The story of ground coffee beans is a long one, spanning several centuries.
Carolus Linneaus discovered the first coffee plantations in 1753. Since this time, coffee beans and the beverage has become popular worldwide.
Join us on a path to learn the story of ground coffee beans. First, find out where coffee beans originate and what coffee plantations look like.
Then, discover the ins and outs of processing this famous bean and how farmers harvest this crop for your early morning kick.
What Is Coffee?
Coffee beans come from shrubs or trees with leaves that range from one to sixteen inches.
There is a remarkable variety of coffee plants, including 500 genera and up to 6,000 species. All these plants originate from the Coffea genus.
Coffee shrubs or tree leaves also vary in color, which can be yellow, purple, or dark green, including other color variations.
The coffee beans or ground coffee that you purchase comes from the fruit of the coffee plant, which is known as the coffee cherry.
This coffee cherry has an exocarp which is the other film that protects the inner content.
The second layer of the cherry is known as the mesocarp, which is a delicate pulp that covers another inner layer, the parenchyma.
This parenchyma is slimy and covers the endocarp, also known as parchment, which protects the inner beans.
You will find two beans within the parchment of most coffee cherries, each protected by a thin membrane known as the spermoderm.
Coffee farmers call this spermoderm the silver skin.
Although most plants have two beans, approximately 5% of coffee species only have one.
When a coffee plant produces berries containing only one bean, it is known as a caracol in Spanish or a snail in English. Another name for these single beans is peaberry.
Peaberries are mutations, rare, and considered sweeter than double beans.
Peaberries can be present in Arabica or Robusta coffee plants, which are also the most viable commercial sources of the coffee you see on store shelves.
After harvesting these coffee cherries, they go through various processing methods before making them onto store shelves for sale.
There, you will find them available as roasted coffee beans, ground coffee beans or filter coffee, or as blends.
Where Does Coffee Grow?
Coffee grows in what is known as the Bean Belt of the Coffee Belt. The Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn border this region across the world.
The coffee bean (Coffea Arabica) has its origins in Ethiopia, and the Bean Belt has a similar climate, whether in the lowlands or highlands.
Most commercial Robusta coffee is grown in Africa (Central and Western), Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other regions in Southeast Asia.
These regions produce the most ground coffee beans that eventually reach commercial outlets.
Coffee trees or shrubs can only grow well in climates where the temperatures are mild. Ideal temperatures for growing the Arabica coffee plant ranges from 59 to 75 °F.
The Robusta plant grows well in temperatures between 75 and 85 °F, which is why it grows better, nearer to the equator in the lowlands.
The higher quality Arabica plants tend to come from the highlands and are grown at heights between 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level.
The best Arabica coffee beans also depend on how close they are to the equator.
These plants also require nutrient-rich soil and shade to thrive. The rainfall levels should be in the region of 60 inches annually.
Robusta beans are smaller and more round than Arabica beans which have an elongated shape.
Where the Robusta tree is robust enough to withstand parasitic attacks and diseases, the Arabica is not quite as hardy.
Neither of these coffee plants can withstand frost, which is why they are grown in warmer climates.
Because the Robusta is cheaper and easier to grow in the lowlands, it forms up to 70% of ground coffee beanssales worldwide, whereas the Arabica accounts for 30% of ground coffee beanssales.
What Do Coffee Plantations Look Like?
Coffee plantations have a different appearance, depending on whether the farmer is growing Arabica or Robusta.
Because Arabica coffee trees grow well in the highlands, and these regions occur at high altitudes within the Bean Belt, the plants are grown on slopes.
When you see images of coffee plantations with plants grown in rows on steep slopes, you can be sure they are Arabica.
Growing coffee on slopes in high rainfall areas also ensures that the plants receive enough water to nurture them to maturity without causing rot as excess rainwater flows down the slopes.
Robusta grows well at lower altitudes, and the plantations are typically flat.
You will also see this coffee plant growing in rows, as this makes harvesting the berry much easier.
Low-growing crops like Robusta are cheaper because they are more accessible and easier to harvest, unlike Arabica, which grows on steep slopes, making it more challenging to care for and harvest their fruit.
You will also notice that the coffee trees in plantations are always kept short.
Pruning these trees to remain short helps conserve their nutrients, so they produce more berries.
Coffee trees must typically age to around five to seven years before the berries turn red, indicating that they are ready to harvest.
Coffee tree berries also take a year to reach full maturation once the first flowers appear.
One tree can produce a hefty 10 pounds of cherries annually. The best coffee plants are the most productive between seven and 20 years but can live for up to a century.
Coffee trees have waxy leaves, producing berries along the branches.
Any tree on a plantation will simultaneously produce flowers, green berries, and ripe, red berries as they grow in cycles.
Coffee seeds, beans, or berries are ready for harvesting when they change to a deep red color.
This is where the story gets exciting because the ground coffee beans are one step closer to your cup.
Coffee plants go through an extensive process before they reach your cup as a delicious beverage.
The coffee bean goes through at least ten steps before it is ready for processing into ground coffee beans.
#1 Seed planting
First, farmers prepare the soil for planting. Farming takes place on plantations, small nurseries, or on small niche farmlands to reduce deforestation.
Seeds are planted in the rainy season to ensure they remain moist until their roots strengthen.
During their lifespan, the small shrubs are kept away from direct sunlight in moderate temperatures.
#2 Cherry harvesting
Coffee cherries take between three to five years to mature. Only when the cherry changes from green to red are the beans ready for plucking off the tree.
Harvesting takes place with manual labor or machines and can take place twice a year in most regions.
Farmers often use manual labor to harvest Arabica beans to ensure only the best, ripest cherries go for further processing.
This harvesting takes place every eight to ten days during primary and secondary harvesting periods.
Once picked, the cherries undergo various processing methods to produce different forms of coffee.
After processing (discussed in detail later), the beans must still undergo several other phases before reaching stores.
The beans undergo a milling process, whereafter they are known as green beans.
After milling, laborers pack the green beans in natural fiber bags made from sisal or jute.
Vehicles then transport these bags from the manufacturing site in shipping containers.
Alternatively, they are packed in bulk and shipped in containers with plastic linings.
#5 The quality check
The taster or the cupper then comes in to do flavor and taste checks on the coffee beans.
First, tasters check the visual quality of the beans, after which samples are placed in lab roasters, ground, and covered in hot water.
Temperature controls are in place to ensure the correct water temperatures to prepare the coffee for tasting.
Like wine tasters, coffee cuppers also test the nose of the bean brew for aroma, flavor, and other qualities.
Also, like wine, the coffee brew must stand for a few minutes to properly infuse the water with flavor.
Only once the resting stage is complete will the cupper remove the floating grounds and smell the aroma before tasting.
When tasting, the cupper also inhales a mouthful of oxygen to evenly distribute the liquid throughout the palate.
Thus, Cuppers do not swallow the brew but spit it out, just like wine tasters.
Cuppers test various samples throughout the day and over extended periods.
The reason for this elaborate tasting process is to determine which beans are ideal for blends, roasts, or in their purest form.
Only once the cupper satisfies themselves as to each sample’s high and low points will they approve the beans for specific processing purposes.
Cleaning And Processing Ground Coffee Beans
Cleaning and processing the berries to produce delicious ground coffee beans is a long process that is both a science and an art.
#1 Milling process
The beans are picked and milled by a machine to separate the parchment layer (endocarp) from the other parts to get to the inner dry husk.
These beans are then sent to fermentation tanks to lie in water for between 12 and 48 hours until the parenchyma or slimy layer separates from the bean.
This process is known as polishing to remove the silver skin but drying the beans with the endocarp intact is equally effective and uses less water.
Machines or laborers then grade and sort the beans for their shapes and sizes.
Any beans with imperfect forms or color faults are also removed before they are ready for drying.
#2 Drying the coffee beans
Coffee cherries then undergo cleaning and processing using the wet or the dry method.
With the wet process, the cherries are cleaned and pulped. Once the beans are thoroughly clean, they are ready for drying.
The dry method involves picking the cherries, washing them, and allowing them to dry and ferment in the sun.
At night, laborers cover the beans to protect them from absorbing moisture and the rain.
Next, employees regularly turn the beans by hand, or a machine completes this process to prevent mold or rot.
Only once the moisture levels are at 11% will they be ready for storage.
The milled and dried beans are then dispatched for roasting to turn them into ground coffee beans.
Roasting the beans usually takes place in the country of export to ensure premium freshness.
The beans undergo machine-roasting at constant temperatures of 550 °F.
While in the roasting machine, the beans constantly turn to ensure they don’t burn.
Once the inner bean temperature reaches 400 °F, the beans release their oil (caffeoyl), and they change to a rich deep brown color.
Next, roasting allows the flavor and aroma of the bean to emerge, a process known as pyrolysis.
Cooling then takes place using water or air before readying the beans for grinding.
Manufacturers will typically process ground coffee beans for sale because they are more flavorful.
In addition, grinding methods can produce coarse or finer grounds, ready for brewing.
Finely ground coffee means that you should typically prepare your brew quickly to gain the most from the flavor.
Also, adding water to finely ground coffee and the time it is in the water makes a difference to the taste.
Therefore, espresso coffee is finer than ground coffee beans that use brewing machines with a drip system.
Many customers, however, prefer to grind their own coffee beans because they want to enjoy the fresher flavor and aroma instead of buying ground coffee beans.
Enjoying Your Beverage
Finally, it is time to enjoy your ground coffee beans. You can use a combination coffee grinder and brewer to make your coffee to meet your taste standards.
Next, add sugar to taste, cream, or milk. Finally, haul out the cookie jar to complement your coffee brew.
Invite friends over for a coffee tasting experience, or simply enjoy your ground coffee beans in solitude.
Now that you have a brief history of the simple yet complex coffee bean, it is time to exercise your choice.
Go out there and be discerning about the ground coffee bean products you purchase.
But, most importantly–enjoy your delightful cup of coffee anywhere, at any time.
Last Updated on June 18, 2022 by Ashok Parmar