Coffee growing and processing
A long way from the bean to your cup

Coffee farming is a very labor intensive and time-consuming trade. It takes more than three to four years for a coffee plant to harvest and the cultivation and further processing requires a lot of experience, skill and care. Our specialty coffees come exclusively from the arabica coffee cultivation, where the coffee plants grow between trees and bushes (see also: Shade Grown Coffee) and fertilizers and pesticides are used minimally.

 

How a coffee plant is grown has a considerable influence on the later taste and characteristics of the coffee. Coffee plants that undergo intensive cultivation on large plantations and monocultures affect the taste as well as harm the environment. 

It is a long and labour-intensive journey from bean to cup. Below is a brief overview of various processing steps necessary to turn the bright red coffee cherries into fragrant golden brown beans.

But we must first start at the beginning …

Coffee growing areas lie along the equator between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This area is commonly referred to as the coffee belt or the bean belt. For Arabica plants to grow they need certain cultivation requirements. Click here to find out more about the coffee growing areas. 
On coffee farms such as Finca Hacienda Sonora, where we source our Villalobos Espresso, the young coffee plants are first raised in so-called Coffee Nurseries.

After approximately 8 months, when the plants have reached a certain level of maturity, they are transported to the plantations and planted roughly 1 to 2 meters apart under the protection of trees and shrubs, surrounded by the natural vegetation and fauna of the cultivation area. It takes approximately 4 to 5 years for an Arabica plant to grow enough cherries to be harvested. First the coffee plants must produce small white buds that flower for between 6 to 7 months. After this time the flowers fall away leaving behind their seeds or coffee cherries. 

Once the coffee plants have reached maturity they are ready for harvest. For specialty coffee this means that the coffee cherries are picked by hand for a period of up to one month. This is to ensure that only the cherries that have reached full maturity are picked, allowing the green cherries or under ripe cherries enough time to ripen and become red in colour. Different coffee growing areas harvest at different times of the year depending on their proximity to the coffee belt or the bean belt.

Coffee processing - A step by step overview

After harvesting, further processing begins. The first step is to remove any dirt and/or leaves from the fruit and filter out the defective cherries. The next step is to remove the pulp or fruit leaving behind only the coffee bean. Because you are not able to store the coffee cherries for a long time, this needs to take place within 3 to 5 hours after harvest

 

There are many different methods of processing, all of which have a direct impact on how the coffee will taste. Even today, many people continue to experiment with different processing methods to improve and showcase the potential for the beans. Processing methods are chosen depending on the facilities and equipment that are available to the farmer and whether they have enough access to water.   

 

1) Natural processed/Unwashed Sundried

This method of processing is the most natural and uses the least amount of resources. It is where the coffee cherries are laid out in the sun after harvest with the cherry still attached to the bean and parchment throughout the entire process. During regular turning, the fruits dry for up to 4 weeks until the moisture content of the bean is reduced by 10-12%. The hull (both the dried pulp and parchment) is then removed mechanically leaving behind green coffee. Beans that have undergone natural processing resemble the flavour similar to that of the fermented cherry.

Click here to find out more about the Natural Processing

2) Honey processed, Semi-Washed, Pulped Natural

For honey process, the beans are separated from the fruit and washed (passing through a mechanical demucilaginator). During this time, depending on how intensive the wash cycle, certain amounts of mucilage are left on the bean. The amount of pulp remaining on the bean will determine whether it is black, red or yellow honey process. Black honey is when most of the mucilage is left on the beans whilst the yellow has the least. In other places, the amount of mucilage left on the beans is determined by how often the parchment is turned while drying. Again, black honey is when the parchment has been turned or moved the least amount of times allowing the sugars surrounding the beans to caramalize faster, turning them black in colour. The degree of mucilage remaining on the beans will determine the flavour profile and characteristics of the coffee.
Semi washed is when the outer skin is removed from the coffee cherries mechanically leaving behind only the mucilage which is generally kept on for 1 day. After this time the mucilage is washed off and the coffee is left to dry.
Pulp natural (a term used in Brazil) is when mucilage is not fully removed after pulping and parchment is dried together with varying degrees of mucilage still attached.

Find out more about the different 'Honey methods' 

 

3) Washed processed

Here the pulp and mucilage are mechanically removed from the beans and placed in a large water basin where they are left to ferment for 24-36 hours. They are then left to dry for several days in the sun.

Here you can find out more about the Washed method

The final stages before export

Once the beans have been de-pulped and dried (to a moisture content of approx. 8 to 12%), they are collected and stored for the first time in coffee sacks in a dry environment with low-light.
They are then put through a mill to remove the last layer of dry skin; the parchment (which has been protecting the beans from aging). They are then cleaned and sorted according to colour, size, density and quality before exported around the world. Depending on the region and the farm, this step can be done manually or electronically with sorting machines.

Now the raw coffee is ready for export!