next have to be processed to remove the surrounding layers of the seed: silverskin, parchment, pulp and outer skin. The wet method of processing involves them being cleaned and pulped to separate the flesh and skin from the bean, leaving the protective parchment intact. They are then dried out in the sun or in a drying machine, before being hulled to remove the parchment, cleaned, sorted and graded for sale. The dry method of processing cherries is an older, more natural way. Once the cherries have been sorted and cleaned, they are laid out in the sun on brick patios or matting to dry, and periodically turned so they dry evenly. This process can take up to four weeks. The dried fruits are then hulled and processed similarly for sale.
The distinctive shape of a coffee bean is formed by two seeds contained within the cherry becoming flattened as they mature. Sometimes a small mutation occurs when only one seed forms inside the fruit, producing a smaller, more oval bean. These are known as 'peaberries' and thought to make up around five per cent of coffee grown. They tend to roast more evenly because of their shape, produce a fuller, sweeter flavour, and are the bean of choice for some. Coffee-Direct.co.uk’s Kenya Peaberry Coffee is one to try
Green coffee beans can stay fresh far longer than roasted beans. They can be stored in their bags for a few months in a dark, dry environment, ideally at room temperature. If kept longer, it's advisable to store them in an air-tight container or bag, and periodically open and shake them up to circulate air. Some people prefer to store their green coffee beans in calico bags or other breathable containers.
Coffee is roasted commercially using various types of machine, that allow the beans to tumble or spin whilst being heated. Drum and hot air roasters are the two more commonly used; others are packed-bed, tangential and centrifugal roasters. Those who prefer to roast their own green beans can experiment to achieve the desired flavour profile; factors such as origin, variety, and other criteria should be borne in mind, as such things can influence the end result. Home roasting methods can include roasting in a pan, oven, grill, or popcorn maker, although home roasting machines can also be purchased.
When coffee beans are roasted their characteristic flavours will emerge. Chemical changes occur and they expand in size, but end up weighing less as they lose moisture. As the beans start to brown, pressure from built-up gasses causes them to break open and emit a popping sound. This is known as the 'first crack', and is a good indicator of the stage of roast. If beans are left to roast longer they will eventually pop again. This 'second crack' is a more subdued sound. If the beans are roasted until they are very dark, oils and sugars caramelise, and care must be taken not to roast for too long as they can become charred and taste bitter.
A light roast will turn the beans to a pale brown colour and they will look dry. The flavour will be light, mild-bodied and fragrant. They will be more acidic and have slightly more caffeine than those roasted for longer. Examples of light roasted beans are: Kenya AA Coffee, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Coffee and Kivu Coffee.
Medium roasted beans will be a medium brown colour. They will still be dry, but are likely to be sweeter due to slight caramelisation. They will be lower in acidity but more bitter. Medium roasted beans tend to be the most popular choice. Examples include: Kenya Blue Mountain Coffee, Viennese Coffee, Rainforest Colombian Coffee and Yemeni Matari Coffee.
Beans that are medium-dark roasted will become a richer dark brown colour, with a semi-oily surface. They carry deep flavours and a possible bittersweet aftertaste. Examples are: Nepal Coffee, Barahona Paraiso Coffee and Dark Maragogype Coffee.
Dark roasts will be nearly black and have an oily sheen. There may be a pronounced bitterness and heavy mouthfeel. Spicy notes may be evident. Some examples are: Blue Sumatra Coffee, Continental Coffee, Old Brown Java Coffee and Monsoon Malabar Coffee.
When coffee beans are ground, there is more surface area exposed to unlock the flavour within. Ideally, once ground, coffee should be brewed as soon as possible to appreciate it at its best since it soon starts to lose flavour. There are basically three types of coffee grinder: blade, burr and hand grinders. Electric blade grinders have metal blades, similar to a blender. These machines are inexpensive, but the method of grinding the beans, by spinning and smashing them, sometimes results in an uneven mix which can affect their flavour. Electric or manual burr grinders have steel or ceramic cutting discs, that grind with more precision to produce a far more uniform result, and can be adjusted to suit the brewing method required. These machines are costlier than blade grinders; manual alternatives are cheaper, but just require a little elbow grease!
There are various levels of grind, from extra coarse (suitable for cold brew coffee), to extra fine, (more suited for Turkish coffee), and several in between. A little trial and error may be required to achieve the best outcome for the type of coffee used; for example, darker roasts tend to be more brittle so a coarser grind is preferable, and a finer grind may benefit coffee grown at higher altitudes. The method of brewing ground coffee at home is down to personal choice. There are various appliances on the market, from inexpensive filter brewers and machines, stove top moka pots, and French press or cafetières, to state of the art bean to cup coffee machines. The flavour and cup quality of coffee beans is influenced by many factors, from the type of soil and climate they grow in, to the method of processing, grinding, and intensity of roast. The quality of water used when brewing coffee can also make a difference to taste and affect the way it brews.
Coffee lovers have never before had such a wealth of choice when buying coffee, with the multitude of varieties available today, that include single-origin and speciality coffees, and learning about a certain bean's origin and its journey from seedling to cup can take coffee appreciation to another level.
Coffee-Direct.co.uk has been selling freshly roasted coffee online since 2007, but our roots run far deeper than that with over 25 years experience in importing and roasting coffee from all corners of the world. With an extensive network of gifted buyers, we’re able to bring together what we consider to be the finest collection of high quality coffee beans ready to be freshly roasted to order.
Coffee starts to lose its freshness the moment it interacts with the air around it; that’s why we’re strong believers in only roasting to order, and packing our coffees immediately in one-way valve, foil fresh bags. This way, the CO2 in the bags can escape, but air cannot get in. Using this method, our freshly roasted coffee will stay in perfect condition unopened for up to nine months. Once opened, our coffee should be kept in an airtight container to extend the life of the bean. Coffee beans can also be frozen, providing an even longer means of preserving that freshly roasted taste and aroma.