Brewing a delicious cup of coffee only takes a few minutes. However, the beans go through several stages before reaching your home. But what actually happens? This guide outlines the journey of a coffee bean, from the seed to your cup. Then, next time you’re settling down for a gorgeous coffee, you’ll know exactly how it got there.
As well as being both informative and educational, we hope that in offering details on each stage of coffee production, you can put the guide to practical use, too, as it can help you choose the appropriate coffee beans. Let’s go into detail.
How Is Coffee Made – From Seed To Cup Summary
In general, coffee production has the following processes.
- Seeds > Planting and Growing
- Coffee Plant > Harvesting
- Coffee Cherry > Processing
- Green Beans > Roasting
- Roasted Beans > Grinding
- Coffee Beans > Brewing
- A cup of coffee
Coffee begins as a humble seed planted into the soil by farmers. It takes several years for the seed to grow into a coffee plant and produce coffee berries. When the berries ripen, farmers harvest the cherries and use a variety of methods to process them.
Once processed, the cherries become green beans that are distributed to roasters. The roasters then roast the green beans into the brown beans we’re familiar with, and they are then sold to consumers.
Once you have the beans, they need grinding. Then you can turn those grounds into a cup of coffee using your chosen brewing method.
That is a very brief summary of the process. Read on for a more detailed description of each stage of coffee production. Keep an eye out for various words and phrases that you’ll notice when buying coffee beans, too.
A Coffee Bean’s Journey – Breaking Down The Coffee Production
In this early stage, coffee seeds become coffee plants that produce coffee cherries.
Like every plant, a coffee tree begins as a seed. Coffee seeds usually grow in large beds on coffee farms. It takes three to six months for the seed to germinate. These vulnerable seedlings are frequently watered and shaded from direct sunlight until they are strong enough to plant permanently. Depending on the type of seed, it takes around three to four years for the trees to bear fruit.
The two main coffees are Arabica and Robusta. The former is considered the best because of its more complex flavors. Arabica coffee beans can be sub-divided into varieties, including bourbon, catimor, catuai, and caturra. Meanwhile, Robusta beans are known for their higher caffeine content and bitter flavor.
There are many coffee-producing countries. Among them are Ethiopia and Kenya in Africa, Colombia and Brazil in South America, and Indonesia and Vietnam in Asia. As a result, the flavor profile and characteristics of the coffees differ from region to region because of factors including climate, soil, and altitude.
Once the coffee cherries are ripe, they are picked and prepared for processing.
Some coffee-producing regions harvest every year, while others harvest twice a year. The harvesting process is reflected in the cost of the beans as it can usually be done either manually or with a machine.
In many regions, harvesting the cherries is no easy task because the coffee plants grow on uneven terrains like mountains and hillsides. In these cases, the cherries need harvesting by hand, which is very labor-intensive. Meanwhile, other regions have flatter terrains meaning machines can speed up the process.
One harvesting method is called “strip picked” The cherries are stripped from the branch in one go, then picked and filtered either with a machine or by hand. This method reduces the cost but leads to lower-quality beans.
For premium Arabica beans, only the ripe cherries are hand-picked. Pickers rotate among the coffee trees every 8 to 10 days and hand-pick only the most optimally ripe cherries – a costly and labor-intensive process.
Once the cherries are picked, they move to the next phase – processing.
This stage sees the coffee cherries become green coffee beans.
Coffee processing extracts the bean from cherry. This is a crucial phase because the flavor is affected by the way the beans are processed. There are three primary processing methods – natural (dry), wash (wet), and honey processing. Let’s look more closely at these methods.
Dry Processing (Natural)
The cherries dry in the sun on brick or concrete surfaces and are regularly hand-turned for even drying. This will take around two weeks to a month, depending on factors like temperature and humidity. When the cherries are sufficiently dry, they are poured into silos or taken to a mill. There, the cherries are hulled to extract the fruit.
Wet Processing (Wash)
Using this wet method, the fruit’s flesh is removed from the ripe cherries before drying in a depulper. Once depulping is complete, fermentation of the beans takes place in a water tank. After that, the beans are dried to around 10 to 12 percent moisture.
This process bypasses the fermentation stage, and the coffee is pulped. After this, the beans dry with most of the fruit flesh present.
This is merely a summary of coffee processing. However, the methods vary depending on the regions and coffee plantations. We go into greater detail in our coffee processing guide.
Once processed, beans are sorted and graded. Natural mutations occur in around 5 to 10 percent of beans. These little coffee beans have only one seed in the cherry (instead of two). These are sold separately as the more expensive peaberry beans.
Some green beans have the caffeine removed to become decaf coffee. Meanwhile, others are processed into instant coffee. We detailed how instant coffee is made in another guide. If you want to know more about instant coffee, feel free to check it out.
Once the beans are processed, milled, and graded, they are exported to roasters worldwide to be roasted.
The roasting process sees the green beans become the actual coffee beans we know and love. It is another process that has a significant impact on the flavor.
Roasters concoct different roast profiles with beans from different sources. So, the region, type of bean, processing method, and desired flavor characteristics all inform how a bean is roasted. Depending on the time required to roast the green coffee beans, they fall into one of three roasting levels:
Light roasted coffee beans are nearly complete before the first crack. They retain complex acidity and their original characteristics. This roasting level is particularly popular in specialty coffee.
Most coffee enthusiasts prefer these beans. The original character of the beans remains. However, they have a more robust, well-rounded flavor. This roast is also known as American roast, breakfast roast, or city roast and is ideal for most brewing methods.
Dark roast coffees are dark brown with surface oil. They are usually low in acid and are more bitter. Darker roasts are often known as Vienna roast, Italian roast, or French roast. This roast type is often used in espresso making.
We explained more about roasts and their flavor profiles in the coffee roasts guide.
With the roasted beans to hand, you’ll need to grind them. Getting the grind size correct is vital for a delicious coffee.
Coffee experts always recommend purchasing fresh whole bean coffee rather than pre-ground coffee for optimal flavor. Of course, if you do this, you’ll need a good grinder.
Different grind sizes affect coffee extraction, which has a significant impact on the taste. In general, you’ll have to grind the beans to the correct size for the brewing method you’re using (fine, medium, or coarse). If you’re not sure which grind size to use, check out our coffee grind size chart.
With the coffee grounds ready, you can brew your coffee. Ideally, you’ll need a coffee maker to extract the grounds properly. Each brewing method significantly impacts the flavor.
There are many brewing methods and coffee makers for brewing beautiful coffee, including:
- Pour over Dripper (V60, Chemex, Kalita Wave)
- Vacuum coffee maker
- French press
- Espresso machine
- Drip Coffee maker
- and others…
Nowadays, making a delicious cup of coffee can be almost as simple as pressing a button and leaving your machine to do the rest. However, because of this, it can be easy to forget that before the coffee reaches your machine, it undergoes several crucial stages that are often both labor-intensive and time-consuming.
Hopefully, this guide has outlined the stages in a way that gives you a renewed appreciation for your much-loved beverage of choice. Not only that, but being aware of the processes involved in getting your coffee from seed to cup can offer an important insight into the kinds of beans that are best for you.
As we have explained, what begins life as a humble seed goes through remarkable growth and changes before it is finally ready to drink. So, as we settle down with a beautiful cup of coffee, we think it’s well worth reflecting on just how amazing each stage of the process is – from seed to cup and, ultimately, to a beverage that’s uniquely, beautifully satisfying.