Curiosity has gotten the best of me this morning. It’s been five years since my first cup of coffee, and in that time, I have never really dug too deep into the process of how it’s made. I’m willing to bet most of us haven’t.
Most of us can’t even function until we have had our coffee, and because of that, we must truly appreciate the ones who make the whole thing possible. To think a few beans have created a massive culture and industry worldwide. The whole world is drinking coffee, but very few people know of its origin.
We’re going to cover each step of the coffee-making process, walking you through the way it gets from the ground to your kitchen. So, pour yourself a cup of your favorite type of coffee and settle in!
Where Do Coffee Beans Come From?
Probably everyone, even those who’ve never sipped a cup of our favorite drink, knows coffee comes in bean form. But where do those little things we love to smell, grind, and eventually drink come from?
Coffee beans come from coffee farms, and they’re actually not beans at all. They’re seeds, and if they’re planted, they grow into coffee plants. And, as you can probably guess, those plants provide farmers with the beans that will eventually become the amazing coffee you sip every morning.
The seeds come from coffee cherries, the fruit that grows from coffee trees. Harvesting them can be difficult because coffee plants typically grow on uneven surfaces, like a mountain or hillside. To make things even more difficult, especially for one who is impatient, it typically takes three to four years for the plant to bear fruit…these are but a few reasons you should be extra grateful for coffee farmers and the hard work they put in to make sure you get your daily dose of goodness.
You should know the beans that come directly from the coffee plants look a lot different than the ones you picked up at the store. That’s because the types of coffee beans we use have been processed and roasted…but we’ll get to that later on.
The beans are harvested all over the globe, with Brazil producing the most coffee worldwide. But even then, beans from Central America, Latin America, and parts of Africa are enjoyed by many. Some people love Indonesian coffee, too.
A Coffee Production Breakdown
Once the pounds and pounds of coffee cherries are picked, it’s time for processing. This just means the fleshy outer layer of the fruit is removed, leaving only the bean to continue undergoing the rest of the coffee-producing and brewing process.
The process the farmer uses to get the coffee ready for your consumption is very important, as it impacts the flavor of the coffee later on. There are several coffee processing methods for producers to choose from, and we’re going to highlight some of the most popular ones.
The Wet Method
During the wet processing method, once all of the coffee cherries’ fleshy pulp is removed, the beans are placed in tanks of water and fermented for about 18-24 hours. This helps break down the thick and slimy layer surrounding the bean. Afterward, the farmer will wash the beans with fresh water then place the beans to dry either in the sun or in a large, rotating mechanical dryer.
The Dry Method
Also known as the natural method, the dry method takes all of the harvested coffee cherries to be laid out to dry on a giant patio. This process can take weeks, but it’s common in countries with a limited water supply. After being thoroughly dried, the cherries are put into a de-pulping machine. This method usually produces a more fruity-tasting bean and is common among varieties of coffee from Ethiopia or Kenya.
The Honey Processing Method
The honey processing method is said to be the most demanding coffee processing method, but the work is well worth it for the coffee lovers who want a brew that’s sweet sans extra sugar.
This method’s roots are in Costa Rica, having been started as an experiment in cutting down water consumption. Despite what its name implies, no actual honey is involved when the coffee beans are processed.
Honey processing works by de-pulping the coffee cherry but leaving the sticky mucilage that covers the beans (which is often called the “honey”) intact as the coffee beans ferment. How long the honey-coated beans are left to ferment determines which of the four honey processing categories the result falls into.
Honey Processing Categories:
- White Honey Process: About 80 to 100 percent of the coffee’s mucilage, or honey, is removed from the beans. White honey processed beans are fermented for the least amount of time, and the result isn’t an overly sweet brew; instead, it’s a cup of coffee that’s only subtly sweet.
- Yellow Honey Process: About 50 to 75 percent of the honey is removed from the bean during the yellow honey process, and like white honey processed coffee, these beans are also fermented quickly. However, they spend about a week drying.
- Red Honey Process: Up to 50 percent of the mucilage is removed from the coffee beans during red honey processing. Then, they are left to dry for two to three weeks. This processing method is tricky, however, as it’s easy for these beans to become sour or over-fermented if they don’t get constant attention.
- Black Honey Process: As little of the coffee’s honey is removed as possible during the black honey process, and of the honey processed options, these beans have the longest fermentation process, sometimes lasting up to two weeks! Thanks to the long fermentation period, the resulting brew is usually richer with full sweetness and body.
Instant coffee — you either love it or hate it, and without the magic of dehydration, it simply would not exist.
Instant coffee is made from whole coffee beans that have been roasted, ground, and brewed before being dehydrated by means of spray or freeze-drying. Once all the water’s been removed from the coffee, you get the crystallized coffee granules so many turn to when a regular coffee maker isn’t available, or they want to enjoy a cup of coffee in a matter of seconds.
- Spray Drying Process: Liquid coffee concentrated is sprayed into very hot and dry air, and the droplets turn into coffee granules.
- Freeze Drying Process: Liquid coffee is chilled twice, first at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit and second at about -40 degrees Fahrenheit until it becomes a chunk of frozen java. Then, the chunk is broken down into small granules that are then sent to a drying vacuum that leaves behind instant coffee crystals.
The process of decaffeinating coffee begins while the beans are still green. First, the coffee beans are swollen with hot water or steam. Then, some sort of solvent — usually ethyl acetate, methylene chloride, or carbon dioxide — is used to extract the caffeine from them. Then, the newly decaffeinated beans are dried before being roasted and packaged.
Not every manufacturer processes decaffeinated coffee the same way, however. In fact, some of them don’t even use chemical solvents at all. Instead, they rely on the Swiss Water Process. This process enlists the aid of pure water to gently remove the caffeine from beans while also ridding them of dirt, dust, and silverskin.
Rumor Has It…
Since we’re getting to the bottom of how coffee is produced and made, it’s only fitting to address two of the most common (and perhaps most disgusting) production and manufacturing myths.
Ground coffee contains ground-up cockroaches.
You’ve likely heard this uttered before, probably by a staunch pre-ground coffee naysayer.
These rumors were sparked by entomologist Dr. Douglas Emlen, when he revealed in an NPR interview that most pre-ground coffee has ground cockroaches in it, as at least 10 percent of green coffee beans are insect-infested. Because these crawly critters can’t be removed, they’re processed and ground up with the beans.
According to Snopes, FDA has established a maximum level of natural defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans, and unfortunately, these include insect byproducts. But so far, there hasn’t been concrete proof of there being traces of cockroaches in your beloved bag of ground beans.
Coffee comes from elephant poop.
We’re very pleased to report that the cup of joe you’re sipping as you read this article did not come from elephant poop…that is, unless, you paid $120 for the bag of beans you brewed it with.
The only coffee that’s made with elephant poop is Black Ivory Coffee, a brand created by a Canadian entrepreneur named Blake Dinkin. His product is made by passing coffee beans through elephants’ stomachs and retrieving them from…er…you know what.
The idea came from “kopi luwak,” or civet coffee, which is the same concept as elephant poop coffee, except it’s passed through the Asian palm civet.
Why would anyone dare drink poop coffee, you ask? It’s because digestion is a natural process of fermentation, and some swear up and down that both Black Ivory and civet coffees are smoother and less acidic than any other joe.
Tasting the Coffee
Ah…now the process is getting exciting! After all the hard work of harvesting and processing the coffee beans, a few lucky individuals called cuppers will have the honor of being the first ones to taste test the harvest. Once the green coffee beans have been visually inspected, a small batch will be roasted and ground for taste testing.
A good cupper can test several batches and samples in one day and still be able to spot out individual flaws or characteristics. The importance of taste-testing the coffee is not just to find out the flaws but also to see which beans will blend well together.
The cupper first smells the coffee to check its aromatic quality. The aroma is a huge determining factor of how good the coffee will taste. Next, the cupper will take a spoonful of the coffee sample, cover his taste buds, then spit it out.
After the beans have been tasted, they can be exported to roasters, which leads us to the next step in the process…and it’s nothing less than an art form.
Roasting the Coffee Beans
The coffee roasting process is one of the most important parts of the whole journey. This process is met with great care to transform the green coffee beans into the divine beans we get to take home and enjoy.
Even though this is mostly done by coffee professionals, some big-time coffee drinkers are roasting beans at home.
Let’s walk through the stages of the coffee roasting process:
- Pre-Heating: The drum needs to be preheated to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit before the green beans can be put inside the roaster. The roasting temperature will vary based on different machinery and roasting styles.
- Drying: Now the coffee has entered the roasting machine, and the beans start to absorb the heat. Now steam will start to form due to the evaporation of water inside the beans.
- Aromas and Sounds: This is where the real roasting begins. The sugars inside the beans start to caramelize, water begins to leave the beans through steam, and the famous first crack is heard. At this point, the beans are technically ready to be ground up and used to make coffee.
- Further Caramelization: Following the first crack, the beans will continue to caramelize. Beans at this stage are at the most popular level of roasting.
- Dark Roast: If you continue to roast more, the sugars will begin to burn. This is how we get dark roasted beans, which are commonly enjoyed in cold brew coffee.
The whole roasting process is a lot more complex than the brief overview here, so if you would like to see in more detail how coffee beans are roasted, feel free to check out the video below to get a more up-close and personal view of how coffee shops get roasted beans.
After being roasted, the beans are shipped all over the world to be sold by grocery stores and coffee shops. Most people overlook how important packaging is for a successful coffee business. People are very brand loyal when it comes to their java, so it’s important the packaging helps a brand become someone consumers can remember.
Plus, the packaging is the only way to be sure the processed beans stay as fresh as possible until they make it to you and your coffee maker or espresso machine, so it’s not something coffee companies should skimp on.
Grinding the Coffee Beans
There is no sound on Earth that’s better than that of fresh beans in the grinder. Just like every other step in this process, getting the coffee ground properly is something to be approached with vigilance and patience.
If you don’t already own a grinder, it’s a great idea to pick one up. Going from buying pre-ground coffee to grinding my own beans has positively transformed my whole coffee brewing experience. Sure, it’s a little more work, but you will taste and appreciate the flavors in a way you probably haven’t before. Besides…nothing this good ever comes easily!
Don’t have a coffee grinder but want to enjoy the rich, full flavors of whole bean coffee? Don’t stress, there are ways you can grind your coffee without a grinder.
The better we grind the beans, the more flavor our coffee will have. A weak grind can ruin a batch of good coffee beans, so it’s important this step doesn’t go overlooked. Let’s look at the different styles of grind and what kind of coffee they’re good for.
A coarse grind still leaves behind little chunks of coffee beans. This typically looks a little bit like granulated sugar, and this size is mostly used in a French press.
A medium grind is probably the most commonly used grind. It’s where the coffee bean is ground between a coarse and fine grind, and it’s popular among drip coffee maker users.
A fine grind is grinding the coffee bean down to a powder. This is the style of kind you would use if you were making espresso.
You may ruin a few pounds of beans by grinding them too long, ending up with the wrong grind size for your brewer. Yes, it’s frustrating, but it’s a part of learning; those mistakes will make you an expert later on. If you want to become an expert sooner, however, check out our coffee grind size chart for more detailed tips. You’re welcome.
Brewing the Coffee
At last, we’ve made it to the best part: brewing the coffee. This is the act of actually making the joe, and it’s generally done with hot water (unless you’re making cold brew). Brew methods are constantly evolving, with baristas and average coffee enthusiasts alike discovering better ways to make a delicious cup every day.
For a detailed list of coffee brewing methods, check out this article, but for now, let’s take a look at five of the most common ways coffee is made at home.
Drip coffee is by far the most popular form of brewing coffee. The automatic drip machine sends hot water through the coffee beans and then filters it into a pot below.
Using a plunger to filter grounds from the water, the French press is a very easy and convenient way to brew coffee at home. There is no installation or electricity necessary, and the little French press brewer is compact enough to fit on your kitchen countertop without taking up too much space.
Cold brew is a growing trend in the coffee community. Contradicting the normal methods of hot brewing, cold brew is made using cold or room temperature water. It’s less acidic and has a smoother sip than regular coffee. Believe it or not, people add nitrogen to their cold brew for a higher caffeine content.
Another form of drip coffee, the pour-over method uses boiled water to produce a very tasty cup packed with flavor. This method by far yields the most unique of taste. If you fancy a cup known for its special taste, the pour-over brew is for you.
The Moka pot uses hot steam to brew the grounds. This is a great way of making espresso-like coffee at home. These are great because they don’t take up much space in your kitchen, and they’re portable — great for camping. Just be prepared for guests to ask, “What’s that?” every time you pull it out.
If you tend to stick to the brew that comes out of your classic drip machine, challenge yourself to try something brewed differently; you and your tastebuds probably won’t regret it. And you’ll also learn a bit more about the drink you love so much.
Common Coffee Questions
Are coffee beans seeds?
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you pulled one of the coffee beans from the airtight container in your pantry and planted it in the backyard? Would a coffee tree spring forth, saving you more money on coffee beans than you can even imagine?
Unfortunately, you won’t be starting any coffee plantations any time soon if all you have on hand are processed and roasted coffee beans. But if you have unprocessed beans, they can be planted to grow coffee plants because coffee beans are actually seeds.
Before you and your green thumb get too excited about the prospect of growing coffee, you should know that the process of tending these plants requires lots of time and patience, as it could take years for the plant to even produce coffee cherries…and that doesn’t include the additional year it sometimes takes for those cherries to ripen!
While the thought of planting coffee seeds and harvesting your own joe might sound great in theory, it’s probably (definitely) easier to just purchase beans instead.
Is coffee a fruit?
Kind of. The coffee bean itself isn’t a fruit because…well, because it’s a bean…er, a seed. But it does come from a fruit — the coffee cherry (which is edible, by the way, and before you ask: no, it does not taste like coffee). So, though the actual coffee beans aren’t fruits, they are part of a fruit, which means that unfortunately, sipping two cups of coffee a day isn’t the same thing as getting your recommended two cups of fruit.
Is coffee a grain?
Nope. Foods in the grain family are hard seeds that are grown without a hull or a fruit layer, and as mentioned above, coffee beans are actually found inside the coffee cherry, nestled right in the middle of the red fruit’s pulp and skin.
How is flavored coffee made?
Flavored coffee is the result of combining recently roasted, still-warm coffee beans with a flavored oil.
Sometimes, the added flavors are artificial — synthetic chemicals that consist of concentrated flavors. Other times, the flavors are natural, extracted from vanilla, cocoa, or nuts, but this is not as common as artificial flavoring, as using natural flavor oils is more expensive and time-consuming.
How the beans are processed before they’re roasted and combined with the flavored syrup is left up to the manufacturer — wet, dry, honey, or Swiss Water processed, they can all be flavored.
Look how far our little coffee beans have come, moving from a tree full of colorful coffee cherries to a cup of piping hot (or cold, for you cold brew and iced coffee lovers) deliciousness. The process is a lengthy one, but it yields a great product and an amazing culture of coffee enthusiasts.
The next time you’re sipping your cappuccino or latte, think back to all of the hard work being put into your beverage…you’re probably going to enjoy it a lot more!