Did You Know That Your Coffee Is (Probably) a Fermented Food? Learn How Coffee Is Made

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Thomas)

While we may think a lot about what coffee we buy and how we brew it, most of us are pretty disconnected from the coffee production process. Coffee has become such an everyday item that we forget to even think about where it comes from and how it came to be, but in fact, the quality of a coffee is even more important than what you do with it when it finally reaches your kitchen.

Today we’re going to take a look at coffee production, and how it goes from seed to cup.

(Image credit: United Nations Photo)

The Coffee Plant

The original native coffee plant hails from Ethiopia, but it eventually made its way to Yemen and into the Middle East. In the 1600s the Dutch brought coffee plants back to greenhouses in the Netherlands, eventually taking it to grow in their colonies, like Indonesia. In the 17th and 18th centuries, coffee began to be grown in Central and South America.

Coffee belongs to the botanical family Rubiaceae, which besides coffee includes gardenias and plants that yield quinine, famously used as a treatment for malaria.

When it comes to coffee, there are two important species: coffee arabica and coffee canephora, more commonly known as robusta. Within the species, there are different varieties, and when you hear people talking about varietals — like a Geisha or Bourbon — think of it like different grapes used in wine making; they all lead to very different flavors in the final product.

The quality of coffee all starts right here, with the fruit of the coffee plant. What we know as the coffee bean is actually the seed of what is known as the coffee cherry. These cherries start green, and turn bright red as they ripen and are ready to pick.

How Coffee Is Processed

Once coffee cherries are picked, either by hand or machine, they have to be processed immediately, and there are two methods for processing. The dry method, also known as the “natural method,” is the most traditional, and commonly used in regions with limited water resources. The coffee cherries are washed and then spread out to dry in the sun.

Then there’s the wet method, and this is where fermentation comes into play. In this method, the pulp is removed from the coffee cherry after harvesting. After separating the skin and pulp, the beans are put in fermentation tanks filled with water. The goal here is to remove the layer of mucilage (called the parenchyma) that is still attached to the parchment skin on the bean. The fermentation causes this layer to break down and disappear. The beans are then rinsed and then set out to dry.

This is commonly referred to as the washed process. There’s also a semi-washed process, in which the pulp is removed from the cherry, but then the beans are set out to dry with the mucilage still on them, skipping the fermentation and rinsing process.

(Image credit: stephen)

Roasting the Green Coffee

Dried beans are then hulled, graded and sorted. Eventually they end up in those big jute sacks that you’ve probably seen lying around a coffee shop at some point or another. These beans are called “green coffee” and they’re now ready to be sent off to be roasted. According to the National Coffee Association, approximately seven million tons of green coffee is produced worldwide each year.

Once roasters get their hands on green coffee, they set to work transforming it into the dark, brown, aromatic bean that we’re used to buying. This is a

technical process that’s also an art

Into the Cup

Once the beans are roasted, they can finally be turned into a cup of coffee, either by you or your barista. That means those beans have come a long way just to make it to your coffee pot or French press.

Next time you’re drinking your morning coffee, remember that there’s a lot more in that bag of beans than just a tasty drink; a lot of hands and labor went it to bringing it to you.