The Story of Coffee, From Plant to Cup

Coffee begins as an agricultural product and ends as the fuel for a host of social rituals. And it touches a variety of industries—from shipping to manufacturing to hospitality—along the way.

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  • 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.


    ©2012 Source / Courtesy of Vladimir Krivsun


  • 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.


    ©2012 Source / Courtesy of AFP/Getty Images


  • 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.


    ©2012 Source / Courtesy of Bloomberg via Getty Images


  • 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.


    ©2012 Source / Courtesy of Inga Spence / Alamy


  • 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.


    ©2012 Source / Courtesy of Chi-Hung Cheung / Alamy


  • 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.


    ©2012 Source / Courtesy of Image Source


  • 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.


    ©2012 Source / Courtesy of Stefan Obermeier


  • 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?


    ©2012 Source / Courtesy of Fuse


  • 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.


    ©Krista Rossow/National Geographic Society/Corbis