Just how does the coffee get to our cup?

The process and people involved in getting to a finished cup of your favorite beverage is seldom considered by the average coffee drinker.

Actually, it’s a seed, not a real bean, but we like to call it a bean. The ‘coffee bean’ is the seed of the Coffea plant.

The raw seeds are often referred to as a ‘cherries’. Each cherry contains two seeds. However, in a certain percentage of the crop, between 5% and 10%, the cherry only develops a single seed. These cherries are called ‘peaberries’. Peaberries, smaller than regular cherries are often sold separately.

Somewhat amusing is that fact that caffeine in the seed is the plant’s natural defense mechanism to ward of herbivores. What does it do to them? Keep them up all night?

The cherries mature on the tree for around nine months, slowly turning from green to red/purple at which point they are harvested. Most coffee is handpicked.

Much of the world crop of coffee (75% to 80%) comes from the Arabica species, the rest from Robusta and the remainder a mixture of lesser-known species such as Liberica. Coffee grows in the tropics, roughly between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The best beans come from countries in the following regions:

  • Central & South America – Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Jamaica
  • Africa – Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe
  • Asia – India, Sri Lanka
  • Southeast Asia –  Indonesia ( and if you like Robusta, Vietnam)
  • Pacific – Hawaii

So, what creates a great bean? Temperature, rainfall, and solid conditions. Different species and even varieties flourish under different conditions. Some like to grow on hillsides, other fair better under the protection of a tree canopy. Each environment creates a bean with unique qualities expressed through flavor, acidy and aroma. Check out our ‘Taste Tool’ so see how different bean’s flavors are described.

Also, beans from different environments are often roasted differently to bring out those qualities most unique to them.

Between picking the cherries and roasting them comes the processing of the bean.

The bean is surrounded by a number of layers that need to be removed before the bean can be used. To arrive at a bean ready for roasting it has to go through various stages determined by whether they were ‘dry-processed’ or ‘wet processed’.

Dry processing is the time-honored approach where the freshly harvested ‘whole’ cherries are simply laid out to dry in the sun. This process is still used in countries where water resources are in short supply or at a premium.

Wet processing is a little more complex. It is designed to remove the ‘pulp’ straight after harvesting. The cherries are passed through a machine that uses water to remove the skin and pulp. The beans, which at this point are still encased in their parchment layer’ are separated by size and weight (riper beans are heavier). The beans are then left for a period, between 12 to 48 hours in water tanks. This is known as fermentation. Not the same as fermentation used to produce wine or beer though. This process is designed to utilize naturally occurring enzymes to dissolve away a thick layer of mucilage still surrounding the parchment. Once complete the beans are rinsed and sent for drying.

In both wet and dry processes the beans are dried to around 11% moisture. Drying may be done naturally through the sun or in heated tumblers. Wet processed beans once dried, because they are still encased in their parchment are called, not surprisingly, ‘parchment coffee.’

Prior to export, the beans are milled. In this part of the process, parchment coffee is ‘hulled’  using machines that remove the parchment layer from wet-processed coffee. Dry processed coffee still has all of its layers – being the entire dried bean. Hulling a dry-processed bean removed the entire bean covering.

Once complete the beans are sometimes polished to remove any last traces of parchment and then graded and sorted for, size, color, and imperfections. This can be done by hand or by machine.

The beans are now ready for export and roasting.

No matter who you ask, if they know anything about coffee, if you ask what the most critical part of the coffee production process is, you will undoubtedly be told, the roast.

The differences in the beans, their flavor, the smell becomes truly evident at this stage.

Each variety is different, each requiring varying roast conditions. Longer roasts don’t necessarily produce a ‘better’ flavor. Knowing how to roast the different bean varieties to bring out their best is the job of a master craftsman – the roaster. Too much or too little heat, too fast or too slow, can have disastrous consequences for the final flavor. Roasting is a skilled business requiring constant attention and intimate knowledge of the bean being roasted.

The essential part of the roast that delivers the complex flavor and aromas associated with each bean variety is the release of the oil in the bean – caffeol; a process called ‘pyrolysis.’ The bean also contains starches. At roast temperatures this breaks down into simple sugars and turn brown during caramelization, giving the finished bean color depending on how long and how hot the beans were roasted.

Other oils are also released. These include cafestol and kahweol. We touch on these chemicals in our health benefits section.

Just like the ‘Processing’ stage, the roast has its own series of distinct steps. These can be broken down further into specific colors to reveal the types of roast produced (American, City, Viennese, French, etc).

The Yellow Phase

Appearing at temperatures between 200’F and 250’F, the beans begin to steam as vapor begins to be released and the beans begin to dry. The yellowing is caused by the outer layer of the bean changing color.

First Crack

As the bean dries it the vapor release caused the bean to swell and for separation of the beans outer layer occurs. This can be heard as a distinctive ‘crack’. For that reason this stage is called the ‘First Crack’. Things start to happen at this point; sugars start to caramelize, oils begin to be released and the first usable roasted beans are ready, depending of course on the bean’s requirements. First crack typically occurs around 350’F.

Second Crack

As roasting continues, the beans become darker, more oils are released and the beans continue to expand in size. Around 425’F the beans begin to crack again – the ‘Second Crack.’ At this point the roaster may stop the process and produces what we know as the ‘Full City Roast.’ Beyond this point Italian and French roasts are produced.


Once the correct level of roast has been reached, ‘cooking’ has to be stopped. If the beans were just left, they’d continue to roast, changing the eventual outcome. The roasted beans are put into cooling trays.

The oils in the finished roast are volatile and water soluble, meaning they can be damaged by prolonged exposure to heat, light and moisture. This is one reason why it’s best to buy whole beans and grind them yourself or at least at the point where you purchase the whole bean.

The coffee research institute recommends grinding the bean no more than 2 minutes prior to brewing.

Remember that these guys are conducting scientific research where reproducibility and quality control is paramount. Their reason is simple – oxidation or ‘staling’ as it’s called in the business. This occurs in any fruit and vegetable and ruins the flavor.

The other reason for grinding only when you use is mold. Mold can quickly turn coffee rancid and is one reason for not buying ready ground coffee except from sources you know have ground to order and shipped immediately.

What to Grind With

The type of grinder used obviously depends upon your budget, but the difference in the final flavor can be significant. The size of the grind depends on how you intend to brew. So controlling the finished grind size is important.

The cheap blade grinders – often doubling as spice grinder in some households, provide the least control, grinding unevenly and can be messy and hard to clean. These sell for less than $20. The inconsistency isn’t so much of a problem for drip coffee as the filter stops finer particles from reaching the cup. However, it is a problem for the french press or boiled coffees as the slicing action of the blade produces bother coarse and fine particles, becoming finer the more you grind.

The best type of grinder and the one producing consistent results and well-graded end product is based on a grinding wheel called a ‘burr.’ The distance between the burr and the stationary grinding surface controls the size of the grind, so not hit and miss blade action. Conical burrs offer the best performance, often quieter than plate types.

Burr grinders are typically expensive, ranging from under one hundred dollars to many hundreds of dollars. To the serious coffee drinker though, it’s worth every cent. A good compromise, certainly if you are not grinding much coffee on a day to day basis, is the hand grinder. Obviously slower than an electric grinder, they are cheaper. Why not put a little effort into your ‘daily grind.’

Size of the Grind

As mentioned the way you intend to brew will dictate the size of the grind required. Expresso requires a fine powdery grind, the largest grind is required for a French Press, with drip coffee requiring a mid-sized grind.

Under grinding, the grind is too coarse will yield a weak brew, while over-grinding can result in over-extraction and give a bitter flavor.

If the choice of bean and the grinding method wasn’t personal enough for you, then how you choose to brew your coffee certainly will be.

How much effort you are prepared to put into preparing your coffee and brewing it will no doubt determine what method you use. If you are reading this then you have, no doubt, got over the idea of instant coffee and are prepared to work a little.

Brewing the coffee is the fun part as the different techniques bring out the true identity of the coffee and can determine it’s intensity, some sacrificing taste for convenience.

Coffee Maker – Automatic

What home would be complete without one? Just fill with water, pop in a filter paper and load some coffee, press go and presto, a few minutes later, coffee. For most people this is enough; they even ground their own bean already!

The upside is obvious; freshly brewed coffee, quickly. The downside though is less so. It starts with the fact that most of these coffee makers are almost entirely made of plastic. Add a heating coil and you have the potential for the release of toxic chemicals. I know they may be BPA free and all that jazz, but even according to the manufacturers, a new coffee maker needs to be washed through and used a few times before they stop tasting ‘new.’ Why should they taste new? Think about that.

Filter papers play their own part in damaging the taste. Sometimes you may notice a flavor reminiscent of wet cardboard in your cup. Bleached filter papers can impart this kind of taste. It’s always best to use good quality, don’t skimp here, unbleached papers. Also, filter papers remove a lot of the coffee oil from the final cup – Caffeol. Studies have shown that the components of this oil, although having some negative cholesterol impact, are likely responsible for the wide range of health benefits coffee affords. By using paper filters, you may be losing those benefits. Consider investing in a metal filter instead.

The final downside is that many coffee makers keep the coffee hot. This is almost always a bad thing, as constant heating will damage the coffee flavor after a while. It’s best to have a machine that uses a thermos to hold the coffee.

If you ever wanted a reason to stop drinking coffee from a coffee maker that keeps the coffee hot, and there are plenty in office kitchens around the country, take a peak inside the pot at the end of the day and look at the layers of staining and crud that have built up inside a poorly maintained machine.

Coffee Maker – Manual Drip

In our opinion, this is the best compromise between convenience and taste. A manual coffee maker requires you to pour in hot water, and monitor the process.

The simplest versions are the ‘hour glass’ style, all glass variety. Simply placed a quality filter paper, or metal filter in the neck, add ground coffee and pour in the water, keeping it topped up until you have what you need. Relatively easy to clean, no plastics to be concerned about, they produce a great cup.

The downside in any drip coffee maker is that the water doesn’t stay in contact with the coffee for very long and so, potentially, doesn’t get the best out of it either. That’s why the French press is considered by many as they best way to brew your coffee.

French Press

If you want complete control over flavor extraction, then look no further than the French Press. Water at a controlled temperature is poured over the desired amount of coffee and the coffee is allowed to steep for a period of time of your preference, typically 3 to 5 minutes. This is personal to how strong you like your coffee and the type of roast you are using. For many who prefer a stronger, richer more full bodied coffee, this is the only way to brew.

At the end of the steep, the plunger is pressed down, allowing the coffee infused liquid to pass through while the solids are trapped by the metal gauze filter and pressed to the bottom. The gauze on the plunger allows the essential oils in the coffee to reach the cup, along with some undissolved solids that were fine enough to pass through. The size of the grind is important as the filter needs to trap the solids, although some finer particles always make it though. A courser grind is best and requires steeping to be a little longer. The end result is a more flavorful cup of coffee.

Again, the French press is easy to clean, ensuring a fresh tasting cup of coffee every time. Best of all, it’s economical, as you don’t have to keep buying filter papers.

Moka Pot

Italian engineering is something to behold. One the one hand you have the finest sports cars in the world (after Aston Martin that is) and then you have the Moka pot.

The Moka pot is as interesting to watch as it is to drink the final product. More fun than practical, as you need a stove. It is comprised of two halves; the bottom half is unscrewed and coffee and hot water are placed inside. The top half is screwed on the top and will contain the finished brew. The pot is placed on a stove top and heated. As the pressure builds, the water is forced through the coffee, through a filter between the two chambers and up into the top half through a tube that creates a sort of fountain of coffee.

Moka pots have pressure relief valves if you were wondering, just like pressure cookers. Still, I always get nervous about heating confined liquids.

The resulting brew is much richer and thicker than a filter coffee, somewhere between that produced by a well steeped French press brew and an expresso. The down side to this method is that there is little control over water temperature and any method that uses water at boiling temperatures can cause the coffee to become a little on the bitter side.

Many older Moka pots are made of aluminum, which is worrying as excessive aluminum  intake has been associated with degenerative brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Fortunately, they can also be found made from stainless steel, some with their own built in heating elements.

Vacuum Pot

The vacuum pot almost works in the reverse way to the Moka pot. It consists of two spherical chambers in an hour glass style, again with a filter between the two. Water is placed in the lower chamber and coffee grounds in the top. The water is brought to a boil and the pressure generated forces the water up a connecting tube to the upper chamber and onto the coffee where the brew begins. Once most of the water is in the upper chamber, the pot is take off of the heat and allowed to cool.

As the pot cools, a vacuum is created in the lower chamber which essentially sucks the water through the coffee and filter in the upper chamber down into the lower chamber.

This is highly entertaining to watch and is used as a sort of side show when the desert is served at some restaurants. However, like the Moka pot, boiling water is used and this can cause some bitterness. So, it’s use is a trade off between fun and a slight decrease in taste quality, although many of us would probably not notice.

Boiled Coffee

This is the simplest and most traditional way to brew coffee, which is why it is probably the most common method for brewing coffee in the Middle East and Africa.

Coffee that has been ground finely is simply boiled in water. Not filter is used, with the coffee being allowed to rest so the sediment, mud, settles and the coffee liquor is poured off the top.

This style is often referred to at ‘Turkish’ coffee, or just ‘Middle Eastern,’ is usually very strong and rich and is often served well sweetened.