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Coffee 101: Coffee’s Journey to Your Grinder

Coffee 101: Coffee’s Journey to Your Grinder

Words Erin Meister

A lot goes in to making coffee, even before it gets to your grinder. From caring to the planet, picking the fruit and roasting the beans, coffee is made with great skill.

We know it can be a journey just to wake up and crawl to your  coffee-making set-up in the kitchen, so we thought you might want to hear about how coffee is made and the journey it took before meeting you in your groggiest moments. After all, you’ve both worked so hard to find each other, and here you finally are! It makes that first cup taste even sweeter.

coffee plants

Plant

Before coffee looks anything like the magic beans we scoop into the grinder, it looks like a beautiful shrubby tree with a thin trunk and thinner branches. Coffee plants look like the most epic houseplants of all time: They have waxy, shiny leaves that grow in a range of Instagram-able greens, from forest to kelly to olive. Some of them grow to be quite tall, though they’re typically trimmed back to a maximum height of 5 or 6 feet; others are squatter and bushier.

In general, coffee prefers a nice heavy rainy season; moderately warm but not scorching days during the dry season, and temperate evenings without much wind—and no frost. Perhaps the loveliest thing about coffee plants is one of the least familiar:  The flowering phase. This is when the branches seem to explode into a spray of delicate white blossoms that smell like jasmine or honeysuckle, making the coffee farm look snow-covered. This short-lived period happens after the rains and is the sign that the tree is ready to bear fruit. We have to wait about nine months after flowering to see ripe coffee, but patience is a virtue and caffeine is a necessity!

coffee fruit

Fruit

Our favorite coffee “beans” are actually seeds that grow inside berry-like fruit that pop up on the branches of the coffee trees, taking the place of the coffee blossoms. These fruit, which we call coffee “cherries,” may vary a little in shape and size, but they mostly resemble cranberries.

Harvesting these coffee cherries is hard work and requires great skill. On most farms, the cherries ripen over the course of a few weeks, which means that pickers need to select only the ripest ones each time they pass through the rows. This might sound easy, but trust us, green very quickly starts to look like red when you’re harvesting 100-kilo bags of coffee at a time in the bright sun. It’s tough and underappreciated work, but it’s one of the keys to quality.

coffee beans

Bean

After the cherries are picked, the seed needs to be extracted. This can happen many ways, but the most common techniques are Washed and Natural processing. “Washed” coffees have the cherry fruit removed almost immediately after they’re picked, and “Natural” coffees are left to dry inside the intact cherry before being removed.

The seeds themselves also need to be dried before they’re stable enough to ship. Drying can take between 5 -30 days, depending on the process, the weather, and the technique the producer uses. Once they’re dry, they look like little yellowish or yellow-green pebbles, and smell sweetly grassy and fresh—just like other kinds of seeds.

roasted coffee beans

Magic!

This is the part where some real alchemy happens. In order for these little seeds to be your morning cup, they need to be roasted. Large commercial roasters might handle several hundreds of pounds of coffee at a time, while craft specialty roasters might work in mid-size batches, anywhere from 50-100lbs of coffee at a time.

Every step until now was crucial—even a great roaster can’t make a bad coffee taste good—but it is the roaster’s job to make those wonderful tastes and smells accessible to you and me for every brewing method.

Coffee roasting can be done many ways—same as processing, same as brewing—but every method has a few things in common. It’s done at very high heat, it typically takes between 9–20 active minutes per batch to do, and it takes a lot of skill to get it just right.

In the roaster, coffee goes through several different phases. First it needs to absorb heat from the roasting machine, then it starts to dry out and turn yellow, and then it begins to turn brown as the sugars inside caramelize and the coffee seed transforms into a recognizable bean. The aroma throughout the process is kind of awe-inspiring to experience, if you really love coffee. It goes from that wet and grassy smell to something like bread baking before it transforms into that sweet, nutty, rich coffee-like scent. 

That coffee aroma is the reason many of us wake up in the morning, and it is no less than a miracle that we get to enjoy it, thanks to countless hardworking people, incredible skill, and a lot of love along the way.

Now, doesn’t that make your journey to the kitchen worth it? Next step is to pick the right type of bean for your coffee making method – whether it’s French press, cold brew, drip or pour over.

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By Erin Meister

Erin Meister is a freelance writer for OXO. She is a specialty-coffee professional with 15-plus years as a barista, café manager, wholesale account representative, speaker, and educator; she currently sells green coffee for the Minneapolis-based importing company Café Imports. You can also hear her on weekly episodes of "Opposites Extract: A Debate Podcast about Coffee," available on iTunes.

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