The Coffee Line, Part I: Coffee Farming

20130925_114856by Ariela Rose

Perhaps what I love most about the coffee industry is its hand-to-hand, assembly line like process. Starting with the dedicated farmers who plant, nourish, and harvest coffee plants, and ending with the creative baristas who grind, brew, and share exhilarating drinks with eager customers.

Since wet weather and cold has many of us  staying indoors lately, relishing in the warmth of blankets (and hopefully a steaming mug of coffee!), I thought what better time to share just a bit of what I’m dubbing “the coffee line,” a.k.a. the series of events responsible for bringing that steaming mug in your hands to you.

However, rather than bombarding you with a whole slew of coffee production information, we’ll start slow and continue with a series of weekly posts that each highlight a different step in the line. Today we’ll take you way back to the very beginning; the growing and processing of the coffee plant.

Part I: Coffee Farming

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At Ride Studio Cafe we have a lot of fun discussing the origins of our beans with customers -- describing the environment, taste, and process unique to each coffee and country of origin. We love that we work with coffee roasters who readily provide this information to us, and who are committed to working with and truly getting to know small-scale coffee farmers. A big part of the roaster/grower relationship is the roaster’s role in ensuring that coffee farmers are paid fairly for their incredibly labor intensive work. All of our roasters travel to the farms that produce the beans they work  with to witness labor conditions firsthand, and in their mission statements proudly declare that it is not them, but rather the growers, who deserve the credit for the delicious end product.

As for coffee farming itself, the process can be broken down as such:

1. Planting the Coffee Bean (Seed): Initially planted in large, shaded nursery beds, the seeds are transplanted into individual pots once they sprout. Once hearty enough, the small coffee trees are permanently planted during the country of origin’s wet season. Moist conditions ensure that the trees’ roots will become more easily established in the soil.

2. Harvesting the Coffee Cherries: After three or four years, the young trees will begin to bear the fruit known as coffee cherries. When the cherries reach ripeness, they are ready for harvest, which in most coffee producing countries is done by hand. Pickers will either strip pick (strip all cherries off of the branch at one time), or selectively pick (pick only the cherries that are ripe and rotate amongst the trees every eight to ten days). Experienced pickers can pluck 100 to 200 cherries a day, which equals about 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans.

3. Processing the Cherries: Typically done one of three ways, processing must be performed as soon as possible to prevent the cherries from spoiling. Natural Process: Since the availability of water is often limited in many coffee producing countries, this method simply relies on the sun. The cherries are spread out on large surfaces to dry under the sun’s hot rays, and rotated throughout the day to prevent spoiling. At night, or during rain, the cherries are covered. Once they reach a moisture content of 11 percent, they are ready to be stored. As you may have tasted at the Cafe, dry or natural processed coffees are characterized by a heavy body/mouth feel, and some incredibly intense fruit flavors!

Washed Process: Essentially, the cherry and the mucilage  are removed from the coffee bean using a de-pulping machine and fermentation tanks. After this they are ready for drying either in the sun or mechanically. Washed process beans must reach approximately 11 percent moisture before they are ready for storage. Once dry, they’re referred to as ‘parchment coffee’ because the beans are still encased in the plant’s parchment envelope a.k.a. the endocarp. The taste of wet or washed processed coffees in bright, clean, and mild -- the majority of the beans we serve at the Cafe have gone through this process.

Semi-Washed: Similar to the washed process in its initial steps, but instead of removing the mucilage, semi-washed beans are left to dry with the mucilage still attached. Beans undergoing this process can only be dried on flat patios in the sun, as putting them in drying machines would cause the mucilage to stick to and ruin the equipment. The taste of these beans will be somewhere in between a washed and natural taste -- fuller body, semi-intense mouth feel, and exciting fermented fruit flavors.

4. Milling the Beans: Simply put, this process removes the parchment from the green coffee beans. This is the final process before shipping and must be done carefully. At this point, defective beans, and Peaberry are also sorted out. From there the green beans are packaged (vacuum packing, or GrainPro bags are two methods commonly used today), and shipped to their respective roasters.

As you can see, the coffee growing process is a highly involved, hands-on one that takes time and care. If you’d like to learn more, ask us about it in the Cafe, and check out these great resources from our friends at George Howell, Heart Coffee Roasters, Stumptown and the National Coffee Association, USA.