News / Sustainability

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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Why Shade-Grown Coffee?

One of my favorite things about farmers markets is that people care about where their food comes from. Every weekend, at least a handful of people wander over to Kew Park’s Coffee stand at the Palisades Farmers Market in Northwest DC and say “tell me about your coffee.” To which I reply, “Well, it is shade-grown on a family-owned farm in Jamaica.” Sometimes, inquisitive patrons continue, “what exactly is shade-grown coffee? Is it better than other kinds of coffee? If so, why and for whom?” To answer these questions, we must go all the way back to the beginning…of coffee.

Legend has it that coffee was discovered hundreds of years ago in the highlands of Ethiopia. A herdsman was watching over his goats when he noticed some strange behavior: after eating a certain bright red berry, goats became especially giddy and energetic. When he tasted the fruit himself, he experienced the same energizing effects. Slowly, a method was developed for roasting, grinding, and brewing the beans into what we know today as ‘coffee.’ Over the next several centuries, the drink became popular across the Middle East, Europe, and eventually spread to Southeast Asia and the Americas.

Coffee trees thrive in constant-cool temperatures in tropical forests across Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Traditionally, this meant high-altitude forests under thick canopies. As demand grew, coffee farmers needed faster and cheaper techniques. Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, scientists developed hybrid species of coffee trees that could be grown in direct sunlight. Farmers began clear-cutting forests and replanting the land with row after row of coffee trees.  Although berries were easier to harvest, without the ecological system supporting the plantation, trees were more susceptible to diseases and therefore required more chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Then, in the late 1990s and 2000s, shade-grown coffee came on the scene.

The “shade‐grown coffee concept" was introduced by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the First Sustainable Coffee Congress in 1996.  Shade-grown plantations have a higher number of tree and plant species than a mono-crop coffee plantation. Canopy species are mixed in with coffee and other trees, mimicking the structure of a natural forest. The different species use different nutrients in the soil, and leaf-litter acts as a natural fertilizer. Higher levels of canopy-cover and varying root structures also stabilize the soil and prevent erosion, resulting in cleaner water and safer conditions during rainy seasons.

Animal and insect species also benefit from having a more varied selection of trees. Shade-grown farms support larger populations of migratory and resident birds, reptiles, ants, butterflies, and bats than their sun-grown counterparts.  In fact, shade-grown coffee farmland has been found to be the next best thing to natural forests to support a healthy ecosystem. Studies have shown 15-30% more bird species living on shade-grown coffee farms compared with sun-grown. Kew Park's farm is home to over 40 species of birds, including Jamaican Oriole, Saffron Finch, Orangequit, and Red-billed Streamertail, among many others. The full list is at the bottom of this post. The birds that live there also tend to be healthier with more species of fruits, nuts, and bugs to support their diet. The farm also benefits from having the birds as larger bird populations naturally defend the coffee trees from disease and insects.

So why is shade-grown coffee better than regular coffee? First, it requires less chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Birds eat the bugs, which means that less pesticide needs to be used to protect the trees. Plant diseases thrive on mono-crop plantations, but the higher species diversity on a shade-grown coffee farm make it harder for diseases to spread. More nutrients in the soil from leaf litter and other organic inputs not only reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, they also make the coffee trees healthier, and more able to fight off disease. Plus, it tastes better. The berries ripen more slowly, giving the beans a more complex flavor. At Kew Park, the berries are also hand-picked, which means that every bean has developed a mature flavor before it reaches your mug.

But don’t take our word for it! If you want to learn more about the wonderful world of shade-grown coffee, take a look at these articles and publications:

Bird List


Kew Park, Betheltown, Ja

Date 6/28/04
Observer Matt Johnson
Institute Humboldt State University
Common Name Genus and species Family Jamaican Endemic?
Red-Tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis Accipitridae n
Black Swift Cypseloides niger Apodidae n
Antillean Palm Swift Tachornis phoenicobia Apodidae n
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Ardeidae n
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura Cathartidae n
Bananaquit Coereba flaveola Coerebinae n
White-crowned Pigeon Columba leucocephala Columbidae n
Common Ground Dove Columbina passerina Columbidae n
Caribbean Dove Leptotila jamaicensis Columbidae n
White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica Columbidae n
Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita Columbidae n
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani Cuculidae n
Chestnut-Bellied Cuckoo Hyetornis pluvialis Cuculidae y
Orangequit Euneornis campestris Emberizinae y
Greater-Antillean Bullfinch Loxigilla violacea Emberizinae n
Saffron Finch Sicalis flaveola Emberizinae n
Black-Faced Grassquit Tiaris bicolor Emberizinae n
Yellow-Faced Grassquit Tiaris olivacea Emberizinae n
Chestnut-Manakin Lonchura malacca Estrildidae n
American Kestrel Falco sparverius Falconidae n
Cave Swallow Hirundo fulva Hirundinidae n
Jamaican Oriole Icterus leucopteryx Icterinae n
Greater-Antillean Grackle Quiscalis niger Icterinae n
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos Mimidae n
Jamaican Woodpecker Melanerpes radiolatus Picidae y
Olive-Throated Parakeet Aratinga nana Psittacidae n
Jamaican Euphonia Euphonia jamaica Thraupinae y
Jamaican Stripe-Headed Tanager Spindalis zena nigricephala Thraupinae y
Jamaican Tody Todus todus Todidae y
Jamaican Mango Anthracothorax mango Trochilidae y
Vervain Hummingbird Mellisuga minima Trochilidae n
Red-Billed Streamertail Trochilus polytmus polytmus Trochilidae y
White-Chinned Thrush Turdus aurantius Turdidae y
White-Eyed Thrush Turdus jamaicensis Turdidae y
Jamaican Greater-Antillean Peewee Elaenia fallax fallax Tyrannidae y
Sad Flycatcher Myiarchus barbirostris Tyrannidae y
Stolid Flycatcher Myiarchus stolidus Tyrannidae n
Rufous-Tailed Flycatcher Myiarchus validus Tyrannidae y
Jamaican Elaenia Myiopagis cotta Tyrannidae y
Jamaican Becard Pachyramphus niger Tyrannidae y
Loggerhead Kingbird Tyrannus caudifasciatus Tyrannidae n
Grey Kingbird Tyrannus dominicensis Tyrannidae n
Black-Whiskered Vireo Vireo altiloquus Vireonidae n
Jamaican Vireo Vireo modestus Vireonidae y
number %
Total Birds 44 100
Jamaican Endemic 16 36.36363636
Other 28 63.63636364
Family number %
Accipitridae 1 2.27
Apodidae 2 4.55
Ardeidae 1 2.27
Cathartidae 1 2.27
Coerebinae 1 2.27
Columbidae 5 11.36
Cuculidae 2 4.55
Emberizinae 5 11.36
Estrildidae 1 2.27
Falconidae 1 2.27
Hirundinidae 1 2.27
Icterinae 2 4.55
Mimidae 1 2.27
Picidae 1 2.27
Psittacidae 1 2.27
Thraupinae 2 4.55
Todidae 1 2.27
Trochilidae 3 6.82
Turdidae 2 4.55
Tyrannidae 8 18.18
Vireonidae 2 4.55
Total 44 100


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