The Coffee Bean
Coffee grows in more than 50 coutnries with warm, humid climates and altitudes ranging from sea level to 6,000 feet and above. The two main coffees that are traded commercially are arabica and robusta.
The arabica tree produces a fine quality coffee. These beans are delicate and flavorful and sell at higher prices because of their qualtiy and availability. Arabica trees are suseptible to disease, frost, and drouught, thus they require very careful cultivation with just the right climate conditions.
The robusta trees, bears more coffee cherries, and is hardier and more disease resistant. Robustas are often used in instant coffees and many popular commercial blends.
After seeds are planted, it takes three to five years for the coffee plant to become full trees. Initially, seeds are planted in potting soil and tended in nursuries. Then, when the plants reach a height of 18 to 24 inches, they transplant to permanent groves blessed with a balance of sunchine, shade, and rain. 70 degree temperatures are ideal. For the next year or two, the plants are fertilized, pruned and weeded. White jasmine-scented flowers soon follow.
Two coffee beans, covered by a silvery skin and parchment, lie inside each red cherry, although nature occasionally provides only one bean from a cherry, known as a “peaberry”. When the green berries ripen to a bright red, they are sweet to the taste and ready to pick.
A robusta tree yields 2 to 3 pounds of green coffee a year, and an arabica tree only yields 1 to 1.5 pounds. This is the equivalent of approximately 2,500 cherries or one pound of roasted coffee per tree.
Harvesting high-grade arabica coffees is very labor intensive because only the ripest cherries are selected for processing. Workers must return to the trees many times as different cherries ripen.
There are two coffee processing categories - the wet method (washed) and the dry method (unwashed or natural). In the wet method, the pulp is removed mechanically. To loosen the remaining pulp, the cherries are placed in a large, clean concrete tank to ferment. The beans are then poured into water and thoroughly washed. They are drained and spread out to dry in the sun or dried mechanically. Next, hulling machines remove the parchment and silver skin to reveal the green beans, which are then sorted and graded for various levels of quality. In the dry method, the cherries are spread out in the sun on patios or drying mats. Turned by rakes several times a day, the beans dry in one to two weeks. When dry, they are transferred to hulling machines for removal of dried husk, parchment, and silver skin in preparation for sorting and grading.
Gourmet coffee (arabica) can be processed by either the wet or dry method. For example, Colombian, Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Kenyan, Hawaiian Kona, and Mexican coffee beans are processed by the wet method. Most Brazilian coffees, some Ethiopians, and some Indonesians are processed by the dry method. Once the beans are sorted and grated, they are bagged and transported to ports for warehousing and shipping.
Exporting and Importing:
The economics of many countries greatly depend upon the successful cultivation and harvesting of coffee beans. Coffee-producing counties must meet the quantity demands of the consuming countries, as well as the demand for quality coffee.
Although some coffee is grown in Hawaii, the United States imports the vast majority of its coffee. Through principal ports of New York City, New Orleans, and San Francisco come one third of the world's coffee supply, all destined for U.S. consumption. The major producers of coffee imported into the United States are Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Angola, Ivory Coast, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Kenya and Indonesia.
Like you, roasters and retailers of green and roasted coffee beans carefully select their merchandise for quality. They examine coffee beans for imperfections and for small, broken beans which roast darker than the rest and give a burnt taste to brewed coffee. Specialty merchants generally will not accept coffees containing broken beans or other defects that negatively affect the flavor of the brewed coffee.
Testing Quality Taste:
Before purchasing, roasters and retailers usually conduct a cup-tasting to evaluate the flavor, aroma, and body of the coffee. This process tells a great deal about the coffee. "Cupping" also reveals distinct qualities that help determine coffees that can be used in specialty blends. Only after it meets the rigorous requirements of the taster's test will a gourmet coffee be offered to you, the consumer.