September 3, 2018

From Seed to Cup: How Do Producers Grow Coffee?


An espresso: 20–30 ml of delicious coffee. It takes just minutes to drink it. But it takes years to produce it. From carefully selecting and planting the coffee tree through to harvesting, processing, and drying the beans, a producer’s work never stops.

But how do producers decide which coffee to grow? How do they harvest it? What’s involved in processing and drying?

Lee este artículo en español Del Grano a La Taza: ¿Cómo Cultivan Café los Productores?

Coffee seeds

Coffee seedlings in the nursery at Fazenda Bella Epoca in Brazil. Credit: Ana Valencia

Choosing The Right Coffee To Grow

There’s more than one type of coffee. Some varieties produce high-quality beans but are susceptible to disease. Others are hardier. Some yield more coffee than others, some are sweeter, and some suit certain types of soil.

So, how does a producer choose which coffee they grow?

ICFC Panama biologist and coffee value chain analyst Valentina Pedrotti says it varies from country to country. The climate and local culture often decide a producer’s choice. Many simply grow what is common in that area or what has always been farmed on that land.

But the soil, altitude, humidity, and other climatic features have an impact on the flavor of the final coffee, so it’s important to choose wisely. Other considerations include the cost and expected market value of the beans, and if diseases and pests are an issue,.

In some countries, there are national coffee associations, such as The Colombian Coffee Growers’ Federation (Federación Nacional de Cafetaleros, FNC) in Colombia or Anacafé in Guatemala. Farmers may choose to grow a coffee variety recommended by these associations. The FNC, for example, invests in researching and developing disease-resistant varieties such as Colombia and Castillo.

You may also like Coffee Varieties Debunked: Why Not All Geshas Taste The Same

And availability is a constant limitation. Take F1 hybrids, such as Starmaya. It’s high-quality, high-yield, and highly resistant to disease – the ideal coffee plant, in other words. Yet it’s a new variety and only a handful of producers currently have access to it.

With all these things to consider, it can be hard to choose the best variety. Arturo Aguirre of the award-winning Finca El Injerto in Guatemala says that it’s important producers understand their land. “You have to know where your farm is really well.” The location and soil are deciding factors on whether certain varieties will thrive.

Aguirre also says you should keep in mind that it takes around three years to know whether or not a new variety will thrive on your farm. After all, that’s how long it takes for a tree to mature.

Discover some of the most common varieties in Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties

Coffee plant

Coffee plant seedlings in their controlled growth period; later, they will be planted on the farm.

Planting The Seed

The variety has been chosen – now what?

Ricardo Alvarez, an agronomist at Finca Los Tres Potros in El Salvador, says that for the first two stages of the coffee-growing process, temperature is much more important than elevation. For example, Arabica’s ideal temperature range is 18°C–21°C (64°–70°F). If it is hotter than this, it may stress the plant.

Alvarez explains that he starts with a seedbed filled with treated sand to stimulate germination and initial growth, as well as prevent disease. The coffee seeds stay in the seedbed for 70 days.

Next, he transplants the seedlings to individual bags filled with an earthy, fertile soil mix. The young plants stay in this nursery for anywhere between seven months to a full year. He covers them with plastic wrap to control the amount of light. At this stage, it is essential that the main root grows vertically to provide stability and allow the coffee plant to live longer.

Farmer tending coffee plant

A Nicaraguan farmer prunes coffee after harvesting the cherries from the plants. Credit: Maren Marbee via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Caring For The Coffee Plant

Alvarez stresses that before setting up the farm with young plants, it’s important to decide how densely the trees should be planted. The producer will decide this based on how they intend to prune and stump the plants later on. They will also consider how the plants will be harvested and the individual features of the variety.

Learn more! Read Why Plant Coffee in Rows?

Upkeep is needed for coffee plants to last and for production to be consistent. It’s important to prune, or trim, the producing branches and main vertical trunks after each harvest.

The plant should also be regularly stumped to ensure a good yield. This means that each plant is cut to 30–40 cm from the bottom to allow new growth. How frequently this needs to be done depends on many factors, including planting density and the amount of shade. Stumped plants won’t yield fruit until they regrow, so it’s important to divide the farm into lots and stagger stumping them.

Producers may also need to consider completely re-planting certain lots on their farm after the trees reach a certain age.

coffee pickers

Coffee pickers harvest ripe cherries in Laos. Credit: Thomas Schosch via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Coffee plant nutrition happens at the leaf and root, and neither should be neglected. Alvarez says that it is extremely important to take care of the soil and keep up with fertilizer schedules to give plants the nutrition they need.

During the rainy season, undergrowth maintenance will help prevent diseases developing. At other times of the year, producers need to watch out for coffee leaf rust, or la roya. This fungal infection is extremely common and can devastate crops by damaging the leaves, which are necessary for converting sunlight into energy. In other words, without the leaves, the plant cannot survive.

For shade-grown coffee farms, Alvarez also stresses the importance of shade upkeep. The amount of shade needed to produce a good crop will depend on the farm’s elevation and coffee species, but properly maintained shade will allow the plants to ripen at the ideal speed.

Find out more! Read A Coffee Producer’s Guide to Growing Healthy Coffee Trees

From Farm to Cup

Every year, after the rainy season, the trees will flower. The delicate white blooms, with their sweet aromas, are more than just a pretty sight, though. They are important for coffee cherry growth.

With Arabica coffee, there is a nine-month waiting period between the flowering and the coffee harvest. But this isn’t a rest period. The producer must regularly inspect the developing cherries to make sure that they’re ripening at the correct time, as well as check for pests.

And don’t underestimate the difficulty of the harvest. Cherry picking is a long and difficult task, especially when quality-oriented producers are looking for perfectly ripe cherries. Sorting the harvest is also important – and time-consuming. Even a few low-quality or defective beans can reduce the quality of an otherwise excellent lot.

After the cherries have been are harvested, they need to be processed. This means removing the coffee beans from the cherries and then drying them.

The main factors to consider during processing are climate, sunlight, and infrastructure. While drying, it is also important to move the beans around periodically to prevent fermentation and mold.

Processing can be done in many ways, but there are three main methods:

  • Natural: Beans are dried in their cherries, adding sweetness and fruity notes to the coffee. Consistency can be harder to achieve.
  • Washed: Beans are removed from the cherries and fermented in water before being dried, resulting in a clean and consistent profile. It requires more equipment than natural processing.
  • Honey/pulped natural: Part of the fruit is removed, with a certain degree of mucilage left on the beans during drying. The more mucilage, the sweeter and fuller-bodied the coffee – but the greater the effort and risk involved.

Learn more! Read Washed, Natural, Honey: Coffee Processing 101

Coffee beans

Coffee beans after processing. Credit: Adam Jones via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Aguirre says, “It is very hard to grow coffee. Not only is the producer fighting nature’s adversities, but a cup of coffee requires a lot of work, a ton of people… That is the real value of coffee.”

Because to many people, a cup of coffee is an essential daily beverage. But to producers, it represents days, months, and years of intensive crop care. It is early mornings and long afternoons in cold temperatures. It is their life’s work.

Enjoyed this? Check out Get to Know The Coffee Plant

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