How It’s Made: Coffee Edition

During my two weeks here in Costa Rica, I have learned a great deal about the supply chain of coffee, particularly in the perspective of how coffee is made. As the coffee bean moves from the coffee plant to your cup, it goes through coffee farms, mills, roasters, stores, and finally you. It all starts at the farm, where coffee beans are grown on a coffee plant during the Costa Rican wet season, from May to mid-November. During this time, the coffee must survive the environment in which it is grown, including but not limited to the wind, insects, and varying rainy seasons that can disrupt coffee growth. Finally, typically during the beginning of the dry season in November, the coffee beans are harvested. With the recent variations in the rainy season, though, the coffee may need to be harvested as late as January. Before arriving in Costa Rica, I had thought—with all of the automation that has been introduced to the agriculture industry—that coffee beans would only be picked by machines. I soon learned that, especially in Costa Rica, coffee is almost exclusively picked by hand to ensure only high-quality coffee beans are picked.

Once the coffee is harvested, it moves to milling, where it will undergo either wet or dry processing. In wet processing, the coffee beans are dropped into a pool of water, where they will either float or sink depending on their density. The denser coffee beans have more flavor and thus are of higher quality. Then, these dense beans are typically collected for exportation, while the less dense beans are sold in local markets. In dry processing, the coffee beans are laid out on a large outdoor patio to dry. The beans need to be turned over about every hour or so to get an even dry on both sides of the bean. Again, I am surprised by the lack of automation in drying the beans. I previously thought that the beans would be put in some sort of oven or temperature-controlled room to be dried, but the natural light of the sun and the persistence of coffee company workers in turning the beans regularly seems to work well to dry the beans.

After the coffee is processed, coffee roasting takes place. The coffee beans are roasted for a specific period of time depending on the desired flavor. For example, at Doka Estate Coffee, beans are roasted for any amount of time between 15 and 20 minutes, with 15 minutes creating a light roast and 20 minutes creating a dark or espresso roast. Different types of processing, such as honey and natural processing, can change the flavor of the coffee depending on the type of roast desired. After roasting, the coffee is packaged in a special aluminum-plastic combination and either shipped to wholesalers and retailers or sold on site. Prior to touring the many coffee companies that I visited, I did not know that there was such a fine difference between coffee roasted for 15 minutes and 20 minutes. It is amazing to me that just a few minutes can make such a huge difference in flavor.

When the coffee beans have finished roasting, they are now ready for consumption. As mentioned, the coffee is transported to retail stores and cafes where it will be directly sold to customers. At the stores, unique marketing techniques can entice customers to buy specific coffee products. For example, at Café Britt, stores are meticulously designed to create an atmosphere where specific customers want to shop. During the 2016 Summer Olympics which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Café Britt changed its Brazilian locations to include the Olympics as a theme of the store. Also, Café Britt uses a bundle deal to convince consumers to buy more than they came for. In relation to how the coffee is made, customers at retail stores may have a greater desire to buy the coffee if the coffee is signified to be of high quality. Thus, certain processes such as utilizing human pickers for harvesting are important for increasing sales. Also, certifications such as being Rainforest Alliance certified are important to consumers, again emphasizing the importance of a high-quality coffee-making process. Before this experience, I would typically question the value of companies writing buzz words such as “premium” and “high-quality” on their products, but I now know that, at least for the coffee industry, that “high-quality” label actually carries a great deal of weight in a customer’s choice to purchase the product.

Of course, after arriving at the stores, the coffee is sold to customers. When customers receive their coffee, they expect a good value—great taste for a reasonable price. The quality of the coffee is one of the main focuses of successful companies such as Doka, and rightfully so. Additionally, as a coffee company grows, it will either establish a high price to signify its premium quality, or it will lower its price by utilizing its economies of scale gained by its size. At the end of the long and complex supply chain, consumers purchase and drink a cup of coffee that they can enjoy. Certain consumers, though, such as myself, will not only enjoy the coffee, but marvel at the many processes and methods that the coffee went through in order to be poured into my coffee cup.

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