KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 14 — Before your barista gets to make your favourite cappuccino, before the beans themselves are roasted and delivered to your neighbourhood café, the coffee itself has to be farmed and processed before it can be exported from its country of origin.
Seeds, cherries and beans
Coffee seeds aren’t planted in the exposed plantations immediately. Generally speaking, they have to be sown in shaded nurseries first. Only after the seedlings have sprouted, are they replanted permanently.
To ensure that the young trees have a chance to take root, planting is usually done during the wet season so the soil remains moist. This way the seedlings are also protected from harsh sunlight until they are larger.
After 3-4 years, the trees will begin bearing an oval-shaped fruit called the coffee cherry. Once this happens, it takes a further 6-7 months for the cherries to mature. Inside each cherry are nestled two halves that, when processed, are what we recognise as coffee beans.
When ripe, most varieties ripen to a bright red though a few turn a golden yellow instead. Time for harvesting!
The pick of the crop
Harvesting the coffee crop can be a very labour-intensive process. In fact, in most countries harvesting has to be performed by hand due to the hilly terrain. Where the land is flatter and the coffee plantations are larger, such as Brazil, machines can be used.
There are two different methods for picking the cherries. For most coffee crops, the entire harvest is completed in a single period. This is called strip picking, because all the cherries are stripped off their branches, either by hand or machine.
For finer Arabica beans, selective picking is employed. Here, only the ripest cherries are picked individually by hand. The workers have to rotate among the trees every few days and only harvest cherries that are at their peak.
A good picker can harvest an average of 40-80kg of coffee cherries a day. In turn, after processing, this will produce about 10-20kg of coffee beans. As such, this method of harvesting is more labour-intensive and hence more costly.
Dry vs. wet processing
After harvesting, the cherries are processed either using the dry or wet method to prevent spoilage. The type of method used depends on both geography and resources available.
In many countries, water supply is limited and so dry processing is the only option. The cherries are spread over a large surface in the open so the sun can dry them. They are raked and turned throughout the day and covered at night to prevent them from spoiling. This may take weeks, depending on the weather, until the moisture content of the cherries falls to 11 per cent and they are deemed dried.
In wet processing, the cherries go through a pulping machine to separate the skin and pulp from the beans.
The lighter beans float to the top while the heavier and riper beans sink when they go through the water channels. Water-filled fermentation tanks are then used to remove the layer of mucilage still attached to the beans.
After drying, the beans are then hulled to remove all extraneous layers. These raw, unroasted green beans are then graded and sorted by size. Once complete, the beans are ready for shipping, finally! It takes a lot of work to ensure a good harvest doesn’t go to waste. That’s a “bean” for thought when you have your next cuppa.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on September 13, 2013.