A sapling is planted. It will soak up the daily rain and the nutrients in the soil for the next 25 years. Each day gathering sunlight, moisture and essential elements to grow. It grows and becomes strong as its long thin root reaches deep into the earth. As time builds so does the network of leaves and branches. Year by year, it establishes itself as a lasting part of the environment until it can be considered a fixture.
Within three or four seasons, the tree is ready for its purpose in life: to produce fruit. This doesn't happen right away. First, the buds appear with tiny leaves ready to sprout into white flowers that will fill the air with a smell to attract flying insects. After a few days of cross-pollination, the flowers will disappear and leave small green berries. Inside are the beginnings of the purpose: coffee beans in the making.
At first, the berries contain a pair of little seeds that are tightly packed in layers of thick nutrients. Now is where the work begins for this young tree as every drive and effort is turned to the growing of these seeds. All sunlight, moisture and food are redirected into turning these berries into thicker healthier cherries that will grow the seeds into beans.
Day by day, the cherries pull everything available; stretching the trees reserves to its limit and adding to the size and health of the beans. The beans will consume the inner layers of the cherry growing to fill the space until, finally, there is no more room. Then the cherry, green until now, begins to turn colors. First to a yellow, orange and then to a deep red.
This cherry is ready to be picked. Not the still green ones one next to it; they will be ready in a week or a month. Not the soft dull one next to it either. That one was either missed when it was ready a week ago, or it is being consumed from inside by an insect. Either way, the exact perfect time has passed. But our cherry is ready now.
The cherry is picked by hands well worn to the task. Deft hands that know how to quickly identify the good and bad cherries, and place the good ones in the harvesting basket. The upcoming journey will include a trip to a coffee mill where our cherry will be run through water channels. It will sink because the two beans it holds are heavier than the rest of the cherry. Fruit with hollow or less dense beans will float and be diverted away from the next destination: the de-pulping machine.
Here, the beans are removed from their protective shell and exposed to the world for the first time. Along with hundreds of other beans, our beans will sit in a bin while the sugars and juices from the cherry undergo a fermentation process. During this time, the sugars are eaten by the process, and the once slimy beans are more clean and ready to be washed. They have also gained a bit more flavor through the aging.
Once washed clean, our beans are dried in one of two ways. There is the old school method of laying them out on a drying patio for several days where they are turned by hand several times per day, allowing the moisture to evaporate. This is the most common and longest lasting method having been handed down from generation to generation. The other method used is spinning drums that have heat pumped into them. In a much shorter time, the beans have been dried and are placed in burlap sacks to be sorted.
Sorting has almost always been done by hand. Using sorting tables where people hand pick the good from the bad to other various mechanical machines that use weights and grating systems to determine the good from bad. Only recently has there been the introduction of electronic sorting systems where cameras, computers, and software identify flaws and eject them with a blast of air. These are expensive and rare but gaining in popularity.
Once sorted, the beans are placed back in burlap sacks and prepared for shipping. They can sit in these bags for weeks or months before being shipped to the next destination. Once they arrive at the destination the bags are stored in a climate controlled warehouse. During this "sitting" time, there are important things happening to the beans that impact the flavor. A lack of sitting time can leave a green and slight flavor. Add a bit of time, and the bean can develop a more full and deep flavor that brings out the under notes of the fruit. A little more sitting time can let the bean overdevelop and soften flavors, and produce a stale bean.
At just the perfect time, the beans are poured into the roaster. This hand-built, spinning oven with sensors and variable speeds for everything has been tuned to be able to heat up this particular type of bean from this particular farm in a way to bring out the best flavors.
The chemistry that occurs as the bean heats up is exacting and precise. Heat it up too quickly, and you don't let flavors develop. If too slow, the wrong flavors get overcooked at the wrong times. With just the perfect amount of heat, time, airflow, drum speed and dozens of other factors, the beans are roasted.
As the bean heats up, it will initially expand as the moisture begins to vaporize. The stress on the shell of the bean becomes too great, and it pops or cracks releasing the hot moisture. This also sheds the outer skin of the bean, and then begins the breakdown of the cell walls in the bean. Now shrinking in size, the bean begins to give off its own heat as it cooks internally. When the cell walls release the oils, there is a second softer crack as the bean now gets coated in oily flavor. At this point, the bean's time in the oven will determined how dark the roast and the flavors are by how long it stays heated.
At just the right time, the load of hot beans are released into a tray with a screen floor. The mixture of stirring and cross-airflow reduce the temperature quickly and stop the cooking. If done correctly, this will seal in the perfect roasting point, and allow the bean to retain the ideal flavors. Our beans are now dark, oily, and giving off that beautiful coffee aroma. They are ready for a final inspection, and then to be sent to the person who will ultimately enjoy them the most: the coffee consumer.
And there ends the journey of a coffee bean. From seed to tree, cherry to roasted bean, the journey is long but as only the lucky few, these wonderful little beans have fulfilled their purpose. As you drink you morning cup, you can raise your mug to the coffee bean and all those involved that made it possible.