Coffee, or rather the fruit and leaves of the coffee plant, were first consumed for the energetic high, which we now know is the result of caffeine. Today, we are a bit more refined than that! Coffee is one of the most prized commodities around the world, some believe only second to oil. As such, learning more about how it is grown and harvested is the only fitting way to pay homage to this aromatic brew.
Optimal Coffee Plant Climate
Arabica coffee beans are the most plentiful beans cultivated and shipped all around the world and there are two climate types in which they thrive. Subtropical areas with high altitudes between 1,800 to 3,800 feet are optimal as long as the dry and rainy seasons are clearly defined. The delineation of seasons allows for a distinct coffee bean growing season and a season specifically for the maturing period. Zimbabwe, parts of Mexico, Jamaica and the Sao Paulo region of Brazil are examples of this first type of optimal climate.
There are regions along the equator with altitudes of 3,600 to 6,400 feet and less than 10˚ latitude and almost daily rainfall. The frequency of rain allows for virtually constant flowering which creates two harvesting times. During the period with the most rainfall is one harvest while the ebbing rainfall period is the second harvest. Due to the large amount of rain, harvested coffee beans cannot be dried naturally and must be done via artificial means. Ethiopia and Colombia are two examples of this climate.
Robusta coffee beans account for a smaller percentage of the world market and is typically grown at lower altitudes from sea level up to about 3,200 feet. A 10˚range north and south of the equator is the typical growing area for Robusta as they are more forgiving of warmer conditions.
Planters have the most success in propagating a new coffee plant when starting from seed. The red, cherry-like exterior of the coffee bean is removed and often used for other things and usually fermented. What is left is the seed part that can either be planted fresh or the seed can be stored indefinitely until planting time.
Seeds are often planted in coffee nurseries in optimal growing conditions so that they will germinate. The wet seasons are the time when the seeds are planted in raised beds with specific pH-balanced soils for proper drainage and nutrition. Tiny seedlings will start to emerge within weeks. Typically the coffee nurseries offer protection from too much sun until such time as they are ready for transplanting to the coffee plantation.
It may take up to a year and a half before these coffee plant seedlings are large enough (about two feet high) to be transplanted. During this time the growers will slowly expose the tiny plants to more sunlight so they will not be thrown into shock during the transplant process.
Cultivation of the Coffee Beans
It could take up to four years before these coffee plants produce fruit, namely the red cherry appearance they get when ripe for picking. In many countries, the coffee plants are located in areas where machinery could be dangerous to operate due to the terrain. Therefore, most coffee bean picking is done by hand. It is labour-intensive and hard, but often necessary.
Typically, these coffee cherries are either picked all at one time or picked selectively. In areas where there is only one harvest season or the coffee bean is not one of the premiere varieties, the whole crop of coffee bean cherries are picked for processing.
The selective process is usually reserved for higher grade coffee beans or in areas where there are two harvesting seasons. Only the bright red coffee cherries are picked, leaving the green ones on the plant to mature. The harvesters will rotate the job every 7 to 10 days to check for maturing cherries that could be picked.
There are two processes used in harvesting and processing the picked coffee bean cherries – the wet and dry method. In areas where water is scarce or not readily available, the coffee beans are spread out to dry in the sun. These beans are rotated throughout the day for even drying time and to prevent spoilage. This process may take several weeks.
With the wet method, the coffee cherries are processed in a pulping machine which removes the outer material surrounding the actual bean and the pulp is rinsed away. The pulp is often recycled into organic compost. What is left after pulping is the bean covered in a parchment-like husk which is then run through various water treatments in which the less than ripe beans float and are removed leaving the ripe ones which sink. A fermentation process is performed on the beans to remove the slimy layer over the husk and then rinsed to prepare for the drying process.
Once the beans have been dried, they are ready for shipment around the world. Many companies which produce coffee and coffee products for consumers purchase the whole beans the roast them in different varieties and even grind them before packaging for placement on grocery shelves. From there, you just make your preferred selection, brew and enjoy!