Making Coffee Through the Supply Chain

From visiting coffee farms like Doka and Life Monteverde, I’ve developed a much deeper appreciation for what goes into growing coffee. The process is far from simple, fast, and easy. It takes around 4 years before a coffee tree is productive, and it must be moved around multiple pots before even reaching the field. Harvesting is difficult work as it’s all done by hand, and workers are paid very little per cajuela that they pick. The coffee trees are extremely sensitive to environmental conditions as well, so they must be closely cared for. Proper shade and nutrients are essential to a healthy tree, and they’re very susceptible to pests and fungi. After seeing how difficult growing coffee is and how labor intensive, I understand why it can cost so much, and see how the cup quality is determined from the beginning.

After growing and harvesting the coffee cherries, they must be sent to the mills for processing. There are two main processing methods: wet and dry. Wet processing is what most mills do, and it’s when the beans are full peeled (except the parchment) then left to dry. In dry processing, the cherries are left whole to dry. There are also some other processing methods, like natural or honey, that provide a different flavor profile compared to the other two methods. Before coming on this trip, I didn’t realize there was so much that went into the flavor of the coffee besides roasting. I now know that processing has a large effect on the final product and allows for more possible flavors in combination with roasting techniques.

After processing, beans are roasted to produce their final flavors. Roasting longer produces a more bitter taste in the coffee, but less caffeine as well. Temperatures and pressures of roasting vary from place to place, but temperatures are usually kept constant when roasting. What changes is the amount of time the beans are roasted; longer roasting means a darker roast. For example, light roast is roasted for 15 minutes at Doka, and has around 1.5% caffeine. Medium roast cooks for 17 minutes and is 1.25% caffeine; dark roast cooks for 20 minutes and is 1% caffeine. I was surprised to learn on this trip that there are caffeine differences in the different roasts, but that there are also roasts in between light, medium and dark. For example, French roast is variation of dark roast, and Vienna roast is a medium-dark roast.

Once the beans are roasted, they are then packaged and sold to retail stores and cafes. For the most part, the making process is done from here. However, for cafes or retail stores to invest in it and make for customers, the product should be made to look attractive. The type of roast should be made clear on the bag, and some sort of story about the processing/roasting process makes the retailers/cafes more informed. My knowledge of business is very limited, so I learned a lot on this trip about how it works. Something I was surprised to learn about is that many retail stores or cafes (like Starbucks) with their own brand of coffee most likely don’t grow it themselves; they buy grown or processed coffee, then roast it.

The last step in the coffee supply chain is the customers. For the customer to buy a coffee from a store of café, the packaging is the most important part. Colors and images should be bright and attractive to catch the eye, but roasts should be made clear for buyers to see. A story on the bag somewhere may also help to sell the product, as people like to see the process of where their products come from. The one-way valve on many coffee bags is a great way to attract customers as well since it allows the aroma to escape the bag. If someone likes the smell, they’re much more like to buy the product. I was surprised to learn about the valves many coffee bags have, and that their purpose is for more than smell. They allow air to escape the bag as coffee release oxygen over time, but no air in so that it doesn’t become stale before opening it.

 

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