As I prepare to leave Costa Rica and end my first study abroad experience, I look back to reflect on what I have learned, specifically about the specifics of coffee production. As you might imagine, as someone who came to this trip not knowing the difference between a dark and medium roast, I have learned quite a great amount. As the most upstream member of the coffee supply chain, I learned from the coffee farms which we visited just how much effort goes into producing a coffee bean. Not only do farmers have to combat the varying conditions of wind and rain, but they have to protect their plants from disease and other pests. Growing and picking coffee is very labor intensive and something that requires foresight and great planning. Knowing that coffee farmers have an extremely difficult job and are always having to adapt to changes in weather patterns due to global warming make me appreciate the ultimate product so much more.
The next in line of the coffee supply chain is the coffee mills, which takes the thousands of picked cherries from the farm and processes them in order to sort them by level of quality. They use water to separate the dense, high-quality beans from the light, low-quality “floaters”. From there, mills can employ a variety of different processing techniques, varying from wet processing which strips the cherry down to the bean, to dry processing, which keeps the entire coffee cherry. Primarily, I learned from the coffee mills great variety of flavor profiles which may be created by modifying the processing procedure. For example, dry/natural processing creates a bold, sweet, and bitter taste while honey processed coffee is fruity and sweet. Factors such as which parts of the cherry which is discarded and duration of fermentation greatly impact the ultimate taste of the bean when it is brewed.
Continuing downstream the supply chain is the Coffee Roasters. Just like the mills, I have come to realize that the roasting process has a large impact on the ultimate taste of the beans. Specifics such as temperature and duration of roasting are an essential part to creating the coffee taste which customers look for. Typically, roasters will have a specific temperature to heat the coffee to, and then vary the duration of the roast, with more time leading a darker the roast. Darker roasts are typically sweater and more bitter while lighter roasts are more acidic. Not only have I identified myself as a dark roast kind of guy, but I have realized the variability of tastes accompanied with small differences in the roasting process.
After passing through the hands of Coffee Roasters, the roasted coffee beans reach the retail stores and cafes. While I had always heard of the different methods of brewing coffee, I had no idea the difference in taste and quality. However, having tasted coffee made from a French press, chorreador, and a terracotta pot, I can definitely say the brewed coffees were distinctly different, from their aroma to taste. Cafes are able to personalize their taste and cater to their market by making coffee with unique combinations of processing technique, roast, and brewing technique. Likewise, retail stores can use the various flavors of coffee and the conditions which it was grown to market it to local audiences. A diversity of coffee types can directly lead to the success of any given store.
Finally, the final product, the brewed cup of Joe, reaches its final destination: the customer. At this point of the supply chain, I have realized how much the customer, and its demand, influences the making process of the farmers and other members much higher up the supply chain. With little knowledge of both economics and the coffee industry heading into this trip, I never though about how everything down to the type of coffee plant which is being grown is dependent on the customers, who dictate the demand of the market. If coffee drinkers all over the world decided to enjoy a dark roast of a honey processed arabica coffee bean, then the coffee roaster, mills, and even the farms would all have to allocate resources towards supporting that demand in order to remain successful. Above anything else, I have learned just how intricate of a process creating coffee is, and of the various factors which determine the ultimate taste of the coffee I enjoy every morning.