If you’re like most American adults, you absolutely need that first cup of coffee to kick start your day.
It’s a habit and a ritual. And for many of us, we can hardly imagine getting to work without our morning jolt of caffeine.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans drink coffee on a daily basis, and the average coffee drinker in the U.S. Goes through roughly three 9-ounce cups a day.
But does the USA drink the most? Well, yes and no…
Our Global Coffee Habit
If you’re going by “how much coffee an average adult drinks,” Scandinavian countries lead the way in per capita consumption. Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are five of the world’s top six coffee-drinking nations.
But when we look at sheer volume, the United States is the leading importer overall. America imports more than any other single nation and accounts for nearly 20% of global trade.
Americans have a deep attachment to drinking coffee as a daily habit. According to the National Coffee Association, the retail value of the U.S. coffee market is roughly $48 billion.
Yes, coffee is big business in the U.S.
But have you ever wondered how those coffee beans get to your cup in the first place?
The Coffee Zone
Most of the world’s coffee comes from Central and South America. According to World Atlas, Brazil leads the way with a whopping 2,592,000 metric tons.
The rest of the region produces significant amounts as well. Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Nicaragua are also all in the top twelve coffee-growing nations.
Other countries on the list of top producers include Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, India, and Uganda.
These countries are located all over the world, but they all fall at least partly in the tropical zone.
Coffee is native to a tropical habitat. So although it can be grown outside the tropics in artificial surroundings, it grows far better in these warmer regions, typically in higher altitudes and with plentiful amounts of rainfall.
But you may be surprised to learn that the coffee bean isn’t actually a bean at all.
Planting the Seed
Coffee beans are technically seeds.
Un-roasted coffee seeds will sprout new coffee plants if they’re put in good soil and properly cared for.
It’s a long journey from bean to cup, and it begins on a coffee plantation.
There are two main types of coffee plant. Arabica is cultivated mainly in Latin America, while Robusta is more popular in Asia and Africa.
Coffee seedlings are delicate, so many coffee plantations will plant them in the shade. By avoiding direct sunlight, these young plants have the best chance to grow quickly.
As they need a lot of water, the soil must be kept wet at all times. This is typically done either through watering or by planting the trees during the rainy season.
When the little plants get to be about three months old, they are moved to a nursery. Here they will be protected from pests and the sun, and they will continue to grow for up to another year.
After a year, the coffee trees will be moved again. Now that they’re stronger, it’s time for them to go to their permanent home in deeper soil.
Here they will continue to grow and eventually be harvested. Coffee plants often live 40-50 years, but some can live to be 100.
Who knew it took so long to produce a cup of joe?
Over such a long lifespan, one tree can yield decades of harvests…
After growing for three or four years, it’s time for the tree to start producing some coffee.
Coffee seeds grow inside dark cherries. When the fruit of the coffee cherries turns red, it means that the fruit is ripe and ready to be picked.
Harvesting seasons can last for months, depending on the region and variety of coffee being grown.
In most cases, there is only one harvest. Colombia and Uganda are rare exceptions, as they have two seasons per year.
Getting a Bit Picky
There are two main methods of harvesting coffee cherries: selective harvesting and strip harvesting.
Selective harvesting means coffee pickers carefully select only the coffee cherries that are ripe. Unripened coffee cherries remain on the tree, so that they can be harvested at a later date.
Each worker carries a basket where they keep the picked cherries. They occasionally empty the basket into a large bag, which they sort and weigh at the end of the day.
Because the coffee is selected for ideal ripeness, the quality of the harvest is higher. In addition, there is less overall waste.
On the other hand, selective harvesting is much more labor-intensive, and workers typically have to put in many hours for low pay.
Strip harvesting means that all of the coffee cherries are pulled from the plant at once, even if they are overripe or underripe.
This is a much faster method of collecting coffee cherries, but the downside is that there is a much higher amount of unripe coffee cherries that winds up in the harvest.
This can result in lower overall quality, but in areas such as Brazil, this approach is increasingly more common.
It’s a Process…
Once the coffee is harvested, it typically goes through one of two common processes to separate the coffee seed and the fruit of the coffee cherry.
This part is known as processing, and it takes the coffee from “freshly picked coffee cherry” to a “dry seed” that can be stored and shipped.
The “Dry” Method
The first and oldest technique is known as the dry method, and it’s the traditional way coffee has been processed for hundreds of years.
The freshly picked coffee cherries are spread out on large patios to dry in the sun, and occasionally raked and turned over so that they dry evenly.
At night, the cherries are covered so that they don’t get rained on, then left to dry again in the next day’s sun.
This process usually takes a few weeks, and over time, the fruit of the coffee cherry seeps into the coffee seed, giving it a sweet, fruity flavor.
Once the coffee is dry enough, it is removed from the patio and stored.
The “Wet” Method
The “wet” method is faster, but it requires high water usage. As such, it is not always possible for some regions that have more limited water resources.
With this method, the seeds are poured into large machines, where they are separated from the cherries and sorted using water-filled tanks.
The process takes 12 to 48 hours total, after which they are dried, either in machines or on a large patio.
Beans on Board
The beans usually travel by ship, typically in large shipping containers, to expedite the process.
At this stage, the beans are referred to as “green coffee.”
Although they don’t typically look as much green as tan or light brown, the beans have a slight green tint to them.
But during the next stage, they will become much darker.
After the beans arrive at their destination country, they will start another stage of their journey. This is where coffee achieves its true flavor, as the beans are roasted.
Roasted to Perfection
Once coffee beans are roasted, they will take on a highly aromatic quality. This is part of quality coffee’s allure. However, the aroma begins to fade quickly.
(If you’ve ever had a bag of old or stale coffee, you know what that’s like).
Because of this, the roasting process typically takes place in the country that imports the beans, not in the country that grows and harvests them.
Roasting machines come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few similarities.
While roasting, the beans must continue to move so that they achieve an even consistency.
The style of the roast (Light, Medium, or Dark) depends on just how hot the bean gets inside, and whether or not it “cracks.”
Light roasts reach an internal temperature of about 350-400 degrees Fahrenheit. When they reach 400 degrees, the beans start to pop or “crack.”
Light roasts have high acidity and also produce the sharpest buzz (the roasting process dilutes the caffeine content).
So if you’re looking for the highest kick to start your morning, go with a light roast.
“Medium roast” can cover a wide range, but they typically reach temperatures between 400 and 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
At this stage, the beans are noticeably darker, and some of the coffee oils begin to show on the surface of the roasted bean.
Dark roasts can get up to about 480 degrees Fahrenheit, but usually not much more, otherwise they will acquire a strong burnt flavor and will lose much of their aroma and subtlety.
In the case of a dark roast, the bean cracks a second time.
Dark roasts are very popular for espresso blends, and for any specialty coffees that use them.
The Daily Grind
How do you achieve the perfect grind?
Well, that depends on what you’re aiming for.
Ultimately, the brewing style is going to be the single biggest factor in dictating what type of grind is needed.
Generally speaking, the longer it takes to brew, the more coarse the coffee should be ground.
So a french press (which takes several minutes) can have a coarse grind, but espresso (which brews in seconds) should be ground fine.
Pour-over or drip coffee, meanwhile, will need a medium grind.
Your Morning Cup
The whole idea is to get the best flavor coffee, without winding up with a cup that is too bitter or too weak. That’s not how you want to start your morning…
There are countless varieties of coffee on the market, and countless ways to prepare it.
The coffee bean travels a long way to get to you, whether you prefer a latte, cold brew, espresso, or just a “regular” pour-over.
The only question is, how do you take your coffee?
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