When we started Cadena, we knew what good coffee tasted like, but little else. However, over the past several months, we’ve had to become experts on every part of the coffee industry. This includes the life cycle of the coffee bean – from growing, to harvesting, to processing, to finally roasting and delivering to you!
We have found it fascinating to learn how coffee is grown. Let’s follow the development of coffee from planting the seeds of a tree to harvesting a mature coffee cherry.
Coffee beans come from the seeds, or cherries, of the coffee tree. The coffee tree is a type of evergreen shrub; it grows best between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This is why almost all of the coffee you drink was grown near the equator and is imported. The only coffee-growing state in the U.S. is Hawaii.
Most coffee-growing countries have distinct rainy and dry seasons. Planting occurs in the rainy season when it is easier to dig holes. Traditionally, farmers will dig holes and plant a couple dozen unprocessed seeds in the hole. About half of the seeds then germinate. Once the saplings reach 8-14 inches in height, the healthy ones are transplanted in fields. (Seedlings can also be incubated in indoor greenhouses and then transplanted.)
Coffee trees haven’t evolved to withstand direct sunlight for extended periods of time. In the wild, coffee trees sit well below the forest’s canopy, so taller trees filter out direct sunlight. Without this protective canopy, just a few hours of afternoon sun can dry out and kill a coffee plant. So farmers are careful to protect their trees from sunlight. Farmers help their plants survive the hot sun by planting their trees on east-facing slopes where sun only shines in the morning and by ensuring the trees are watered well.
It is possible to grow coffee in direct sunlight, but it takes many more inputs (fertilizers) as well as increased labor. Due to these limitations, organic coffee must be shade-grown. This is either done by intentional intercropping (such as growing banana trees and coffee trees under them, which allows double the production on the same plot of land) or by taking advantage of existing trees and planting coffee underneath.
As we wrote about before, the two most commercially important species of coffee are Coffea arabica (Arabica) and Coffea canephora (Robusta). Arabica accounts for about 75% of coffee cultivated worldwide, and this is the kind of coffee we roast here at Cadena.
Arabica is grown throughout Latin America, Central and East Africa, India and, to some extent, Indonesia. The best growing conditions for Arabica coffee are:
- Volcanic soil
- Temperatures between 60 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit
- Annual rainfall between 60 and 110 inches
- Elevation between 1,800 and 6,200 feet.
At higher elevations, Arabica grows more slowly, producing a more aromatic coffee. In order to ensure the perfect temperature for coffee trees, the optimal altitude at which to grow coffee changes with latitude. The highest altitude is needed at the equator.
The average mature Arabica plant is a large bush with dark green oval-shaped leaves. A wild coffee tree can grow up to 16 feet tall. However, most farmers prune their trees each year to between 5 and 7 feet. This height is comfortable for picking, and pruning tends to increase the trees’ yields.
Farmers may not see crops from new trees for three or four years. The first sign of a healthy coffee plant is a flower. This flowering is triggered by the transition from dry to wet season. After about a month, the flowers bloom and then wither and fall off of the tree. The tree leaves a node in the place of the fallen flower. Each of these nodes then turns into a green coffee cherry, which will someday turn into a valuable coffee bean.
During the next 5 to 11 months, the cherries ripen from bright green to pink, then red, dark red, purple, and eventually black. The best time to pick the cherry is when it is dark red; the purple and black colored fruits are past their prime.
Inside the cherry, two coffee beans are nestled. Occasionally, only one coffee bean is produced, in which case it is called a peaberry. We like to think of finding a peaberry like finding a four-leaf clover 😉.
In the majority of coffee-producing countries, mature trees produce a single crop of cherries each year. For each coffee tree, this is one to two pounds of coffee beans a year. In some countries that don’t have a well-defined a dry season, though, there are two harvests: primary and secondary. Colombia is one such country.
How coffee cherries are harvested will be the subject of a subsequent blog post. We hope you stay with us and enjoy this journey towards an elevated coffee experience!