Like any plant, the coffee tree responds to careful nurture. And, like most plants, it can thrive under challenging conditions and yet emerge unscathed.

In areas of Ethiopia, where coffee was discovered centuries ago, wild “heirloom” coffee bushes proliferate everywhere—by the roadsides, on the hills, untended. On the other end of the spectrum, in some countries—Colombia and Brazil, for example—research and mechanization have changed the face of coffee growing, and many new cultivars are produced in laboratories.

It all starts on an equatorial mountainside

Coffee climates are typically found within 1,000 miles of the equator, and coffee grows sweeter as the altitude rises, until around 7,000 feet (2,100 meters) above sea level. At this point, the climate ceases to be temperate enough to permit growth. Coffee plants are usually nurtured from seed to seedling and then transplanted to the field, beginning to produce fruit in their fourth or fifth year. With careful tending, coffee trees can last for upwards of 40 years, depending on the variety.

Coffee grows best in the warm climates near the equator from 25° North to 30° South, known as the "Bean Belt".

Harvesting

Picture a coffee tree glowing with health and bursting with ripe fruit, often a deep pie-cherry or dark burgundy red. Producers and harvesters who understand the demands of specialty coffee pick only fully-ripe (in Latin America, maduro) cherries, weighing them up at the end of the day, pouring them from baskets, and preparing them for either wet or dry processing.

Deribe, a coffee farmer in Gololcha, Ethiopia, picks a handful of cherries from his trees.

Processing

Coffee processing removes the fruit from the seed; skin, pulp, parchment, and silverskin slough off to reveal a beautiful bean. Ranging from pale yellow to pale green, if bitten, the bean gives slightly under the tooth.

Washed (or wet) process

In countries where water is plentiful, the cherries are usually passed through a pulping machine, sorted by weight, and deposited in a fermentation tank. Here, naturally occurring enzymes dissolve the pulp until it can be washed from the bean, a process that takes 12 to 72 hours depending on many factors such as temperature and humidity. Once fermented, the washed coffee, still in its parchment (filmy, paper-like covering) is spread out to dry until it reaches around 11% moisture content. At this point, the seed is stabilized and won’t germinate.

Workers at Qonqona mill in Sidama, Ethiopia, using wooden rakes to scrub coffee in washing channels and tanks.

Honey (Semi-washed) process

“Honey” is a term that arose in Central America when this coffee process was created, and it hints at the intense clean sweetness that comes from coffee cherries being partially washed, with a portion of the sticky mucilage left on the cherries. At this point, the coffee is spread out to dry in the sun and the fruit adheres to the bean. This is similar to the traditional “pulp-natural” style of Brazilian processing.

Yasu, manager of Reko Koba mill in Kochere, Ethiopia, proudly displays his experimental honey processed lot as it dries on the tables.

Natural (or dry) process

In other countries where water is not as readily available, freshly-picked cherries are spread out on tarps, patios, and even sometimes along the road—wherever the fruit can best dry in the sun. Reaching optimal moisture content can take weeks. Throughout this drying process, the coffees are regularly turned with rakes to ensure even drying.

Coffee cherries being dried on raised beds at the Damota Wolayta Farmers’ Cooperative Union in Sidamo, Ethiopia. (See Ethiopia Sidamo Decaf from Voyage Coffee Roasters.)

Hulling

Whether wet, honey, or dry processed, hulling then removes the parchment from bean. Methods for hulling range from primitive hand mills to highly sophisticated equipment. Once hulled, coffees are sorted into screen sizes and then defect sorting takes place—sometimes a line of 80-plus women visually inspecting and removing defects, sometimes cutting-edge laser sorters performing this important step.

A woman visually inspects the hulled beans for defects at an Ethiopian export warehouse.

Storage & transportation

Once fully processed, the coffee is stored in agriculture-specific plastic bags inside jute bags and exported via shipping containers to consuming countries. Portside, the coffee shipment is inspected, purchased, and shipped to roasters where it is roasted and mailed to you, to enjoy in your morning cup.

Bags of coffee being packed in an Addis Ababa export warehouse, to be shipped to the port of Oakland.

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