From the plant into my Cup
Growing Coffee Plans
Most of us know that coffee comes in beans you can actually buy whole at some stores and grind yourself fresh as you please! But how many of us do know what happened before that?
Like most plants coffee plants come from seeds. While several species of the Coffea shrub produce the cherries, the two main species used for commercial purposes are Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora (also called 'robusta'). The first is the most highly regarded species and mostly found in African countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya. The later is more often found in Guinea all the way to Uganda and the south of Sudan.
Other species not as popular are Coffea Liberica, Excelsa, Mauritiana, Stenophylla, and Racemosa.
All these plants belong to the family of Rubiaceae and are evergreen bushes (shrubs) or even small trees up to 15ft (5m) tall. The beautiful clusters of white blooms are eventually replaced by oval shaped berries a little over a half an inch big. They start out green and than ripen similar to bell peppers to yellow, and eventually from crimson, When they are dried, they turn black. There are two seeds in each cherry. If there is only one, they are called peaberries.
It takes between seven to nine months for them to ripen.
While Arabica is self-pollinating and produces almost uniform seeds, Excelsa, Liberica and Canephora require outcrossing. They are self-incompatible. The usual methods to outcross are grafting, cuttings and budding.
Traditionally about 20 seeds are placed in each hole when the rainy season begins. Due to natural elimination only about half the seeds survive. In Brazil planters have chosen to use a more effective method and raise the plants to seedlings first before moving them outside at the age of six months to a year.
For the first years coffee plants are intercropped with other food crops such as beans, rice, and corn.
Coffee can be described with similar words than wine. Robusta tends to be a bit more bitter and less flavorful than Arabica, but has more body. It also has up to 50% more caffeine; making it a less expensive substitute for its cousin in some blends. The better quality varieties of it are also a welcome addition to some Expressos.
The 'thoroughbred' of the coffees, Arabica, has its character trades. Canephora is more immune to disease and can handle warmer climates and lower altitudes than it's blue blooded cousin. Robusta first came into use near the Lomani River in the 1800s. It then moved up the Congo River and to Zaire, Brussels and Java. From there it spread further out.
Considering the diversity of environment offered by these areas and the 900 or more insect species considered a pest for coffee plants, these plants have to be pretty tough.
The 'golden' Seeds
To find the best seeds the planter looks for a well developed plant with a very high production rate. The ripe cherries are picked and then crushed by hand. They are then washed and fermented by placing them in water. When the cherry ferments, the pulp falls out and reveals the coffee bean. If the cherry floats during this fermentation process, it is discarded.
They are weight and removed from the water to dry on a mesh screen. After drying them to about 20% of their original moisture content, they weight again. Once they reach a certain percentage of the original weight (~50%), they are ready for Germination. (One of the tests to see their process is to bite into one. If it is dry on the outside, but has a soft core, it is ready.)
Beans have to be germinated within the first four months after being dried. They are soaked in water for about a day and then placed into either burlap bags, vermiculite or damp sand. They are watered once or twice daily and carefully removed when they are done.
The soil needs to be friable and have a high humus content. Sometimes blood from butchered animals or rotten manure is added to support the growth of the coffee plants. The seeds are placed into 1/2 inch holes, laying them flat, and then covered lightly. The young plants are not very strong and too much soil will keep them from surfacing! If grown inside they are kept under heat lamps. Otherwise they require a warm and constant temperature. This is one reason why coffee from Africa or Central America is such a good quality.
Only if the plant is grown on high attitude and within thin air will the cherries of the plant's first year be of usable quality.
Coffee is harvested during the dry season and when the cherries have reached a bright red and glossy color. They also have to have a degree of firmness.
Some regions require harvest by hand, when the cherries are collected by plantation workers in a process called 'picking'. Another method is stripping. All cherries, no matter their ripeness, are stripped off the plant and collected. In more commercial areas the cherries are harvested using machines. The more selective method is the 'picking', which allows for unripe cherries to be 'picked' at a later time when they did reach ripeness.
For Brazilian planters 'stripping' is the more cost effective method used when roughly 75% of the cherries are ripe. This is used because of the uniform way the cherries mature in that area. The cherries are stripped off the plants and fall unto sheets on the ground. They are than tossed in the are to allow the wind to carry off any leaves or sticks. The remaining cherries are collected in 60 Liter green basked used as a tool to measure wages for their workers. Some plantations have modernized and use computer systems for determining wages. These systems base the wages on the production of the region, the harvesting conditions and the amount of cherries collected by the worker.
The end result is almost disappointing! Of 100KG (~220lbs) only 12-20KG are turned into export quality coffee!
The method to process coffee for consumption is similar to that for seeding/planting. Since the cherries are mixed, they are placed into a water bath. Overripe- or undeveloped cherries will float as well as leaves and sticks. Ripe and green beans will sink to the ground.
The floaters are usually send to be dried for internal consumption. The sinkers are dried in a natural process and then send to the pulping machines.
The pulping machine internal pressure will push the coffee against a screen with holes that are only large enough for the bean to fit through. Ripe cherries are soft and will separate, allowing them to pass through. The green cherries are too hard and stay behind to be collected at the end of the barrel system. The beans and pulp are separated by centrifugal force and collected.
The beans are covered in a mucilage and are fermented to remove that slippery cover. This takes about half a day to a little over a day. On the way there another density separation will single out the densest and higher quality coffee beans.
After fermenting the beans and removing the mucilage, the beans are placed in patios to dry. To ensure the quality a small amount is hulled and milled by a mini-huller. 300grams are classified for defects. This amount is roasted in a so-called sample roaster and used to determine the quality. No blending of flavors is done until the coffee has been cupped and classified. It then remains 'in pergamino' until shipment, to help protect the aroma and flavor.
Europeans were used to aged coffee due to the available modes of transportation in the early times of coffee production and consumption. The long journeys and the sea air had changed the flavor of the coffee.
When coffee started to be brought in from Indonesia and India, the 'fresher' flavor was rejected at times. To prevent that, coffee was stored in large and open warehouses for at least six months.
While there is no proof, it is often thought that coffee improves with age like wine does. Most experts disagree and belief that coffee is only good within the first year due to the loss of essential oils.
Decaffeination is done to provide the flavors and aroma of real coffee, but without the caffeine. During the process used in the U.S. green and moistened coffee beans are contacted with large amounts of supercritical carbon dioxide at certain pressures and temperatures. It removes about 97% of the caffeine.
Another method is extraction through certain oils or ethyl acetate.
Into my Cup
It is a sad thing that large companies sell coffee to us for high prices but those that produced the coffee are often paid a pittance. There are several stores now that will sell products right from the producer and larger profit is provided to those that do all the work.
If you have the financial means to support those producers, the quality of the coffee and the love and craftsmanship put into it are so worth the slightly higher prices of non-mass produced coffee.
No matter if you grind your coffee at the store or at home, or buy it ground, storage is important. If you don't drink much coffee, I recommend that you buy smaller amounts. Nothing is more bitter than coffee that has been in an opened can for a while! It will ruin your taste buts and your day!
The same goes for letting it sit in a turned-on coffee machine for too long. It will get stronger (since the water reduces itself) and bitter.
With that said: If you buy coffee, chose a place that has high traffic; especially when they use the metal containers. High traffic will guarantee you that the customers like the coffee or the prices and that the coffee has to be made fresh more frequently than in small gas stations that have the same pot on all day.
I also prefer a glass pot over a metal container. Like sodas, beer, vegetables, fruit and other canned products, the product inside the can/container will eventually get the taste of the can/metal container itself!
Coffee is a welcoming gesture, a basis for good business/dates/friendships, a source of energy for a few more hours, and lastly a drink to quench one's thirst!
And for the coffee addict, it is a source of great flavor and aroma!
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