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From Crop to Cup, the Coffee Process is Surprisingly Complex

When I first stepped foot on Kew Park I knew close to nothing about coffee, except for the fact that I like to drink it every morning (okay, “like to drink it” is perhaps an understatement… “physically need it for functioning” would be more accurate). When I arrived on the farm, it came as a surprise to me that coffee berries are red. And that when you plop them in your mouth, they’re juicy. And that the bean itself is actually pretty awful just straight off the tree, and that it’s not actually a bean, it’s the seed of the plant.

A coffee "bean" plucked straight from the tree.

I discovered all of this my first morning on the farm, and it proved to be the first of a series of revelations. Coffee, it turns out, is not a normal crop – such as, say, a cucumber – that gets picked, washed, put in a box, and ready to be consumed. No, a coffee bean takes a wild journey before reaching your grinder or Mr. Coffee Maker, a journey that still blows my mind with its complexity. I applaud the creative genius who invented this slightly hair-brained process.

So without further ado, here is my attempt to boil down the coffee process in seven simple steps. Note that different coffee farms have different processes, but this is how it works at Kew Park.

Step 1: Grow the coffee.

Coffee trees are needy, demanding, sensitive plants, easily prone to coffee borers (a small black beetle that will destroy the bean) and more recently to coffee rust, a fungus that has wiped out coffee farms in Central and South America. The best coffee producers will pay close attention to every plant, weeding out the already-affected beans and leaves, keeping the weeds down, and taking care of the other trees around the farm, too. 

Step 2: Pick the coffee.

The coffee beans turn bright red when they’re ready to be plucked, which at Kew Park is from September to December (for Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, harvesting season lasts until March, since it’s cooler there). It’s best to pick them without accidentally picking off the stem or the unripe berries around it, a finesse that I personally do not possess. Often, the picking of coffee – at least at Kew Park – includes the fun perks of getting bitten by fire ants, as well as spiders, mosquitoes, and ticks that are larger than your earlobes. The sun is ruthless even in the “cooler” seasons in Jamaica and after seven hours of picking beans, it’s almost impossible to feel like you have an ounce of energy or H20 left in your body. Picking coffee is not easy.

As a coffee farmer you often have to choose between fighting the heat or fighting the bugs. Here we see Denise choosing the latter.

Step 3: Pulp the coffee. 

The first thing you do out of the field is pour the big beautiful buckets of coffee berries into a trough of water. The berries that float are the bad beans (because when a coffee borer gets into the bean, it creates little air pockets). Next, you take the buckets over to the pulping machine, a hefty piece of equipment, to extract the beans from the berries. It spits the skins and juice into a giant pile that is then re-used for fertilizer for the trees. The beans are then rinsed in a giant tub and sorted again, and then shoot out of the tub and into a basket, where they are sifted once more for quality.

A pile of pulp that will later be used for fertilizer.

Step 4: Dry the coffee.

The beans exit the pulper with about 50% moisture, and by the time they are roasted they have to be at 12%, so they are transferred to a drying station where they spend about a week lying under the sun. (Coffee beans need to tan in Jamaica too, you know). Here they reach about 20-25% of moisture, as the sun evaporates most of the surface water. Next the beans are to a gas-fired coffee drier resembling a clothes drier, which dries them to 12% moisture. The dryer also sorts them by size, and dries them more evenly than the sun, which can produce natural hot and cool spots.

A small sample of the thousands of drying beans at Kew Park.

Step 5: Hull the coffee.

At this point, the beans are stable enough to be kept for a year, but as soon as possible they are brought to a “hulling” machine. The hull is the thin outer husk of the bean, and the machine breaks it off and grades and sorts them. Grading is based on size and density, and sorting is done by an automatic machine that takes out the black beans (aka the bad beans). After this process, the beans are in different sacks according to their different sizes and densities. There isn’t a difference in quality between bigger and smaller beans, they just have to be separated to acquire an even roast, since they roast at different rates.

Step 6: Roast the coffee.

Our coffee beans are roasted by hand, in batches of five kilograms at a time. Roasting beans isn’t just putting the beans in a machine and pressing a button; the person doing the roasting has to make constant adjustments to the temperature. The roaster is similar to an oven – when ten pounds of beans enter the roaster, the overall temperature lowers, and then raises again, and adjustments must be made. The beans also continue to roast after they are taken out of the roaster, so they must be taken out of the roaster slightly before they’ve reached the final roast.

Kew Park's coffee roaster at a very temporary rest. 

Step 7: Grind the beans and make coffee!

As we all know there are approximately a thousand different ways to actually prepare your cup of coffee, so I shall not delve into those processes here (though I will say that we at Kew Park are big fans of cold brew coffee, which is less acidic but just as caffeinated and flavorful as normal coffee).

No matter the form, though, coffee is the one crop that I completely rely on day in day out, and yet didn’t know anything about before Kew Park. I had read articles about factory farms, GMO apples, federally-subsidized corn and wheat, all that jazz. And yet coffee – the one thing that I actually ingest on a regular basis – remained this mysterious part of nature, this magical substance that wakes me up in the morning. Can we just give a quick round of applause to the person who discovered the insane process of making a cup of coffee? Thank you.

Now don't ask me how to make beautiful mocha lattes... That is beyond me.

And the process has a very happy ending indeed.

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A Morning Cup of Coffee

Trying to write about Kew Park from Washington, D.C. is probably something like trying to write about Mars from Earth. It feels like planets apart. The only thing that overlaps in both worlds is the cup of coffee sitting next to my computer. When I smell the Kew Park coffee in my kitchen here in D.C., I feel a faint glimmer of those glorious farm mornings, drinking a cuppa Joe on the Cottage porch during that precious hour before it gets unbearably hot, the birds are singing the day’s praises, the dew still coats the grass.

The view from one of the many wonderful porches at Kew Park.

No matter where I am in the world, I have to drink a cup of coffee in the morning; that much will never change. Ironically, though, for the Kew Park workers, coffee never enters the picture before they head to work; they don’t need it to wake up. Most of them never even drink the coffee, period. “It’s bad for your health,” one of the workers told me as he picked the ripe berries off the trees. “Don’t drink it too often; it makes you anxious,” said another Kew Park worker. The only time I ever saw anyone drink coffee on Kew Park was after dinner. So strange! 

All of the coffee workers walk to work early every morning – often with the world still dark – for at least two or three miles. After eight hours they trudge home again by foot. As I’d watch them weave their way through the thick Jamaican bush in rubber flip-flops and ripped Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts in the early morning hours, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of admiration for their daily commute (and the efforts of so many more coffee farmers) just to make the Americans and Japanese and other coffee-craving people of the world have a boost of caffeine for their own commute.

These guys don't complain about needing their morning cup of coffee.

These guys don't complain about needing their morning cup of coffee.

I suppose, though, if our own weaknesses in America support these kinds of farmers, then I’m okay with having this weakness. If our needs feed these people, then the irony is fine by me, as long as the workers actually receive the money they deserve (which, at Kew Park, I know they do).

But I also think there is a lesson to be learned from these workers, who don’t ask for anything as they walk up the hills at six in the morning. I admit that I am accustomed to certain comforts in my life, and if I don’t have them I can get cranky (or “hangry” anyone?). But the coffee workers don’t need anything. They’re not hungry or thirsty or sleepy, or if they are, they don’t say it. They may want things, but they don’t need things. There’s a difference. They can function with very little. And of course, much of this could be because they didn’t grow up with certain comforts that I’m used to. But I also think it goes deeper than that, to a certain laid-back mentality and way of looking at the world, a mindset that we all can – and should – learn from. I remember clearly a conversation I had with Dawn, a wonderful lady who cooked delicious food at Kew Park. “You’ve got the Jamaican attitude,” she said when I told her that I didn’t really care what food was given to me, as long as it was food. “Here in Jamaica we don’t mind things.”

I glowed in what I took as a compliment, but she was wrong in some ways. In the morning especially, I do like for things to be a certain way, and fortunately the mornings on the farm were the most tranquil and lovely of times. They provided the kind of clarity of thought that is hard to come by in a chaotic city, or when you’re constantly wired into your emails, texts, technology in general; all of those things fade away in remote Kew Park. And what takes its place? Birdsongs, books, a cup of coffee on the porch. Hence why I'm attempting to re-create those glorious cups of coffee in my kitchen in D.C.


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