So, you want to start your own coffee farm? Or you just want to learn how to grow coffee? Or you have just wondered how in the world does coffee reach your cup? Well, you’re in luck!
Here are the 10 key steps in producing coffee, the Colombian way.
The world of coffee production is vast and complex, so we’re just showcasing the traditional Colombian way of producing coffee. Ask any farmer how he or she grows his coffee, and you will probably get as many different answers as you ask coffee growers.
1 - Plant Coffee Trees
Coffee, unlike money, grows on trees (shrubs, to be technical). Hence, to grow your own coffee, you will have to plant coffee trees!
Try planting about 2,500 trees per hectare (that is, 10,000 square meters, or about 110,000 square feet) to give your trees enough space to breathe and grow to their full potential.
If you’re planting arabica coffee trees (they produce the best coffee, so you really should plant those), you will have to wait between 2 to 3 years before your trees start producing coffee cherries. It’s a long time, but patience is a virtue.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to feed your trees good fertilizer (organic, if you can - let’s save the planet) and take care of your crop to make sure nasty bugs don’t start infesting your plantation. Now just sit back, and relax. You’ve got time ahead.
Here you can see some neatly organized coffee trees!
2 - Harvest the Coffee Cherries
I hope you’ve been patient! After 2-3 years, your coffee trees will start producing delicious coffee cherries. That’s where the coffee beans will be hiding - inside the cherry! The first production of your trees will be lighter, but don’t worry: your babies will start producing more and more cherries over time (if you take good care of them).
Make sure you pick your coffee cherries when they are ripe. You can’t miss them, the coffee cherries will look just like wine grapes - a deep purple (depending on the coffee varietal). If you pick the cherry before it is ripe (i.e. if it is yellow, or worse, green), then the coffee bean within the cherry won’t have fully developed. And it will taste nasty once you brew it.
If you need to pass by the same coffee tree a few times a month to harvest only the ripe cherry, then do that. It will be worth it in the cup, trust me.
The coffee cherry to the right is the perfect color!
3 - Immediately Sell the Defective Coffee Cherries for Quick Cash
We’ve established that unripe cherries give bad coffee. It’s the same for damaged or infected cherries!
The Colombians found the best way to separate the good apples from the bad apples… ugh sorry, good cherries from the bad cherries. Just throw them in water! The bad ones will float and the good ones will sink. Take this time to immediately sell the bad ones for quick cash (yes, people do buy your bad cherries... they probably go in Starbucks coffee) and keep the heavier ones for the next steps.
4 - Extract the Coffee Beans from the Good Cherries
Now, you have a bunch of good, ripe, deep purple coffee cherries. Good job! We now need to get rid of the coffee cherry and keep the coffee bean.
Thankfully, you don’t need to do that by hand. You can use an awesome old-school machine or a more modern electric mill to get rid of the cherry and the pulp. In Colombia, they call that machine a despulpadora.
The machine is simple. It just “eats” the cherry, and spits out the coffee bean. Now don’t throw the cherry away - it can be used to make tea! We don’t like waste, remember?
Once you’ve processed your coffee cherries, you have your beans! But they aren't ready yet. In fact, you’ll notice that they are kind of slimy. We need to get rid of that too.
Our friend José showing us a typical despulpadora.
5 - Ferment the Coffee Beans
At this point, you should have a bunch of slimy coffee beans. That viscous substance around the bean is called the mucilage. It’s your friend - it protected your coffee beans up until now! But now we want to get rid of it. The best way is to let your coffee beans ferment for 24 hours.
Recall high school science? Fermentation is the process of turning sugar (of which the mucilage is full of) into alcohol. So instead of having to wash your coffee beans thoroughly to get rid of that sticky mucilage, just let nature get rid of some of that sugar naturally.
For that, just let your beans chill in a tank for 24 hours. You don’t have to do anything else. This is really the easy step.
Ana Maria is fermenting coffee beans just for us!
6 - Wash the Coffee Beans
Now that your coffee beans have produced alcohol for you, it’s time to wash them. You want to make sure they are clean and there is no trace of alcohol or mucilage left. This is also a way to get rid of those sneaky defective coffee beans that made their way all the way to this part of the process.
How do you wash them? Quite literally, give them a bath! Pour a bunch of water in a tank, and pour your beans in the water. Then take a massive spoon, and shake 'em until you get rid of all that left-over mucilage.
You know the drill: the defective coffee beans will float. The good beans will stay at the bottom. And voilà! You've got good, clean coffee beans. You need to dry them now.
We put Lucas to work, making sure the beans are clean for drying!
7 - Dry the Beans
Your wet coffee beans now need to sunbathe to become ready for consumption. After all, you just gave them a bath.
Set your coffee beans out on a flat surface with good sun exposure. Even better if you can put them on “African beds”. Those are basically big trays that lift your beans up from the ground and allow for better air circulation (and quicker drying).
Here, your beans will sit for 5 to 20 days, depending on rain. Speaking of rain - be vigilant! If you let rain fall on your beans… you’ll have to start all over again. And risk having them develop fungus in the process. Anytime the sky gets grey, rush to cover your beans!
Once your beans have reached 9-12% humidity, you are ready to take them to the next step.
Our friend, David, showing us his beautiful African beds, drying excellent honey coffee.
8 - Remove the Parchment Skin from the Coffee Beans
By now, you’re looking at your beans and you are asking yourself: what the heck? My beans are beige? I thought coffee was black. Well… hold on. It goes from beige, to green to brown. At this step, we’re transforming it from beige to green.
Let me introduce you to your friend: parchment skin. Yes, another protective layer making sure your beans are well preserved!
The parchment skin is a very thin paper-like (that’s why it’s called parchment, duh!) skin that covers the coffee bean.
Here, you’ll need to take your coffee beans to a mill that has specialized machinery that will take off the parchment skin without damaging your bean. It doesn’t take long. And you’ll end up with lovely green coffee. You’re almost there!
9 - Roast the Coffee Beans!
Green coffee beans are the beans that exist right before the roast. Taste one - you’ll find it’s hard, bitter and not that pleasant at all. Roast it, and you now have a delicious treat!
Now, here, you have two options. You can roast your coffee at home, in a pan (we only recommend this for experts, or if you wanna fool around) or you take it to a roaster who can use a machine to do it professionally.
You can then grind your coffee, or keep it in whole roasted beans for maximum freshness.
Look at the deep brown of those beans!
10 - Serve your Cup!
You made it! We're proud. It was a long adventure, years of labor, of tending to trees, of learning by trial and error, but you did it. You produced your coffee. You can now sit back and relax while enjoying a cup of your own coffee. It tastes good, doesn’t it?
But you may just prefer to jump right to step 10. If that is the case, you are in luck, we’ve got you covered!
We take care of 1 to 9, and leave you with the luxury of enjoying your favorite drink from the comfort of your home: just check out our selection. That feels good, too, doesn’t it? The best part: you still get to see how steps 1-9 happen, so you can feel that the coffee you drink is almost yours. That’s pretty cool too.