Have you ever wondered how coffee beans look like before they undergo the roasting process? Let’s have a quick look at the life cycle of coffee.
Trees in the coffea genus originated in Ethiopia and are now grown across the globe. All these trees started life as the seeds that we all know as coffee beans. Coffee seeds are planted in rich soil, where the little bean/seed will be lifted up above the ground on a green stem.
In the first months of the tree’s life, farmers will keep these little coffee plants in the nurseries where unexpected weather conditions can be avoided. After about 5 to 6 months the small trees are moved out of the nurseries and planted across the farms.
A coffee plant growing from a 'bean'.
Young coffee plants growing indoors to protect them from the elements.
Although coffee plants grow relatively fast, it will take about 3 to 4 years till the first flowering. The small white flowers with a delicate, jasmin-like scent will grow where the green waxy leaves and branches join. After about 8 weeks of pollination a green fruit will appear.
Coffee tree with white flowers
Green coffee cherries.
As I already mentioned, coffee 'beans' are actually coffee seeds which form inside 'cherries', which are the size of a gooseberry or a grape. When mature they can have red, yellow, orange or even pink colour - this will depend on the variety of coffee.
Coffee tree with lots of ripe fruit.
We can see the seeds are taking up about 80% of the whole cherry and are surrounded by a few thin layers. Starting from the outer layer of the cherry, we meet the fruit skin, and beneath the cherry skin is a thin layer of pulp. The next two layers are super important in the fermentation stage during processing coffee beans as they hold the most amount of sugars. We're talking here about the mucilage and a layer of pectins. Next, we can see parchment and the silver skin.
The inside of a coffee cherry.
Usually there will be two seeds facing each other inside each cherry. But sometimes coffee trees will produce a cherry with only one seed, the two joined together, and this one will be slightly larger and rounder than the twin-seeds. A single seed is called a Peaberry and it takes about 5% of each crop. A peaberry will usually occur in a cherry which had slightly harder weather conditions than the others. Some of the farmers will sell those on the higher price as the premium ones.
There is a belief that due to the rounder shape of peaberries, during roasting they gain more sweetness and complexity. Not sure whether that is true, but I am sure that we've had some extremely delicious peaberries in the past!
Now we know that coffee comes from a cherry and the fruit skin that is left after the processing is called Cascara - which has been consumed as a fruit infusion (brewed like tea) for centuries in coffee origins. If you get the chance to try it, you should - it's amazing.
And finally we got to the part we are all a bit more familiar with. After ripe coffee cherries are harvested they will be processed and prepared to be shipped.
Before roasting coffee beans are kind of green, a bit yellow, maybe a bit of an orange or brown colour - which occurs depending on the chosen processing method. We'll take more about processing another time.
While we all probably have opened a bag of coffee at least once and smelled that inviting aroma, the green, unroasted coffee smells a bit grassy and doesn’t at all remind us of that fresh roasted coffee aroma we all know.
Roasted coffee beans.
During the roasting process green coffee beans can lose about 20% of their mass but they can also double their volume, that’s to do with the release of the gases from the centre of the bean. We'll look at roasting another time.
I hope you enjoyed our quick overview of the coffee life cycle. It's fascinating to think that the coffee you are drinking today has been through so much on its way to you. We'll be looking at each step in that journey in a bit more detail over the coming months. In our next blog post, we will talk you through some of the coffee processing methods. Stay tuned!