Growing up on the coffee farm

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<Coffee for the Average Josh, Part 2 of 10>

Imagine you are a young Arabica coffee bean, brimming with hopes and dreams. You yearn to make it to the big-time: say, served up at a specialty coffee shop in Seattle.

You may as well aspire to be the starting quarterback for the Seahawks.

If this is your ambition, the road will be long, and the competition will be fierce. It will require an elite level of excellence that separates you from your peers — and a whole lot of luck.

The early years

The perfect farm, the ideal tree

Step one to becoming the Russell Wilson of coffee beans is to come into the world on a respected, well-connected, high-quality coffee farm that is:

  • Located in the tropics (but far from life on the beach)
  • At least 3,000 feet in elevation (5,000 is even better, but stay below the frost line)
  • Experiencing sustained cool weather (this promotes slow, flavor-packing growth)
  • Staffed with patient, selective farmers (bonus points for valuing excellence over profit)

So, yeah, just get dealt all four aces.

You will likely be welcomed into the world as a twin, one of two seeds growing inside of a coffee cherry.

The plant you grow on may be referred to as a tropical evergreen shrub or small tree. It likely started as a bean in a nursery, and it was at least 3 years old before it began producing coffee beans like you. Left alone, coffee trees can stretch to 15 feet or more, but your ideal host is likely maintained as a 3- to 7-foot shrub and counted on to produce coffee beans for 40-plus years.

Ugh, middle school

Uneven maturity and getting picked

Remember when you showed up for sixth grade but could pass for a kindergartner — and learned the bullies had grown 50 pounds of muscle and facial hair over the summer? The very same thing happens to coffee cherries. All start tiny and green. Some grow fast, while others take up to nine months to fully ripen (usually to a cherry red color).

This is bad news if your coffee tree is machine harvested. Machine harvesting is like the first day of middle school — everyone walks in at a different maturity level, and no one bothers to sort it out. There are even a few of those “old-soul” berries who have soured on the whole junior high scene before it’s even started. No matter, the machine plucks every coffee cherry simultaneously, producing an uneven crop that’s not going to taste right in the end.

This is why NFL quarterback-quality coffee is harvested by hand. It’s as if the popular kids have been let loose in the fields; they only look at appearance and could care less about your feelings. After ignoring you time and again, one day you finally fit their exact criteria and they pick you.

Sure, they did it for their own selfish reasons and will soon forget about you, but you’ve been picked! It’s time to take advantage of your opportunity.

Coffee Prep High School

Cleaning up and making the grade

Until now, Mr. Bean, you were protected by a cherry. But grades are about to count. At the coffee farm, this high school experience is called processing. You’ll start as a cherry, and be released into the world as a shiny, green bean. There’s a lot of work to do before graduation day.

Most first-class beans like you are schooled via the “washed process,” so that’s what we will describe step by step. But briefly, there is an alternative method called the “natural process” by which the cherry is basically left to bake in the sun like a California raisin. Only then is the bean removed in all of its sticky, pulpy glory. Far from a clean bean, the natural process is known for producing some spectacularly fruity coffee — as well as some tooty-fruity drivel — so it’s a bit of a dice roll.

But you, our starting QBean, will achieve fame through the washed process:

Step 1: Sink, don’t swim

After being picked, you and your friends are treated to a pool party. If you float, bad news — you haven’t ripened properly. You’re sent to coffee jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. You and your fellow prisoners will be processed and sold on the cheap, turned into freeze-dried instant coffee and shipped to a military outpost in Siberia.

Step 2: Pulp-erization

You sunk? Perfect. Now it’s off to the depulping machine for a true coming-of-age experience, where you are stripped of your fruit flesh once and for all. It’s the world’s first glimpse of the bean you were made to be, in all of your glory.

Step 3: Another bath

The “washed process” ain’t nothing without one more dip in a tank. This time it’s for a little fermentation, which is a fancy science way to wash off the still-sticky fruit instead of having your dog lick it off.

Step 4: How about a shower?

This is one of those pools where you are required to rinse off after you exit, just to make sure all the cherry is washed away.

Step 5: Sunbathing

Who said the bean life lacked luxury? Next, you lay out on a patio or drying table where attentive servants turn you regularly so you get a nice, even tan. (OK, so it’s just to dry off — you can brown later. But after all that washing, it can take a few days to reach your targeted moisture content of around 10 percent, so enjoy it.)

Step 6: Long nap

Next, head to a dark place to siesta for a month or two. Seriously: Coffee needs its sleep. This extra bit of aging helps to seal the bean’s natural flavor. For beans, this extended nap doubles as strength training, helping to ward off future deterioration and unwanted “seasoning” once you leave the safety of the farm.

Step 7: Buff it out

Until now, L.L. Cool Bean, you have been covered by protective parchment, a thin layer that must be shed before finals. Enter some last-minute hulling, polishing and cleaning — beautiful!

Step 8: Final exams

Average Joes look to get by and graduate, but you’ve been aiming for valedictorian. At ideal farms, this step is meticulous and typically done by hand. You are graded on density, color and size. Many times, you are scrutinized for ideal characteristics sought for a particular flavor profile. Here’s hoping you’ve got what they’re looking for, kid.

Step 9: Shipping off

The world is your oyster, bean! Hop into a burlap bag with 130-150 pounds of your best pals, and it’s time to travel. Most often, you will be sealed in a shipping container and floated by sea to far-flung ports, where you are distributed, roasted and consumed.

Fingers crossed, you’ll be drafted by Seattle.


Next: “3 reasons to pay more for your coffee

This is the second in a 10-part series, “Coffee for the Average Josh,” releasing Fridays this fall. Get your fix of Coffee 101 by signing up to receive an email when the next post drops.

Previous: “Where do coffee babies come from?”  

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