The Wild Foods Guide to Coffee - Did you know that it takes a single coffee tree an entire year to grow about a pound of green coffee beans?
"Coffee is a language in itself."
The best coffee grows at higher altitudes, 3000 - 6000 feet above sea level, in a climate with consistent temperature. Typically, the higher a coffee grows, the slower it develops, which lends to more intense flavor development.
In areas where the climate may be to warm to grow the fickle arabica plant, shade helps reduce the temperature. The shade also provides a natural habitat for birds (with “bird-friendly” certifications showing up on some coffee labels) which act as a natural “pesticide” by eating insects that would otherwise damage the coffee trees. Shade also improves the soil and local ecosystem. Finally, many link "shade grown" coffee to an improvement in coffee flavor.
Coffee is unique compared to other crops in that it produces new flowers and varying stages of ripe cherries throughout the fruiting season. This results in ripe cherries needing harvest many times throughout the year. For farmers, skilled pickers that can pick ripe cherries among unripe cherries are a valuable asset and worth paying a premium for.
After harvesting, ripe coffee cherries are transported to a mill, or moved to the milling process immediately if the farm does their own milling. This is the “processing” stage.
The two main methods of processing the cherries are the wet/washed and natural/dry methods. Within each of these main categories, there are many variations.
Beans are shaken and washed through a screen to separate the larger ripe cherries from the unripe cherries. The ripe cherries will sink to the bottom and the unripe, or “bad,” cherries will float to the top.
The next stage is pulping. After sorting, the cherries are pushed through a screen by machine. The leftover pulp is used as fertilizer. Cherries that fail to pulp are not ripe enough and will be sorted by hand and used for lower quality coffees.
Next the coffee will ferment, which removes the rest of the pulp, mucilage and parchment surrounding the green coffee seeds.
The last stage is a final washing.
The wet process method is said to be less susceptible to mold (see article here), as well as better at preserving the flavor of each bean. It is also the most labor intensive compared to the other methods of processing coffee, and thus demands a higher price.
Natural/Dried Process Coffee:
The first step of the process is to clean and sort the cherries, removing twigs and leaves before being spread out on patios or tables to dry in the sun. After coffee is spread in a thin layer to dry, it is raked regularly to ensure even drying (a step where mold can be an issue).
The drying process can take up to four weeks and must be carefully monitored. Too dry and the beans will break during hulling. If the beans are not dry enough, they can become moldy.
Natural Process Coffee Fact: Because the beans dry while still in the cherry, natural process coffee develops a unique aroma and flavor—typically fruity with less acidity.
Can I drink it yet?! Nope...
Finally, after the processing stage, coffee beans are stored for a few months to further dry before the final sorting, cupping and grading. The three ways of sorting green coffee beans are:
Machine: A sensor detects imperfect beans and routes them out
Hand: sorted by hand. Can you imagine?
Hand on conveyor belt: Sorted by hand on a moving belt. Crazy!