How Coffee Beans Grow

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There is nothing like watching the sunrise while enjoying the aroma and taste of a freshly brewed coffee in the morning, is there? But where does your morning cup of coffee come from? What do coffee beans have to go through to achieve that morning, “Ah,” after your first sip?

More than 1/3 of the coffee grown in the world is consumed by Americans. There are sixty different varieties of coffee in the world, but Hawaii is the only region where coffee is grown in the United States.

Coffee is definitely very high in demand. Used to make cappuccinos, espressos, lattes and even for baking, it seems we just can’t get enough!  From bean to brew, there’s a real art to coffee making that begins with the growing process.

How Coffee Beans Grow

Types of Coffee Beans

Coffee beans are a fruit which matures slowly. They grow on tree branches in white jasmine-like blossoms. Taking three to five years, the plants produce only with the right climate.

There are two commercially cultivated coffees: Arabica and Robusta.

Arabica trees usually only produce a little over a pound of green coffee beans per season and are typically lower in caffeine then Robusta, but these beans are of very high quality. Arabica coffee beans are grown at elevations of 3,000 to 6,000 ft where there is very little frost. Most of the gourmet and specialty coffee shops order and serve Arabica coffee.

The Robusta plants are grown at sea level up to 2,000 ft. and are usually more resistant to drought and diseases than the Arabica. Their trees produce twice as much per season, but they are not as high quality. Most of your instant coffees are of produced from Robusta beans.

How Coffee Beans Grow

How Coffee Beans Grow

There are three commercial methods of growing coffee to satisfy the world’s demand.  Coffee is a commodity and it trades on the world market, just like oil and gold. In fact coffee is the second most valuable commodity in the world just behind oil.

The three methods of growing coffee are organic, fair-trade and shade-grown.

Sun-grown

This is the most destructive to the world’s eco-system. A majority of the world’s coffee grows in either tropical rain forests or a native rain forest environment.  Cutting down these areas for lumber is depleting the rain forest at a rapid pace.

This method also calls for adding chemical fertilizers and pesticides to the growing process. Decreasing the tropical rain forests to promote the dense planting of coffee brushes reduces the natural habitat for both prey and predator animals.  It also causes unnatural erosion in these areas.

A worldwide concern over the environment and global warming has prompted many concerned growers and other people involved in the coffee industry to consider other methods of growing coffee plants.

Organic grown

The second method is to raise the coffee bushes through a process known as “organic” farming. This is basically what the name implies; growing the crops naturally. It requires a healthy farm ecosystem to successfully produce coffee beans and you have to work with the beans natural preferences.

This means the beans must be grown in a shaded area and the soil has to be rich with nutrients. The coffee plant thrives best in shaded areas and these plants produce the highest quality coffee beans.  They take longer to grow, but it’s better for the eco-system.

Beans produced through organic farming usually had the highest market price and quality.  In addition to the organic growing methods, the few rare bad beans are removed before distribution.

Fair Trade grown

The final method is referred to as the “fair-trade” process. This isn’t really a method for actually growing coffee beans; this is a cooperation between the growers and the buyers that allows for a better price and fair market purchase of the beans.

Considering the market price of coffee and its importance as a commodity, you would think that the growers are making a good living.  Sadly, this isn’t typically the case.  Most coffee bean farmers live in poverty.

Fair trade agreements play an important part in helping growers receive a fair wage.  They also help farmers use better systems of growing to help preserve the environment. This fair-trade system helps to maintain a stable price for the growers as well as helping them maintain a reasonably descent standard of living.

How Coffee Beans Grow

How is Coffee Processed?

After coffee is grown it goes through one of two processes; wet or dry. The coffee bean has to be processed soon after harvesting to keep from pulp fermenting around it.

Wet processing

One process coffee beans go through is wet processing, also known as “washed processing”. After a couple of hours harvesting, the pulp is removed and the beans are washed in cycles of fermentation and rinsing.

This causes less damage to the beans, making it easier to remove the skin and pulp.  It’s considered the best way to process the coffee beans.

Dry processing

Another process is called dry processing, also known as “unwashed” or “natural”. This process has been used for centuries. The coffee beans are spread out for fifteen to twenty days in the sunlight and stirred on a regular basis to dry evenly. They are then hulled by hand or machine to remove the pulp.

What about Decaf?

Decaffeinated coffee also has to be produced through a variety of special processes.

The European process

This process is a little different. Because of chemicals used in making coffee, the process includes soaking the beans in water and then washing them free of methylene chloride. After cleaned of the chemicals, they are dried and shipped to coffee roasters.

Although many people prefer decaffeinated coffee, some are concerned that their coffee is processed using chemicals.

Swiss water process

The second process is known as the Swiss Water Process. This is a more natural process and is done by applying hot water and stream to the coffee beans. Many complain that the “life” of the coffee is drained away during this process. This process removes not only the caffeine, but also some of the oils which are part of what gives the coffee its flavor.

The best way to maintain a flavorful cup of coffee is to begin with high quality Arabica beans. After the beans have gone through the first part of the process, the water they were soaked in is processed to remove the caffeine through a number of activated charcoal filters.

These high quality beans recapture much of the oil when the beans are re-soaked in the solution. The caffeine has been removed from the processed water and this prevents it from being absorbed back into the coffee beans.

How Coffee Beans Grow

More fun facts about coffee:

  • In terms of trade, coffee ranks number two, only to oil in dollars. Over fifty countries grow coffee.
  • Coffee was originally called Qahwahin Arabica. From the Turkish word, Kahveh.
  • Coffee was born in Ethiopia.
  • It wasn’t till the 14th century that coffee was roasted by its current methods.
  • Around 1700 AD the Dutch managed to get coffee plants and grow it in their own colonies because of high demand.
  • Around thirty countries produce over 50,000,000 ton of coffee a year.
  • Brazil is the largest supplier of coffee.

Coffee has played very important roles throughout history. In Africa and Yemen it was used in some religious ceremonies. Although, some Christians once thought of coffee as the devil’s drink.  When Pope Vincent the 3rd decided to taste it, he declared it a delicious drink.  People around the world today certainly seem to agree!


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Barb Webb. Founder and Editor of Rural Mom, is an author and sustainable living expert nesting in Appalachian Kentucky. When she’s not chasing chickens around the farm or engaging in mock Jedi battles, she’s writing about country living and artisan culture.
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