The Coffee Bean
Pit of a Coffee Cherry
Coffee comes from a tropical evergreen bush or small tree most commonly found between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn or more broadly along the Equator between latitudes 25 degrees North and 30 degrees South. In this tropical environment, the coffee bush grows to a height of up to 15 feet and is characterized by broad, waxy green leaves. This evergreen bush develops coffee cherries that are bright red when ripe. Each cherry contains a pit which itself consists of two seeds that grow nestled against each other. The coffee bean – green or roasted – represents one seed or one half of the coffee cherry pit.
On average, it takes 5 years for the coffee bush to reach maturity at which point it yields approximately one pound of roasted coffee per year.
Arabica and Robusta
There are two main species of coffee:
Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora from which the Robusta variety is derived.
Coffea Arabica accounts for the majority of the world’s production estimated between 60-70% of all coffee produced and is the species from which we get specialty coffee.
Coffea Canephora and specifically the Robusta variety is the second most produced and is often found in canned coffee and is generally used by large, “institutional” coffee roasters.
Within Coffea Arabica there are many varieties such as Typica (also known as Arabica) and Bourbon. From these varieties are numerous strains such as the well-known Jamaican Blue Mountain.
In general Coffea Arabica is more difficult to grow, has a lower yield and grows at higher elevations than Coffea Canephora. From flower to ripe cherry Coffea Arabica takes 9 months and Coffea Canephora 10-11 months. Coffea Arabica is more susceptible to pests and diseases and much growing focus is placed on resistance.
Jamaica Coffee Trading Co's Commitment
Since our founding in 2010, Jamaica Coffee Trading Co has focused only on Specialty Coffee. Simply, Specialty Coffee means only the very best Coffea Arabica or about 3% of total global coffee production. When you buy Jamaica Coffee Trading Co coffee you can be assured that only the finest high-grown mild Arabica coffee from this select 3% makes it into your bag.
Life Cycle of the Coffee Bean
Propagation / Planting
For hundreds of years, Arabia strictly controlled coffee production, making it virtually impossible to export viable seeds outside of the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, the very first fertile seeds were smuggled out by Baba Budan during his pilgrimage to Mecca in around 1600. The seedling that made its way from Paris to Martinique traces its roots to these very beans. As with most small trees, it is possible to propagate coffee plants from cuttings or shoots as well as from fertile seeds. The most successful and commercially viable way is to start new plants is from seeds selected from trees of known quality, productivity, and longevity. With proper care, leaves will appear in four to eight weeks. These leaves are called Orelbas de Onca or “panther ears” by Brazilian growers and indicates that the seedlings are ready to be transplanted to the nursery.
Protected from the intense tropical sun by large shade trees, the seedlings are transplanted into beds or containers which are raised above normal soil level to encourage thorough drainage. In this protected nursery environment, the new coffee plants are nurtured from nine to eighteen months, reaching a height of about 24 inches. Growers will carefully increase exposure to sunlight over time to harden the young plants and ready them for transplanting on the more exposed plantation. On average it takes about 5 years for the coffee bush to reach maturity; at which point it yields approximately one kilo of roasted coffee per year.
There is usually one major harvest per year, and it is labor intensive. Specialty coffee is always hand-picked to ensure that only ripe cherries are picked. Coffee pickers, make multiple passes typically every 8-10 days throughout the harvest season which can last four to six months. A good picker can harvest as much as 200 kilos of fruit each day, the equivalent of 50 to 60 kilos of raw coffee beans. Combine this effort with the high elevations and mountainous terrain that is favored for coffea arabica and it is easy to see how challenging and rewarding it is to grow coffee.
Processing the Cherries
Processing the coffee cherries involves the critical removal of husk and fruit from the beans and the subsequent drying of the beans to 11% moisture content. There are two main processing methods and the one used reflects local tradition, available resources and industry goals. The chosen processing method can have an integral impact on the flavor profile. For example, the wet-hulled process of Indonesia plays a big part in the earth tones and lower acidity of their coffee. It is arguable how much the flavor profile has to do with the characteristics of the growing region or the processing, but what can be assured is that all of these factors work in concert to give each coffee their distinct and special qualities.
The Dry Method or the Natural Method is the simplest and oldest method of preparation. Over 60% of the world’s coffees are processed this way. Harvested cherries are laid out on cane matting or brick patios under the hot sun. To ensure even drying and prevent spoilage, they are raked and turned several times a day. They are covered at night or in the event of rain. It takes 2-3 weeks of good, dry weather to thoroughly dry the cherries. Success depends on good weather.
The Wet Method or Washed Method is used where fresh water is abundant. There are several variations of the wet method but generally, harvested cherries are poured into large, water-filled tanks to soften the outer husk and pulp. Thus softened, the cherries are run through a pulping machine to actually remove and wash away the husk and pulp from the parchment covered beans. These beans, still covered in their silver skin, are sorted by weight via water channels and then by size in rotating drums. The separated beans are placed in large tanks filled with water. Sitting in these tanks for 12 to 48 hours a natural enzyme causes a fermentation process in which the layer of mucilage (parenchyma) attached to the parchment is dissolved. They are then dried in much the same way as the Dry Method. In some cases, these beans may be dried in large drying machines that shorten drying time of parchment coffee to 24 to 36 hours.
Specialty Coffee Defined
Specialty coffee represents the very best of the world’s coffee yield or 3% of global production. There are many standards and designations that form the starting point in finding the best coffees.
Among the trade, coffee is divided into three categories: “high-grown mild,” “Brazilian,” and “Robusta.” High-grown mild coffees demand the highest price and are of superior quality. They grow at an altitude of over 2,000 feet and mostly between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. High-grown milds are picked by hand only when ripe and processed with care and attention to detail. It is only from these premium coffees that we select our beans for you.
“Brazilian,” as a trade term, refers to lower-grade coffees, and not necessarily to all coffees produced in Brazil. There are many wonderful quality coffees originating in Brazil, but as a trade term, “Brazilian,” represents lower quality coffees grown at lower altitudes on vast plantations and mass harvested.
The third category, “Robusta,” is not a specialty coffee but represents Coffea Canephora used by most institutional roasters.
Complementing the trade categories, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has created a common standard of quality for Coffea Arabica. Specialty Coffee is defined as Class 1, Specialty Grade by the SCAA and shows zero primary defects, up to 5 secondary defects, and zero quakers (unripened coffee beans) in a 350 gram sample. It should also register 80 points or above in cup evaluation in a 100 gram roasted sample.
In addition, growing regions typically have their own systems to indicate quality or grades. For example, in Costa Rica coffee grown above 3,900 feet is designated “strictly hard bean” reflecting the higher density of the bean and the unique and prized qualities of coffee grown at higher altitudes.
While ultimate quality should be based on the drinker’s goals and tastes, Jamaica Coffee Trading Co seeks out only the finest coffees available. These are always “high-grown milds” of specialty grade and the best that a growing region has to offer such as strictly hard bean. We, then cup every contract to find and roast the very best for you.