Dirt-to-Dinner Journey: Coffee

Mar 26, 2018 | Food and Nutrition, Global Food and You, Sustainable Agriculture |

Dirt to Dinner Journey: Coffee

Do you know where your coffee comes from? How it is grown, harvested, processed, and roasted? Coffee is so much more than a wonderful morning pick-me-up. Whether you are drinking a latte from Starbucks, brewing Folgers at home, or enjoying a Keurig K-cup at work, coffee bridges the developed world with smallholder farmers in the developing world.

Faces of coffee producers. Images: Campesino Specialty Coffee

Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages on the planet. Our morning drink provides financial stability to farmers who work in regions that are often fraught with economic and environmental uncertainty. Each time you take a sip, you are bridging the financial and cultural gap towards those in the developing world. We hope you, like the D2D team, will now have a greater appreciation of the coffee bean when enjoying your daily cup of joe.

Where does coffee come from?

Coffee is grown in over 50 countries that lie in regions above and below the equator, known as “bean belt” of the world. From Brazil and Colombia to Ethiopia and Indonesia, within the mountains and tropical rainforests, 25 million farmers, often working on less than 5 acres of land, are producing coffee for a living. The countries that export the most coffee are Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia. As would be expected, the taste profile varies between each region.

The “Bean Belt” lies in regions that lie above and below the equator.  image: Wikimedia Commons, edited by D2D

Behind the Beans: arabica and robusta

Two species of coffee beans, arabica (Coffea arabica) and robusta (Coffea canephora) dominate the world’s coffee bean production, accounting for approximately 60% and 40%, respectively. These beans are distinctly different in many ways, from their preferred climates to flavor. Arabica prefers rich, fertile volcanic soil, and the warm days and cool nights in the higher elevations of mountainous regions. Their slow growth results in more fatty lipids and double the concentration of sugars translating to a deeply flavorful, aromatic, smooth coffee. This bean is the choice for specialty coffee, including Starbucks, McCafé, and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Robusta, on the other hand, is a more vigorous producer, less fussy about heat or elevation, and trades at a lower price than arabica. These beans have twice the caffeine and chlorogenic acid, which accounts for their harsh and bitter taste. Robustas are featured in instant coffee and are used as a filler in supermarket ground coffee blends.

There is so much that contributes to the flavor of your morning cup. The growing location, variety of the plant, quality and chemistry of the soil, amount of rainfall and sunshine— even the altitude— all play a role. Equally if not more important is what happens to the coffee cherries after harvest.

How is coffee farmed?

Whether coffee is produced for large commodity commercial roasters like Nestle, Folgers or Maxwell House, specialty roasters like Blanchards, Intelligentsia, or green coffee buyers like Sweet Maria’s, The process is the same: the cherries are harvested, sorted, washed, fermented and dried before export. For purposes of illustration, we are focusing on a small producer farm in Colombia, Finca El Ocaso.

Mechanical harvesting in Brazil. (image: Alamy)

Hand harvesting in Colombia. image: Campesino Specialty Coffee

Farm Spotlight: Finca El Ocaso Farm, Colombia

View from Finca El Ocaso Farm. image: Campensino Specialty Coffee

Gustavo Patino purchased Finca El Ocaso in 1987 with the vision of building an environmentally sustainable farm with top quality specialty coffee. To augment his coffee production income, the farm, like many in the area, is open to tourists who can enjoy the landscape and learn about the growing, production, and culture of coffee. Colombia is the third-largest producer of coffee in the world behind Brazil and Vietnam, but is the largest producer of the mild washed arabica coffee.

El Ocaso would be considered a larger operation of 35 hectares, 18 of which are used for growing coffee. The farm also supports a biodiverse habitat and vibrant ecosystem for flora and fauna. They grow predominately the arabica varietals Tabi and Castillo, and in the near future, Geisha. The farm will also work with its partners to develop other varietals, including the rare Liberica. They have earned certifications from the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ (the two organizations are now merged) and the 4C Organization, for farming with ethical, environmentally friendly, and sustainable agricultural practices to ensure coffee farming for generations to come.

Part of what makes Finca El Ocaso’s coffee so sweet is the double shade given to the coffee plants. The plant focuses on producing more sugars for the fruit as opposed to focusing its energy on producing leaves to provide shade. The sweetness is noticed in each cup. The biodiverse habitat is home to 110 identified species of birds as well. image: Isabel Orozco

While growers in Colombia always have a purchase guarantee established by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), they earn premiums by working with specialty coffee buyers.

The 30,000 pounds of coffee Finca El Ocaso produced each year was mostly sold locally and in its own café. When Daniel Velasquez, of Campesino Specialty Coffee had a taste of the delicious coffee from the farm, he decided that others should too. A relationship developed and a further introduction was made to Richmond, VA based Blanchard’s Coffee. The partnership now works together to pursue the perfect balance of growing, harvesting and milling.

Blanchard’s, for instance, has built new drying bed houses at the farm to experiment with different fermentation and drying processes. During fermentation, naturally occurring microorganisms interact with sugars in the mucilage and many chemical changes take place. How fermentation is handled will lead to distinct flavor outcomes. The exciting result of one such experiment was the 18/18 Red Tabi —  “a complex, elegant coffee with intense acidity and perfect clarity.”

Experimenting with fermentation and drying processes to find the sweet spot. (image: Blanchard’s Coffee).

“Exciting surprises like this are the reason we build relationships with growers – so we can bring unexpected coffees to our customers and push the boundaries of what our growers can produce.” Blanchard’s Coffee

The Coffee Bean Journey: Seed to Flower to Cherry to Bean

Coffee propagation takes time and patience. From seed germination to fruit bearing to harvest can take as long as four years! Once the seeds develop their first true leaves, they are called “chapolas” – a name given colloquially because of its resemblance to a butterfly.

When the trees flower, the air is filled with a sweet jasmine fragrance. The flowers last only a few days, after which the cherries start to develop and will ripen in about 9 months.

A coffee plant is productive for about five years. After five years the trunks are snipped to 30 cm above the ground and new coffee plants grow from the trunks. It will take another two years to bear flowers. This process only can happen two times, after which the whole plant comes out of the ground.


The mitica harvest. image: Campesino Specialty Coffee

Once the first cherries are ripe, harvesting begins, and will continue for several months. Depending on the region, there may be two periods of flowering, one of these is a main harvest and the other a smaller harvest, called the ‘mitica’. Colombia is one of the few coffee-producing countries that harvest coffee all year. At El Ocaso, the mitica occurs between October and December, at that time they collect 20% of the annual production of the farm.

Harvesting at Finca El Ocaso is done one cherry at a time and is very labor intensive. Often, workers work in the fields for up to 12 hours a day! It can be very hot and humid, or raining. During the peak at main harvest at El Ocaso, close to 5,000 kilograms, or over 11,000 pounds, can be picked on a daily basis. At the end of the day, each worker’s haul is carefully weighed, and each picker is paid on the merit of his or her work. The cherries are sorted by grade and processed immediately on the farm.

One of the challenges facing growers is available workforce for picking. Brazil’s flatter terrain, for example, accommodates machines to pick the cherries. Colombia’s mountainous terrain is less hospital to machine labor. Careful handpicking, however, enables only the best cherries to make it to the sorting phase.

Hard working hands and perfectly ripe cherries. image: Campesino Specialty Coffee

Hauling the filled bags of coffee cherries. image: Campesino Specialty Coffee

Sorting, Processing, and Milling

After the cherries have been harvested, they are either processed to extract the beans from the fruit or dried whole. The method used is dependent on the region’s climate, the intended flavor profile, and the farmer capabilities. Each process has its own impact on flavor.

“The selection and subsequent steps of depulping, washing and drying coffee cherries constitutes one of the most arduous, meticulous and personalized jobs in the whole coffee production chain.” Colombian Coffee Growers Federation

Here’s a quick guide from espressocoffeeguide.com of the coffee processing methods:

  • Wet Processing involves washing the coffee beans of fruity material while the beans are still moist right after they are picked.
  • Dry Processing involves first drying the coffee cherry in the sun while regularly raking the beans free of any dried fruit.
  • Pulped Natural Processing involves initially pulping the coffee but without a fermentation stage as in Wet Processing, then drying the beans with much of the mucilage still attached.
  • Semi-Washed Processing method a demucilaging machine is used to remove the coffee cherry’s skin and most of the mucilage.
  • Aquapulp is another method which cleans the coffee cherry initially and has recently been adopted by many areas that formerly used wet processing.

Hand selecting the ripest cherries at a small producer farm in Colombia. image: Campesino Specialty Coffee

The receiving bin at El Ocaso.  From here, the cherries make their way down to the depulper. At peak harvest, close to 5,000 kilograms (11,000lbs) can be picked on a daily basis! image: Campesino Specialty Coffee.

The fleshy part of the fruit is removed with a de-pulping machine, leaving behind the actual coffee bean. The beans are then fermented until the endocarp dissolves. The total time that the coffee sits fermenting depends on numerous factors, from the degree of cherry maturation to the preferences of the farmer, but is usually 12-36 hours. The beans are then set out on the drying beds.  image worldtravelistas.com

Ovidio, the main man of the wet-mill, moving the coffee from the fermentation tank, to the washing tank. The washed coffees at Finca El Ocaso have a sweet spot at 15 hours fermenting.

Anatomy of a coffee cherry. image: Starbucks

Learning how to “manually” tell if the parchment is at optimal humidity level. Humidity is constantly monitored until just before export. image: Campesino Specialty Coffee

A bed of natural processed coffee at Finca El Ocaso. Coffee must be rotated daily to ensure uniform drying. Once dried, the hard, shriveled fruit husk is stripped off the beans by machine. image: Campesino Specialty Coffee

These efficient drying beds at another small farm provide for great air circulation and can be quickly covered up when the rain comes pouring.

Once the parchment comes out of the drying beds, it goes through a second phase of selection process. Any defected parchment beans are picked out, making sure only the top quality parchment goes to the dry-mill. image: Campesino Specialty Coffee

Driving to the warehouse to await dry milling, then export. Each sack weighs about 55 Kilograms – about 121 lbs! image: Campesino Specialty Coffee

In this video, Blanchard’s Coffee illustrates the journey of the coffee bean from harvest to drying at Finca El Ocaso. (Blanchard’s Coffee)

Cupping and Roasting

Green coffee will be physically examined by coffee buyers and samples will be cupped to determine final grading. Once at the roaster, whether at a large commercial facility or a small specialty roaster, the beans will undergo another transformation.

“an experienced coffee roaster can manipulate how the final cup will taste, accentuating particular characteristics, muting others, and even developing the mouthfeel and body of the beverage.” (Cooks Illustrated)

The roasting lab at Blanchard’s Coffee. image: Blanchard’s Coffee

Cupping determines final grading of coffee.

Keep in mind the name of a flavor of coffee beans, such as Breakfast Blend, will differ from one company to another. This is because each roaster has their own set of roasting profiles.

How should I store my coffee? Coffee begins to lose freshness almost immediately after roasting. For the best flavor, buy smaller batches of freshly roasted coffee beans more frequently – enough for one or two weeks, and grind what you need immediately before brewing. Exposure to air and moisture is bad for your beans, so store them in an opaque container with no exposure to moisture or light. Freezing your beans is an option but take out just enough to last for a couple of days. If you buy pre-ground, again only buy for 1-2 weeks.

Brew and Enjoy!

Market Snapshot: Specialty Coffee

According to the Specialty Coffee Association, “coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts of cultivation, preparation and degustation, and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved, is truly a specialty coffee.”  Specialty coffee is often compared to commodity coffee. While specialty coffee emphasizes quality over quantity, small batches and micro-lots, commodity coffee can be thought of as a “mountain” of beans, collected from many producers, and sometimes evern multiple countries. Commodity coffee beans are processed, roasted and ground on a massive scale to appeal to a wide-ranging audience. These are the economically priced Folgers and Maxwell House coffees that are ubiquitous supermarket brands.

Extracting data from the National Coffee Association Annual Drinking Trends Report, the Specialty Coffee Association created this infographic to demonstrate the continued  consumer desire for more and better tasting coffee.

Technically speaking, specialty coffee comes from beans with zero defects, which have been analyzed, or “cupped” by a certified grader to assess such attributes as aroma, body, sweetness and uniformity. The cup score must be at least 80 points, with a score of 85-100 being excellent or outstanding. In order to get to this high score, the farmer, the green coffee buyer, the roaster and the barista must focus on quality at all points during the coffee bean journey to your cup.

Enjoy the video below from Blanchards Coffee that describes working with small producers and roasting specialty coffee.

Dirt-to-Dinner would like to thank Carolina Patiño Cadena from Finca El Ocaso, Daniel Velasquez from Campesino Specialty Coffee and Stephen Robertson from Blanchard’s Coffee for their help in research for this post.  Also many thanks to Isabel Orozco who visited El Ocaso this past summer, took many photos at the farm, and provided initial research for this post.

For additional reading on coffee, coffee farmers, and single origin coffee, we suggest: Campesino Specialty Coffee – the story of the farms Daniel Velasquez works with are brought to life through his website and social media pages. Blanchard’s Coffee – a highly regarded roaster who works very closely with farmers to bring out the best in them and the best in your cup. They also sell delicious coffee online. Intelligentsia – terrific resource to explore the origins and process of coffee. Sweet Maria’s – an amazing library of videos documenting coffee origins, coffee speak and so much more. Also if you want to try to roast your own coffee, detailed instructions! The Perfect Daily Grind – a complete digest of the coffee industry from production and trade to coffee basics.

Other Sources:

International Coffee Organization, www.ico.org/.
Specialty Coffee Association, scaa.org/.
“Café De Colombia.” From Crop to Cup | Café De Colombia, www.cafedecolombia.com/particulares/en/el_cafe_de_colombia/del_arbol_a_la_taza/.
“Coffee Plants for the Future: Update on the World Coffee Research Breeding Program.” Specialty Coffee Association News, 10 Aug. 2017, www.scanews.coffee/2015/04/06/coffee-plants-for-the-future-update-on-the-world-coffee-research-breeding-program/.
“Explore Coffee Science!” Home, www.coffeechemistry.com/.
“National Coffee Association.” NCA – National Coffee Association USA – Est. 1911, www.ncausa.org/.
“Perfect Daily Grind.” Perfect Daily Grind, www.perfectdailygrind.com/.
“Single Origin Coffee Beans.” Espresso & Coffee Guide, espressocoffeeguide.com/.