Coffee Processing- The Wizard Behind the Curtain

Have you ever walked into a local coffee bar and been strangely overwhelmed by the menu board? Suddenly your heart is pounding, it is almost your turn to order, but you still don’t have a clue as to what you want. The baristas behind the counter are throwing around words like, “Cortado, full-immersion, pour over, semi-washed, breve.” Did you miraculously teleport to another country, and now you can’t even speak the language? Fear not, for teleportation has yet to be invented…or at least we think so.

For the past twenty-five years, craft coffee has been on the rise in the beverage industry, and is continuing in its upward trend. Between 1989 and 2014, craft coffee went from occupying 1% of coffee traffic to 20%. You see, there is this sacred moment that takes place when you have successfully ordered from that not-so-daunting menu board, are handed a world-class cup of coffee, and take that coveted first sip. This is a moment I hope that all of you experience one day. But in order for you to do that there is a necessary language barrier you must cross. I know, I know.Remember, I told you that you hadn’t teleported, and if you stick with me for the next few moments, I promise you will be near fluent in coffee-ese.

In 1974, Erna Knusten, an early pioneer in high-end coffees, coined the term “specialty coffee.” For Knusten, there was an important difference between a commodity and a rarity. By definition, a commodity is anything that can be either modified or substituted. When this concept is carried over into the world of coffee, the drink’s value is diminished, which is unacceptable if the meaning of “specialty” is to be maintained. To further explain, there are two different kinds of coffee, Robusta and Arabica, that we must discuss. Robusta often comes in the classic red container with a black lid, vacuum sealed, and ready to blast you with its aroma. Since Robusta has an initial grain-like flavor suggestion, and a nutty follow-up, people often experience a harsher, stronger taste. When I was growing up, my grandfather made coffee every morning, and the best ones consisted of opening a fresh tin and getting to smell the coffee in all of its glory. I say all of its glory because it stopped with the smell. I often asked myself, “how can something smell so good, yet taste so terrible?” In fact, I also asked my grandfather. I do not remember everything he told me during his response, but the one thing he said that has always stuck with me was, “to truly appreciate coffee, you have to be able to drink it black.” While this is not necessarily 100% true, I took his advice to heart, and learned to drink coffee black. On my journey to being a coffee purist, I found a small cafe that served coffee that was so gentle your heart felt like it was being hugged. For me, it was the first time I did not need to add cream or sugar. Eventually I would learn that the explanation for the stark contrast between the beloved coffee tin, and this new-found love, was that it was Arabica coffee. Arabica beans tend to present a sweeter taste, with tasting notes of fruit and berries, and floral and earthy tones. If you do not understand my flavor references, rest assured you are not alone, and we won’t leave you in the dark. (Stay tuned for our post on the tasting wheel!) The first barrier has officially been knocked down. Now, the next time you walk into a shop, be ready to be on the lookout for arabica. Next hurdle? Coffee Processing.

Most people find the phrase “coffee processing” to be too much to handle, but the people of Oz also thought that no one would get to see the wizard. So allow me to be your Dorothy, and remove the Wizard’s curtain. (I guess this makes you Toto…at least he had a cute basket to sit in.) First things first, coffee comes from a coffee tree that bears fruit. In fact, coffee is a fruit, whose beans come from the pit of the cherry, and its meat is called the mucilage. The second thing you should know is that when a coffee roaster is working with a coffee farmer in places like Ethiopia, Guatemala, or Kenya, he or she must discuss how the processing will take place. To give you a point of reference, the act of planting and harvesting the coffee is the beautiful landscape that you have chosen to look at, and they way you process it is the type of camera lense you wish to capture it with. So, if the picture you take is not up to your standards, you know that you need to adjust the lense. In the same way, if the coffee you taste doesn’t create for you a sacred moment, then you need to tailor the way you process your coffee. What is the process part of coffee processing? To put it simply, it is how you do or do not wash the coffee, and how you decide to remove the mucilage (meat of the coffee cherry).

In the interest of breaking it down for you, let’s put this into steps.

Step 1 is fairly self-explanatory since planting coffee trees really does mean planting coffee trees. However, there are many factors that affect how well, or how poor a plant grows that are beyond the scope of today’s discussion, but for the sake of our argument: planting is merely planting. Step 2, harvesting, requires farmers to hire helping hands to hand pick every single coffee cherry. Even today there are very few countries that use machines to do the picking because the farmers take great pride in the care they provide this precious fruit, and feel that machines remove value. Step 3, processing, can be a bit confusing because we are seeing the word “processing” again. However, in the context of our 5 steps, processing means picking one of two main coffee handling methods. There is the dry method, which is usually instituted in places that have limited water source. The freshly picked cherries are evenly spread out on large surfaces to sunbathe. To prevent the fruit from spoiling, the cherries are raked and turned throughout the day, and covered at night or during rainy days. This process takes several weeks. The wet method on the other hand, removes the pulp from the coffee cherry when it is harvested by putting it through a pulping machine to separate the skin and the pulp from the bean. As the wet method processes the cherries, the beans are separated by weight in the water channels, which sends the heavier ripe cherries to the bottom, and lighter beans to the top. The weight distribution allows the coffee farmer to put them in a series of rotating drums divided up by size. Once in the drums, the cherries are placed in fermentation tanks for 12-48 hours to remove the slick layer of mucilage (or for the scientists out there, the parenchyma). Next is Step 4, drying, which is when beans are laid out on drying tables or floors, or placed in drying tumblers. This allows any remaining parchment to fall off. Step 5, milling, takes place right before exportation. The farmer will, using hulling machinery, fully dry the coffee cherries. Then, polishing (an optional step) will remove anything that the hulling machine missed. There is very little difference between coffees that are or are not polished. And finally, the grading and sorting. Grading and sorting is done based on size, weight, and color. Once this is completed. The coffee is sent off to the roaster.

Coffee processing really isn’t such a scary concept to understand once you break it down. But don’t let the breakdown’s simplicity fool you into thinking they are relative. Each step is extremely important for the consumer to take into consideration. When a bean is picked, it reserves all of its value, but as it passes through each processing step, it loses little bits of its perfection. So the idea behind doing processing well, is to honor both the plant itself, and the hard work that the farmer has put into caring for it.

See! *abracadabra* Curtain be gone. You may see the wizard now.

Y’all coffee is a special thing, and I can’t wait to continue this dialogue with you. Thanks for reading, and stay caffeinated!

Have questions about today’s post?

Feel free to write them in the comments below.

Want to know more about coffee processing?

Check out A Film About Coffee on Vimeo by Avocados and Coconuts.