We don’t usually like to think about stuff like this. Chances are, when it comes to food, we want to stuff ourselves with it- not learn about how long it took to grow or how many kilometers it traveled just to get eaten by us.
However, coffee is very different from other foods and also quite special. More importantly: it’s actually interesting. Let’s start with coffee’s origin story, then the farming phase, ending with the roasting process.
The Origins of Coffee
Sometime during the 15th century, a Middle Eastern monk was on a pilgrimage across Africa. He walked, barefoot, through Ethiopia when, randomly, he decided to take a nap near some hills. Coffee shrubs were nearby and though he’d spotted the red cherries, he thought it prudent not to eat them as he did not know whether they were poisonous.
Upon waking up, he witnessed a herd of goats playfully jumping around and being, in general, more energetic than usual.
He immediately saw they’d eaten from these berries and tried some for himself. The caffeine buzz was almost immediate and he brought with him as many of these as he could carry.
When he got to his destination, he presented them to a fellow monk. He said they were of the Devil, just like wine; illegal for Muslims. He threw them into the fire: the beans inside the cherries slowly started to roast, and the room filled with the coffee aroma that we all know and love today.
And that’s how coffee happened.
Now, some present-day stuff.
From that story, you already know that coffee beans are actually seeds, which are found in the berries of the coffee shrub. They turn bright red and look just like cherries, which is why they can also be referred to as “cherries”.
So, how exactly do we get those beans?
First, we need to plant trees. The coffee tree, or shrub, can be grown in only a handful of countries. This is a very important piece of information because the coffee industry is defined by this. The reason for this is that coffee needs a very temperate, mild climate; the kind of climate that happens near the equator. That means North America, Europe, etc., are automatically ruled out!
And so, most of the coffee we drink is grown in Central and South America, Africa, and Southeastern Asia. But nowhere else– though this might change, with climate change and all. Maybe the North Pole will someday be a premium provider of coffee.
Once these are planted, we gotta wait. In one, two years tops, we will see the literal fruits of our efforts: the coffee cherries.
Because these cherries don’t ripen at the same time, they have to be hand picked. Experts go around inspecting– generally, they have to be bright red and somewhat soft to the touch. Some of them are picked, but those that are still green get to live another day. Once picked, they are brought back to the farm, where they are sun-dried for a day. Then, the fruit is separated from the seeds.
We’re getting closer now! The seeds are thoroughly washed, stored and these green beans are what farms sell to small or big companies. At this point, coffee beans have exited the “farm” and are much closer to us.
The Roasting Process
All that’s left is the roast. Now, the roast is a very delicate part of this whole process. Very expensive, complicated facilities are set up to achieve just the right roast for a specific bean.
Usually, beans are roasted in the country where they’re sold– but bigger companies like Illy roast their beans at their state-of-the-art roasting facilities in Italy and from there, they ship to the rest of the world.
Though the roasting process could be described as simply cooking a bunch of beans, it’s a very delicate thing. The Master Roaster, with years of experience under his belt, supervises this part. He makes sure that each bean is roasted at the exact temperature it needs and the right amount of time for that particular type of bean to develop the best possible flavor. Not all beans are roasted equally.
Once the beans are roasted, they’re almost ready! They may be packaged and sold as they are so that you can grind them at home for a fresher coffee, though most of it is ground right there in the same facilities where they are roasted and then packaged.
And that’s how coffee makes its way to your cup!