Growing and harvesting coffee beans: a brief guide for coffee lovers

Ever wondered where a great cup of coffee begins? Andréanne has the answer.

By Andréanne Hamel

Quality coffee beans are harvested from the coffea arabica tree. After harvesting, they undergo a process that transforms them into the fragrant delicacies that will end up in your espresso machine. Let's take a closer look at what's involved in growing and harvesting coffee.

It grows on trees

Coffea arabica fruit

Photo: Marcelo Corrêa
(from Wikimedia Commons)

The very best coffee beans get their start on the shiny leaves of the evergreen coffea arabica tree. This shrub-like tree, native to Africa and Asia, bears small white blossoms that look and smell like jasmine flowers. When the tree is three to five years old, it will bear fruits that resemble ripe cherries (see picture, right). Most of these fruits have two coffee beans inside, but a small percentage will contain a single bean, also known as a peaberry. Peaberries are either discarded or sold separately. Some coffee drinkers believe that these small round beans have a particularly distinctive flavor.

Harvesting

The cherries of the coffee plant take about nine months to fully ripen. When the time comes to harvest them, several methods can be used. Experts agree that the best approach is selective picking, which is where the picker hand-selects the ripest and best cherries for harvesting. Since coffee crops don't mature all at once, it's sometimes necessary to pick each tree several times to remove the ripe cherries. Selective picking is a good choice in this situation.

In Brazil, the coffee crops ripen more uniformly. There, the preferred method is known as stripping. Instead of hand-selecting the ripe cherries, the pickers wait until the crop is mostly mature and then pick every cherry, ripe or not.

Processing

Coffea arabica fruit

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The original method of processing coffee beans is known as dry milling. It's a simple method that involves drying whole coffee cherries following the harvest. The beans are dried in the sun or by special drying machines until they have a designated humidity level of 10-12%. (The picture, left, shows coffee drying in the sun at a plantation in Costa Rica.) Dry milling is typically used with lower-quality coffee beans, since it's mostly carried out in areas that lack the optimal conditions for coffee production.

Wet milling is the preferred form of processing. This method is more complex than dry milling, but it tends to produce a higher quality bean.

Wet milling begins with the harvest. On the same day as the harvesting, the cherries are transported to a pulping machine that removes the outer skins. The beans are then dried or sent to fermentation tanks where they are left to ferment for a period of time. Once this process is finished, the beans are washed thoroughly with clean water to remove any residue. After washing, they are dried in the sun or by artificial drying machines. The end product is a green bean, that is, a coffee bean that is still raw and unroasted. The green beans are wrapped in parchment and stored in a dry area with good ventilation. Their humidity level is carefully monitored. Some beans are taken from each lot and used to produce drinking coffee. The flavor of the coffee is determined by the quality of the crop.

From tree to cup

By explaining how coffee is harvested and processed, I hope I've given you a new appreciation for the fragrant beans that your pump espresso machine transforms into a delicious beverage. You can order coffee beans roasted or in the raw for use with commercial espresso machines or at home. Whichever you prefer, be sure to grind your own beans for the freshest taste possible. Those beans have come a long way to provide you with the perfect pick-me-up.

July 2008

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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