The Coffee Process
Coffee, from plant to cup, must embark on an incredible journey, regardless of where it comes from in the world. In Brazil, this journey begins from May to September; in Central America, it’s from October to March; in Africa, it is between October to April, and in Asia, it begins from November to April. Depending on where your choice bean originates from, its story may start at a different time in the year. But whenever, and however, that story takes place, the coffee process always ends in the same way: with a delicious, nourishing, invigorating cup of Coffee by our side to get us up in the morning.
Coffee begins its life not as a bean, but as a seed of the Coffea plant. The worldwide Coffee Industry cultivates two types of Coffee plant, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, which in turn produce two varieties of Coffee, Arabica and Robusta, respectively. Your morning brew will most likely derive from either Arabica or Robusta beans, the former accounting for around 75% of worldwide consumption and the latter accounting for approximately 25%.
Usually, the harvesting of Coffee takes place during the dry season when the Coffee “cherries”, as they are known, are at the firmest, glossiest and of the brightest red colour. Depending on the Coffee variety, however, it may take up to 4 years for a plant to bear fruit. There are multiple methods of harvesting adopted by various Coffee-growing countries, the two main methods being:
Strip harvesting method is subcategorised further with there being “Manual strip harvesting”, “Mechanical strip harvesting” (i.e. handheld harvesting devices) and harvesting through the use of Mechanical Harvesters (i.e. vehicles purpose-built for harvesting). The fundamental principle of all three strip harvesting methods, however, is that all the Coffee plant’s fruits are harvested at the same time, regardless of ripeness.
Though deemed crude by many accounting for the fact that batches often include underripe and overripe cherries, it is likewise considered cost-effective to countries such as Brazil, where Coffees tend to mature uniformly, meaning harvesting only takes place when 75% of the Coffee crop is perfectly mature.
With Manual strip harvesting, pickers place canvasses on the ground, then physically bend the Coffee plant’s branches towards the canvasses with all its fruits falling to the ground. With Mechanical strip harvesting, which is similar to Manual strip harvesting, the pickers use mechanical strippers attached to weed whackers, again knocking the fruits out of the trees and onto a canvas. Finally, with Mechanical Harvesters, vibrating and rotating mallets attached to heavy machinery again knock the fruits out of the bushes, but this time directing them into collection units as opposed to canvasses. Flat topographies are required when using Mechanical Harvesters, meaning their usage is limited to specific Coffee-growing regions.
All three methods of Strip harvesting require less labour, while the collection itself occurs promptly; however, these methods likewise produce cherries of varying levels of maturation, which, if not separated, can lead to disuniform drying and, ultimately, lower-quality Coffee. Brazil is one country that has overcome such disadvantages, while other countries struggle to maintain quality through strip-harvesting.
Where feasible, Selective Harvesting is the preferred method. It means only the ripe coffee berries are picked, by hand, with the unripe berries left on the bushes for future harvesting. Overripe Coffee berries, meanwhile, are most commonly picked alongside the ripe ones and are later separated, again by hand.
Selective Harvesting sees Coffee workers picking ripe fruits and filling their baskets. These full baskets are emptied periodically into a much larger collection bag. The entire ripened crop, at this point, is spread out, whereby any unripe or overripe fruits, as well as any foreign debris that made their way accidentally into the collections, are removed.
Producers and workers tend to profit more from Selective Harvesting as the lower percentage of unripened cherries in the harvested Coffee fetch higher prices on the market. Furthermore, the topography is less of an issue with Selective Harvesting as trees can be planted on steep slopes and still be accessible to the pickers, resulting in a more efficient use of farmland.
Regarding the disadvantages to Selective Harvesting, one could argue that the requirement for larger workforces creates affordability issues among producers; however, one could likewise argue that Selective Harvesting brings about lower unemployment in some Coffee-growing regions. It has the potential to be a morally grey area, although most believe that Selective Harvesting is the more ethical choice for multiple reasons.
Preparation: The processing of Green Coffee Beans, found inside the Coffee Cherries in their unroasted form, must take place promptly after harvesting to avoid spoilage. The first step in the processing is to strip the bean of its outer pulp and skin, which is carried out using two primary methods:
Green Bean Drying Process
Also called the “Unwashed Method”, this process is age-old and used predominantly in countries where water resources are limited. First, the beans are washed (in the most conventional sense) and left to try in the sun. The cherries are then splayed out on canvasses outside, whereby they are frequently raked throughout the day to prevent spoilage and are covered at night to prevent moisture from rain.
Weather depending, this method may continue for several weeks for each batch of Coffee, or at least until a point whereby the moisture content of the cherries drops to at least 11%. And once the drying is complete, the green seed inside is finally removed from the dried, fermented cherry.
The Wet Method: Also known as the “Washed Method”, this process first sees the Coffee cherry pulped in a specially-designed machine, aptly named a “pulper”, which quite literally separates the pulp and the seed’s outer layer, called the parchment skin, from the bean. Following this, the beans are divided by weight while passing through water channels.
After separation, the beans are placed inside water-filled fermentation tanks, remaining inside these containers from anywhere between 12 to 48 hours to remove the mucilage, which is another layer of the seed. The removal of this layer is brought about through naturally occurring enzymes capable of dissolving the skin during the fermentation process.
Once fermentation is complete, the beans, which at this point are rough to touch (but still Green in colour as they are not yet roasted), are rinsed by going through additional water channels before being dried. And like beans that have undergone the Unwashed method of processing, the drying should see moisture content reduced to at least 11%.
Coffee Grading Process
The grading of Coffee is similar to Tea grading in that there is more than one grading method. Although there is no Global grading system in place per se, most beans are categorised by several criteria, including altitude, growing region, the region itself (e.g. Mexican Terruno Nayarita Reserve Coffee from the Mexican state of Nayarit), and the manner in which the beans are prepared (i.e. washed or unwashed), as well as their size, density, shape and colour. Grading may also take into consideration any imperfections visible on the beans, as well as the taste of the Coffee once roasted, which comes later.
The Speciality Coffee Association (SCAA) has some of the best Green Coffee Bean classification standards in place, which is a nonprofit, membership-based organisation that represents thousands of Coffee professionals, including producers, distributors and even baristas, all over the world. With the SCAA and other, similar systems, Green Coffee Beans deemed “speciality” must have no more than 5 “full” defects in 300 grams of Coffee. Meanwhile, no “primary” defects are allowed. Furthermore, Speciality Coffees must possess at least one (preferably more) distinctive attribute in the body, flavour, aroma or acidity. It must also be free of faults and taints, with no quakers (unripened beans) permitted, and moisture content being between 9-13%.
Coffees deemed “premium” under SCAA regulations must have no more than eight full defects in 300 grams. Primary defects, meanwhile, are permitted, while Premium Coffees are also allowed three quakers. But like Speciality Coffees, Premium Coffees must have at least one distinctive attribute such as body, flavour, aroma or acidity. They must also consist of moisture content between 9-13%.
“Exchange” Coffee is the third grade. According to the SCAA, this grade should have no more than 9-23 full defects in 300 grams. Furthermore, no cup faults are permitted, and a maximum of 5 quakers are allowed. When it comes to moisture content, however, there is no differentiation between Specialty Coffee, Premium Coffee and Exchange Coffee, again being between 9-13%.
Two more grades exist after the Exchange Grade, these being “Below Standard” Coffee, which can have between 24-86 defects in 300 grams, and “Off Grade” Coffee, which will have more than 86 defects in 300 grams and, in other words, is of very inferior quality. One is best off avoiding these two grades for apparent reasons, and that is why The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company do not accommodate either.
Exporting and Importing of Coffee
Coffee is, today, a vital commodity in the world economy; in particular in North America, Western Europe and Japan, where Coffee trade structures are very similar. As a rule of thumb, Coffee is purchased from the exporting countries by international trade houses, dealers and traders. In Europe, roasters tend to maintain their own in-house buying companies, which deal directly with origin.
Although dependent on the type of Coffee, most Coffee products are unroasted when exported to keep them fresh, as well as, and perhaps most importantly, so distributors can roast to their specifications. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Coffee exports consist of Green Coffee Beans, most of which traders and dealers are responsible for when discharging the product from the incoming vessels. It is these traders and dealers that also make all the necessary arrangements to have the Coffee delivered to the roaster.
Most roasters buy in Coffee according to future market predictions. The volatility of the market, mainly fluctuating exchange rates and stock prices, mean that many roasters purchase Coffee in bulk, often enough to sustain a period of 6 to 18 months. This bulk is maintained consistently so that roasters continuously have enough Coffee in stock should a market upset occur.
While grading plays an integral role in the initial process of quality control, it is not until a containerised shipment arrives at a roastery that intricate and uniform examination and standardisation can take place. Nevertheless, a good roaster will oversee and strictly monitor all stages of a shipment’s journey, beginning from the country of origin.
But once a shipment arrives at a roastery warehouse, the first duty is to all Coffees certified Organic or Rainforest Alliance, whereby these products are segregated to safeguard their certification. Following this, all received products are sampled to confirm consistency and to detect any possible defects. Providing a Coffee meets these preliminary standards, its moisture content is then examined, followed by sample roasting and cupping (taste and aroma sampling), which is carried out by professionals known as Q Graders.
If at any point the samples do not conform to precise quality requirements, the Coffees will be rejected, repacked and in most cases, returned to the country of origin. However, should the Coffee shipment meet all quality requirements, it may then, and only then, proceed to enter production.
Coffee Roasting Process
Green Coffee Beans must undergo roasting to be consumable in brew-form. Roasting Coffee Beans bring out the aroma and flavour locked inside. Before the roasting takes place, Green Coffee Beans bare little resemblance to their roasted counterparts, with none of the characteristics of a roasted bean. Instead, Green Coffee Beans are soft and spongy when bitten, and smell grassy. All of this changes in due course once the Coffee has passed all quality control checks, ready to be roasted.
A natural chemical change takes place when Coffee reaches very high temperatures during the roasting stage. Knowing when this natural chemical change has created the desired roast requires years of expertise, as well as the ability to “read” the beans, often making decisions with split-second timing. But there is more than one kind of roast. In fact, with The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, there is a “Light-Medium” roast, a “Medium” roast, a “Medium-Dark” roast and a “Dark” roast. We, in particular, use the latest state-of-the-art Neuhaus Neotec fluidised air-bed system, which primarily uses convection heat transfer to roast the Coffee to these specifications:
Light Coffee Roasting: Often, determining the type of roast applied to a Coffee is as easy as looking at its colour. As the name suggests, Light-Medium roasts are light in appearance, taking on a light-brown colour, but also, the beans absorb heat for the shortest period, which is another way to determine the type of roast.
Coffee beans pop, crack and expand when subjected to heats between 350 °F – 400 °F, a phenomenon known as the “first crack”. As a rule of thumb, lighter roasts are seldom roasted beyond the first crack, which produces an earthy, grainy and acidic taste, sometimes also sweet.
Medium Coffee Roasting: Following the first crack but just before the “second crack” is where a medium-roasted Coffee lies. Medium roasts are heated from 410 °F - 430 °F, exceeding that of a Light-Medium roast. Heats from 410 °F - 430 °F are applied to a Medium-roasted Coffee, exceeding that of a Light-Medium roast.
Arguably, Medium roasts are the most common roasts. At the very least, they are an immensely popular choice made by Coffee connoisseurs, their taste best described as well-balanced, less-acidic and notably smooth.
Medium - Dark Coffee Roasting: Heated from 435°F – 445°F, Medium-Dark-roasted Coffees arrive during the middle of the second crack. These Coffees are of a darker colour with some oil beginning to show on the surface of the beans.
They are often richer in flavour, boasting a bitter-sweet taste, sometimes with spicy notes. At this stage of the roasting, the Coffees beans also lose some of their acidity but still retain more than a Dark-roasted Coffee.
Dark Coffee Roasting: Commonplace on the commercial market, Darker-roasted Coffees lack the acidity of their counterparts, are shinier and oilier on the surface, and in line with the roasts mentioned above, are the darkest in colour.
Dark roasted coffee beans are made by having them heated from 465°F – 485°F, which coincides with the end of the second crack, sometimes beyond. The Coffee tastes bitter, smoky, and even at times slightly burnt with notes reminiscent of charcoal.
Once the roasting is complete, the beans are cooled quickly, at which point the product smells, unmistakably, like Coffee, and also weighs less owing to the reductions in moisture that occur during the process. They are crunchy to bite, and most of all, ready to be ground and brewed.
Another requirement for Coffee before it is ready for consumption in brew-form is grinding. The grinding of the Coffee is the first step toward influencing how the final brew tastes. It is arguably the most defining moment in the journey of the Coffee Bean from plant to cup. Regardless of your choice Coffee grind, the fundamental goal of grinding Coffee is always the same: break down the roasted Coffee bean to expose its interior, allowing the extraction of the right amount of oils and flavours.
Coffee can be ground at the roasters or distributors, or purchased by the consumer for grinding at home. One cannot drink Coffee unless the beans have been ground (or, at least, not well), and so one of these two options must be chosen. When it comes to grinding here at The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, there are three specifications: “Ground Espresso Fine”, “Ground Medium Fine”, and “Ground Cafetiere Coarse”. It is at this point that the soon-to-be consumer first influences the end product as he or she must decide which specifications best suit their needs or the needs of their brewing devices.
Ground Espresso Fine: This grinding method is particularly fine and is best-suited to specially-designed Espresso Machines. The only Coffee finer than those ground to these specifications are Greek and Turkish Coffees.
Ground Medium Fine: Best-suited to filter/drop Coffee machines, Ground Medium-Fine Coffees are often described as slightly gritty in texture, with the consistency of sand.
Ground Cafetiere Coarse: As the name would suggest, Coffees ground to Ground Cafetiere Coarse specifications are, most commonly, used in Cafetieres. And when using a Cafetiere to brew this type of grind, far more oils and solids get through, offering a heavier taste.
Once a particular type of Coffee has been chosen, as well as a grinding preference made, nothing is left but to pack and ship the Coffee out to the consumer. When it comes to The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company, we pack everything - Tea or Coffee - fresh to order here in our Kent-based factory, nestled away in the beautiful English countryside, which ensures quality with every product.
Furthermore, we have over 30 years experience in the Coffee sector, priding ourselves in producing some of the most freshly-roasted and finest-quality Coffees available on the market. We ship to nearly anywhere in the world and also have a factory shop where one can browse our products up close, as well as discuss requirements with our friendly and trained members of staff.
Then, return home, and brew up a Coffee that has travelled thousands of miles from its origin, undergone numerous processing methods including quality checks, roasting and grinding, and passed through the nurturing hands of The Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company.