A special report from David Yake, Tony’s sales & training specialist.
I had the good fortune of travelling to Honduras and El Salvador on our buying trip in March. My experience, limited as it was, showed me that growing and processing excellent coffee requires an enormous amount of both patience, as well as urgency. Here I’ll provide a rough sketch of how coffee gets from the tree to your cup — as well as a few connections I found between growing and roasting/brewing coffee.
High quality Arabica is grown at high elevations, between 4,000 and 7,000 feet. At those elevations, the plants have to fight to survive. Without providing the scientific explanation (which I don’t have), this struggle for life, and subsequent longer maturation period, translates to more flavorful coffee. The same principle is true for many tree fruit. When a farmer plants at high elevations, they do so knowing that the tree will take longer to bear fruit and will have lower yields. They are choosing quality over quantity, and they are exhibiting a lot of patience.
Harvesting coffee is one of the most labor-intensive endeavors I’ve seen. A highly skilled picker can harvest 350 pounds of fruit in a long day of work, which translates to just 55-75 pounds of roasted coffee. Time and labor can be saved by harvesting all of the fruit at once, but in order to achieve the best cup quality only the ripest fruit can be harvested, while the other fruit is left on the tree to ripen. This often means harvesting a single tree five times or more, by hand.
Once the fruit is removed from the tree it must immediately be sorted, weighed and transported to the mill, or else the pulp (fruit) will begin to ferment, thereby impacting the flavor of the bean. Getting the fruit to processing mills in erosion-prone, mountainous regions with inadequate roads can be a challenge, and that’s without factoring in the time crunch.
At the mill, the fruit is sent through channels of water to separate higher density beans (sinkers) from lower density beans (floaters). Higher bean density translates to better cup quality. The fruit is then sent through a mechanical depulper, after which point the beans are deposited into tanks of water for anywhere between 8-48 hours. While they soak, naturally occurring enzymes eat away the gooey layer of mucilage that surrounds the bean.
Typically, the beans are then washed and spread out to dry in the sun for anywhere between 6-12 days — all the while they are tossed and raked every hour to encourage even drying. When the internal moisture of the beans reaches 12%, they are put in bags and stored in a warehouse.
At this point, the beans are encased by a papery layer called parchment, or pergamino. This thin layer acts to protect the beans from swings in temperature and humidity during the 30-90 days that they typically rest.
This period, while the beans are “en pergamino” and internal moisture levels are allowed to stabilize, is crucial to the quality of the coffee. It too requires a good deal of patience on the part of the grower and exporter.
Once the beans are sent through the dry mill, where their parchment is removed, it’s ‘all systems go’. If the green beans sit in a humid environment without their parchment for too long, their quality will be jeopardized.
There is a healthy sense of urgency on our end of things, as well. As soon as coffee is dropped out of the roaster, the clock is ticking. Depending on the coffee and roast level, peak flavor is generally realized 5-15 days after the roast. Our distribution team focuses much time and energy on ensuring that our customers receive their coffee as close to the roast date as possible; this is the least we can do, given the sense of urgency that occurs along the rest of the supply chain.