How Does Coffee Grow?

The term, “fair trade” has been a hot topic in a lot of industries as of late.

Living conditions, rate of pay and corporate mistreatment of people in textile workshops, farms and mines have been brought to light by movements like End Slavery Now and co-ops like Equal Exchange.

Fair trade is the practice of honesty, democracy within companies and open communication with the producers and manufacturers that work in other countries.

Fair trade companies are making strategic moves to provide higher quality of life for laborers across the globe.

This enlightenment is especially powerful within the coffee community.

Most people in the Western world have no idea how grueling the process is from bean to cup.

People devote the lives of their entire families to the cultivation of their farms.

Farms are typically plots of just a few acres, ran by a couple families. This may seem like a non-issue, but when you take a panoramic view of the world, you see thousands of these farms, millions of people who stake their livelihoods on the harvest.

80% of coffee consumed internationally is grown in small farms, according to The Fairtrade Foundation.

How Coffee Grows: Through the lens of a coffee farmer walking through the life cycle of a coffee plant.

It all starts with a tiny seed, one that you may recognize, despite its different pigment.

The seeds of a coffea plant are what we use to make our beloved beverages.

But they are roasted to our preferences. For more on the roasting process, check out our article “The Difference Between Light and Dark Roast.”

Seeds typically come in twos. They are wrapped in a cranberry lookalike, the coffee cherry called a cascara.

Sometimes a farmer will plant the cascara in hopes that both seeds will germinate and grow into trees. But if they want to speed the process along, they shuck the flesh off the seeds and plant them separately in beds or bags filled with soil that offers ample drainage. This mixture sometimes includes dirt, river bed and pebbles.

Like all plants, the coffee tree has basic needs:

Sunshine, water and soil.

The light should be indirect, this is why a lot of farmers propagate under a shade until the plant is strong.

The soil, sometimes treated with fertilizer, supplies the minerals that it needs to grow:

Nitrogen and Potassium.

Nitrogen supply is imperative because it is a key ingredient to the process of photosynthesis, during which the plant turns light into energy.

Potassium is necessary to the production of fruit.

The seeds will be watered frequently as it germinates so that the roots will grow strong and vertically. These two factors ensure that the plant will be able to hold its own when it is transferred to the plantation but will not encroach upon the neighboring tree’s root system.

The plant escapes the confines of the seed’s outer membrane in about two months.

When it breaks the surface, and the sproutling takes height, two primary leaves appear. The natives sometimes call this first set the “mariposa,” which is Spanish for butterfly.

This is growth time is dependent on a lot of variables, like weather in and wind. Coffee plants cannot survive in constant cold, in seasons of drought, or in consistent downpour.

With these fluctuating factors, the spouts can show up anywhere between 1-3 months after initial germination.

As it grows, the stem will continue onward and upward sprouting new leaves. This usually happens around the 9th month of cultivation.

This process will continue on for 3 years without yielding any fruit. All the botanists out there know that fruit comes from flowers.

The 3rd year in the life of a coffea plant marks the flowering stage.

These closely resemble jasmine, and they smell like them too. Since coffee flowers are self-pollinators, there is no need for birds or bees to carry pollen to start the process. Just 5 days after they bloom, they start to produce fruit.

As the fruit ages, the color will change from a yellowish green hue to a deep red and then eventually black, when it is no longer suitable harvest. According to the professionals, there is a sweet spot between red and burgandy when the fruit is in pristine condition to begin the rigorous drying process.

There are two options for drying coffee beans.

Wet and dry.

Wet or wash processing is common in Central and South America and is responsible for the acidic and fruity notes found in their blends.

During phase one of the process, the skin is removed, either by hand or a de-pulping machine. The second layer of the fruit, called the mucilage remains on the seeds but that’s okay.

Phase two consists of the fruit being soaked. During this process the sugars ferment and fall off. Farmers keep a close eye throughout this time so that the beans do not go sour.

This soaking portion is especially helpful because the farmers can weed out lesser quality beans.

Dry or natural processing originated in the Ethiopia. This process is tech-free.

Farmers harvest by hand and sort out defective fruit. Then the fruit is left out to dry in the sun until the outsides have become brown and hard. The farmers then peel the outer layers off and collect the beans that are ready to be weighed and sold.

But here’s the thing: farmers do not see a full harvest for 2 years.

Until the trees yield enough fruit to successfully harvest, the teams of farm hands prune the trees.

Pruning lengthens the productive lifespan of the plant. Coffee plants can go years with no yield, so the agriculture community suggest strategically pruning. So there are virtually no dip years.

Crazy process, right?

It’s strange to think that working to improve living situations and working toward changing the coffee industry to be an open system in which the farmers have equal share and decent pay is a relatively modern idea.

The livelihoods of these hard-working families have been too long overlooked.

Switch to fair trade and join the fight to end poverty in home countries of our favorite drink.

Here are some of our favorites.

Kicking Horse Organic Coffee
Try this delicious blend.
Stumptown Holler Mountain Coffee
Click here to see pricing.

Brian Mounts

Head blogger, editor, and owner of "Top Off My Coffee", a website that has been educating readers about coffee brewing techniques and equipment since 2012.

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