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The great thing about coffee is it can be very simple or very complex.

If you simply enjoy a cup of joe but couldn’t care less about bean farmers in Guatemala, that’s your prerogative.

You can pick out fancy blends and experiment with exciting new flavors even if your knowledge of coffee making is scant. The coffee enthusiasts club welcomes all members.

If you want to go beyond the supermarket shelves and find out where these brilliant beans come from, there’s quite a rabbit hole to explore. The story of a coffee bean’s journey from farm to grinder is surprisingly captivating. Few plants have as rich a history as coffee or say as much about the evolution of global trade.

It can be tricky to know where to start when learning about coffee processing. These days, we’re pretty far removed from the farms where coffee plants grow and get harvested.

Most people don’t know coffee fruits are a vivid red color. Or that each fruit (called a ‘cherry’) contains just two coffee beans.

There’s lots to learn about coffee processing, so let’s get started. This article discusses common coffee making terms and phrases.

Coffee Plants

Coffee Cherry

The fruit of the coffea plant. These fruits are round, brightly colored and encase the dark brown coffee beans we all know and love. They look very similar to cherries from the supermarket but a little smaller. There are two coffee beans inside every coffee cherry.

Arabica

The world’s favorite coffee plant and the species used in almost all coffee products sold internationally. It is characterized by its distinctly acidy and sweet notes. Though traded worldwide, it is surprisingly sensitive to environmental changes and disease.

Robusta

Also known as canephora, this is the second most popular coffee species. While it is much tougher than Arabica, its flavors are harsher and more bitter. Robusta beans are also naturally high in caffeine. Their stimulating effects can be twice as intense.

Coffee Cultivar

A term used to describe any specific subspecies of the coffee plant. Coffee cultivars are a product of natural mutation, artificial mutation or hybridization. In the same way there are different subspecies of orange, there are many different subspecies of coffee plant.

Geisha

A coffee cultivar that originates from Gesha, in Ethiopia. Its flavor is rich, flowery, and with an earthy but moderately acidic tang. This is an uncommon variety because most Geisha coffee beans are produced in Central America.

Peaberry

A specific coffee cultivar that develops just one bean for each coffee cherry instead of the usual two per cherry. It is caused by a species mutation. Though there’s only one bean to harvest, it tends to be fatter, fuller and with a more intense flavor.

Silverskin

The last part of the plant to be removed from the coffee beans during processing. It is a membranous covering that quickly falls away during roasting. The silverskins then get discarded as chaff.

Coffee Farming

Lot

The demarcated space in which a specific type of coffee plant grows on a farm. Coffee producers divide farms into sections and create ‘lots’ where they group plants with shared characteristics. Lots may be allocated according to subspecies, watering requirements, processing method or volume of plants. For instance, some farmers use the word ‘lot’ to describe 37,000 lbs of coffee plant.

Micro-Lot

When a coffee farmer wishes to try something different - such as developing a brand new subspecies – they create a smaller, isolated growing section away from larger lots. These ‘micro-lots’ allow them to be experimental without jeopardizing established coffee crops.

Organic

The method of growing coffee with little or no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. There are globally recognized accreditations available to farmers who produce high-quality organic coffee. Although, official accreditation is not a requirement. So, not all organic farmers are certified in the same way.

Shade Trees

Trees planted on coffee farms for the express purpose of shielding vulnerable coffee plants from the sun. Shade protection is important because, in many coffee growing countries, the sunlight is harsh enough to destroy plants. These trees are another benefit of local coffee production as they give farmers an incentive to plant trees in previously deforested areas.

High Grown

The term used to describe coffee grown at altitudes of more than 3,000 feet. These beans tend to have more acidity but also more sweet notes to balance out the tartness.

Cooperative

A local business network set up by regional coffee producers and designed to serve a centralized processing hub. One of its goals is to ensure local growers retain control of how and to whom they sell.

Picking

The task of removing ripe coffee cherries (containing coffee beans) from parent plants. Specialty coffees are always hand-picked to ensure only the finest fruits get selected for processing and sale. Larger coffee farms may use a machine to harvest cherries without consideration for ripeness or quality.

Coffee Leaf Rust

A common fungal disease that affects the development of coffee plants’ leaves. It causes plants to lose leaves and this often results in stunted, underdeveloped fruits. Many farms across South and Central America have been ravaged by the blight.

Coffee Berry Borer

A species of African beetle that is treated as a pest on coffee farms. The insect digs inside plants and lays its eggs inside coffee fruits. This leads to rotten, inedible beans and can become a major problem if the insects spread quickly through a lot.

Fly Crop

Used to refer to coffee plants harvested outside of the traditional window for it. Sometimes, farmers get the opportunity to pick fruits twice, once during the expected harvesting window and again a short time later.

Coffee Processing

Wet Mill

The building where coffee cherries are dried to prepare them for further processing and sale. There are several ways to dry coffee beans and separate them from their plants.

Dry Mill

The building where coffee beans get hulled (if needed), checked for quality, classified according to quality and readied for export.

Washed Process

A method of processing coffee beans that involves soaking cherries in water to remove unwanted plant parts. The beans are washed, then dried. The technique creates a crisply acidic flavor and bright, distinctive notes.

Natural Process

A method of slow drying coffee beans to split them from their cherries and ready them for further processing. This is one of the oldest processing techniques in existence. The beans are simply left on a sunlit patio to dry naturally over weeks.

Honey Process

A method of processing that deliberately leaves a thin, membranous section of the plant on the coffee beans. This sticky sweet ‘skin’ gives the beans a taste unlike that of more traditionally processed coffees.

Fermentation

A phase of coffee processing in which bacteria are allowed to deconstruct parts of the bean so they can be released and harnessed for flavor creation. This method is great for developing earthy, fruity and winey notes.

Pulping

The phase at which the outermost skins of the coffee cherries are removed.

Drying

The phase of coffee processing in which beans are extensively dried until they reach a moisture content of between 10 and 12%. There are many ways to do this including on exposed patios, mechanical drying baskets and raised beds.

Mucilage

The sticky, resinous substance in between the outer skin of the coffee cherry and the coffee beans inside. When coffee beans are honey processed, part of this mucilage is left to manufacture a specific type of flavor.


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