It's first thing in the morning and you're standing by the kitchen bench mindlessly making our first cup of coffee for the day. Thoughts running through your head often include what you have to get done at work that day, whether the bins got put out last night or if the leftovers in the fridge are a day too old to eat for lunch.
What they probably don't include is how the coffee that's landing in your cup (and you're relying on to get you through your morning commute) managed to find its way from origin all the way to your kitchen - because while making your cup of coffee might be somewhat mindless, the effort taken to grow and process every individual coffee bean was actually a monumental endeavour that was years in the making.
Don't believe us? Let us delve a little deeper into five things that happen to your coffee before we put it in our roasters.
1. It's grown
To kick off, a few basics about coffee plants. While often referred to as trees, they're technically a shrub, and are native to Africa and southern Asia. There are actually over 100 species of coffee plants in the world, but the two main ones used for commercial coffee are Coffea Arabica (commonly referred to as Arabica) and Coffea Canephora (also known as Robusta).
From the moment the seed is placed in the ground to the moment the first coffee cherries are picked is not a quick process - in fact, it's quite the opposite. On average, it takes up to five years for a coffee shrub anywhere from three to five years to produce fruit that's ready for picking - but if well looked after, it can continue to produce coffee for decades. In one year, a coffee bush can grow enough cherries to produce around half a kilo of roasted coffee beans - meaning you've probably enjoyed dozens of bushes worth of coffee in your lifetime!
2. It's picked
After growing for around nine months, the coffee cherries will have ripened from green to bright yellow, and finally to a deep red - a vibrant sign that they are ready for picking. There are three ways to pick coffee - selective picking, stripping, and mechanical harvesting. The second and third a pretty self-explanatory - but whilst exploring coffee plantations in Tanzania and Kenya, we witnessed selective picking.
This method is a very labour intensive process - done by hand, with pickers rotating among the plantation and ensuring only ripe cherries are picked, while the green cherries are left for another day. The pickers will move throughout the plantation, before returning to the beginning to pick the cherries left behind. It's a more expensive process due to the labour involved, but from what we saw, it's extremely beneficial to the local people, providing plenty of employment opportunities, resulting in an indirect contribution to the wider community (but more on that another time).
3. It's dried
Once picked, the hard work continues - and quickly. To prevent the fruit from spoiling, the cherries are processed using one of three methods.
The Washed Process involved processing the cherries through a machine that separates the skin and pulp of the fruit from the bean. After pulping, the coffee is sorted, and ultimately graded, through water channels. The best beans sink and sit right at the start of the channel, while the lower grades float and head downstream. An experienced worker sweeps the beans to encourage the unworthy to move on as the water runs. The different grades are separated and fermented in concrete tanks until the mucilage is ready to fall off, and the drying phase can begin.
Washed beans are best for espresso, as they are clean, and predictable in flavour and acidity, so when consistency matters - this is the pick of the crop.
Naturals involves spreading the cherries out whole on drying beds located in direct sunlight where they're raked regularly throughout the day, and covered overnight to prevent moisture getting in. It can take several weeks for the cherries to dry out enough - a moisture content of 11% is the goal - meaning it's not the most economical way of processing cherries, and is mainly used in areas with limited resources. The Honey Process is similar to the Natural Process; however the cherries are sun-dried after manually bursting the fruit open.
Naturals and the Honey Process are traditional methods that produce the most exciting flavours (so if you're looking for something different for your next pour over or filter, be sure to grab a bag of naturals!)
4. It's milled
To achieve green beans that are ready for roasting, the coffee beans must first be milled. With the coffee still covered in a layer called parchment, hulling machines remove this layer from the beans. Depending on the quality of the coffee, the final product can then be polished to remove any skin left behind.
The millers sort the beans according to size, shape and defect levels and sometimes even sorted by hand - yet another process we witnessed in Africa - in order to remove any defect beans from the lot. While time and labour intensive, this ensures the product ready for export contains only the finest quality beans. Coffee labeled Kenya AA can actually contain screen 17/18 beans from every part of Kenya, and can be marketed under a brand and sold as single origin - but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s from one farm at the highest grade from that particular estate/farmer, nor can you assume the farmer gets paid directly in relation to parchment they dropped off at the coop or millers.
Once the coffee enters the mill, which coffee from which farm, what grade, and in what quantities is at the sole discretion of the millers to declare to the producers. The alleged traceability is most often broken at this point in the chain of custody. With hundreds of producers feeding only a handful of mills, it can be compared to our dairy industry in Australia, as far as figuring out which cow your cup of cream came from.
How the farmer gets paid has more to do with the C-market at the time they delivered the cherry to the co-op or the parchment to the mill, and not to do with the quality of the coffee they actually produced. The costs associated with getting the coffee to export are deducted before they are paid; it can take up to a year from surrendering their product to find out if they made money. This is why while millers, exporters, importers, roasters and cafes always make money, sometimes the farmer gets a bill instead of getting paid. It's also why direct trade is so important - giving power back to the producer and, ultimately, creating a sustainable future for all of us who love coffee.
5. It's exported
The final step in the process before we can start roasting, the green coffee beans are packed into sacks - normally 60kg worth per bag - and loaded into shipping containers ready to be exported. In 2017, Brazil claimed top spot for the highest dollar value worth of coffee, totalling US$4.6 billion, accounting for 14.1% of total coffee exports worldwide, well ahead of second-placed Vietnam on US$3.5 billion, accounting for 10.7% of exports.
As you can see - coffee is big business - but as we said above, unfortunately the people pocketing the profits are highly unlikely to be the little guys out in the field planting, growing and picking the coffee to begin with - yet another topic for another time.
So next time you sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee (or chug it down as you rush between meetings), spare a thought for the hard work that's gone into that single cup. It'll only make you appreciate it even more.