Coffee is one of the world's most widely traded agricultural commodities, produced in nearly 70 countries
and roughly 100 different growing regions. Coffee trees, which start producing fruit (or "cherries") after about
five years, thrive in sunny, humid areas where the temperature hovers around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Accordingly, nearly
all of the world's premium coffee growers are located in the tropical "coffee belt," a band of mostly developing
countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
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Coffee cherries typically take eight months to ripen from a delicate white flower into a glossy, ripe red
bean. These are either selectively picked by hand—laborious process that yields the best quality beans—or stripped off
the branch all at once by hand or with machinery. Here, a worker uses a mesh pan to toss stripped cherries into the air,
which separates the cherries from foreign matter like sticks and leaves.
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Coffee beans will rot if they're not dried soon after harvest. In dry processing, which is used in countries
where water is a limited resource, harvested beans are spread out and turned regularly in the sun over the course of weeks.
In wet processing, water and machinery are used to prepare the beans before being dried as shown above. Once processed, beans
are graded by size, density, flavor, aroma, and acidity, as well as a litany of defects that affect their designation as
specialty, premium, exchange, standard, or off-grade beans.
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Once they've been processed and graded by the farmer, cooperative, or intermediary, "green" beans
are packed into jute or sisal sacks (sometimes fitted with a vapor barrier liner) or, less commonly, into expensive vacuum packs.
The bagged coffee is then bulked before being loaded into shipping containers and transported via sea or air.
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Coffee is generally not roasted before it reaches the importer. Green coffee beans are roasted in rotating
drums or hot-air roasters at 400 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit, and then cooled. At around 400 degrees, the beans start to release
caffeol, a complex, oil-like substance of carmelized sugars and starches. The longer the beans roast, the greater the amount of
caffeol they release, and it's this oil that impacts the eventual taste and aroma of the brewed drink.
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Whole coffee beans are of little technical use until they have been ground. There are a variety of devices
that can be used—mortar and pestle, hand-operated and mechanical burr grinders, blade grinders, and even industrial rolling
grinders (shown here)—and to create a perfect cup, the grind must be uniform in size and matched to the brewing method.
Too fine a grind will result in an intensely bitter brew, whereas an overly coarse grind will be too weak.
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Coffee isn't just an agricultural commodity, of course; it's also the driver of a diversified industry that
includes retailers of whole and ground beans as well as an array of branded coffee shops, supermarkets, kitchenware and accessory
manufacturers, and business services. According to a 2011 survey from the National Coffee Association, more than three quarters
of U.S. adults drink coffee, with 58 percent stating that they drink the beverage daily.
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What makes the perfect cup of coffee depends on individual taste and the situation at hand. Whether you like a
bold espresso, a milder American-style cup, or a frothy cappuccino, perfection is dependent on a number of variables, including
the type of coffee, the region where it was grown, how fresh it is, and its roast level; the size and consistency of the grind;
the quality, ratio, and temperature of the water used; the choice of brewing process; and the actual brewing equipment and its
cleanliness. Simple, right?
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At home, on the go, in the office, or out on the town, coffee consumption is as much about rituals as it is
about taste or caffeine. There is a lot of human interaction around the beverage—stolen moment with a spouse around the
breakfast table, a quick laugh with a barista at your favorite coffee shop, a break with a colleague—and savvy companies like
Starbucks have built this insight into their business.
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