It’s big business but the simple fruit of a bush-like tree has a long journey ahead before it becomes the world’s best-loved beverage
It’s the energising elixir that has us scrambling around for vending machine shrapnel and circling the office kettle in packs. But how does a small red cherry end up as the tall, extra-hot, soya latte perched precariously on a dozing commuter’s lap?
Coffee is big business. The world’s second most traded product after oil, the British Coffee Association (BCA) estimated that in 2007 we spent £720m on curbing our caffeine cravings.
But before it can take the edge off the afternoon sugar slump, coffee begins life as a cherry. Grown on small bush-like trees, the green fruit turns bright red when ripe and contains two seeds – the coffee beans. There are two main commercial types. Arabica, a refined and aromatic bean suited to high altitudes, and robusta, a bitter-tasting bean grown at low altitude.
Coffee trees flourish in equatorial climates. According to the International Coffee Organisation (ICO), Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer with around a third of global output, followed by Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia.
And far from adding a simple splash of hot water and a dash of milk, coffee production is a long and complex process. The coffee tree produces its first full crop after five years – once ripe, the berries are harvested, processed and dried down on large sun trays. They are then bagged up and sold on to co-operatives.
The standard unit of coffee trading is 60kg and the BCA estimates that 133m 60kg bags will be traded in the year between October 2011 and October 2012.
According to the ICO, there are 25m coffee farmers worldwide, 70 per cent of whom are small landowners. Dr Euan Paul, executive director of the BCA, says certification schemes have helped improve the stability of the coffee market and the living conditions of those who rely on it.
“The environmental, economic and social implications of coffee production are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Schemes aim to ensure everything from fairer prices and building schools to minimising water usage and pollution in the processing stages,” he says.
UK coffee manufacturers buy the majority of their green beans from exporters or international trading houses. In this state, the beans pack very little punch and, according to Martin Wattam of the ICO, it’s all in the roast.
“Roasting turns coffee from a base metal into gold, unleashing all their essential oils which provide flavour and aroma,” he says. “The beans are roasted to varying degrees, depending on the desired outcome.”
Although beans can be from one origin, they are often blended together. According to coffee manufacturer Douwe Egberts, this improves flavour and product consistency.
“Each brand of coffee has a flavour profile,” a spokesperson says. “This is much easier to maintain in blends as any minor changes can be subtly adjusted.”
These subtle changes depend on the taste buds of a team of wide-eyed testers who guzzle up to 300 cups of coffee a day to ensure each batch tastes as good as the last. The beans are ground down and instant coffee varieties are spray or freeze- dried to create the dark, soluble powder.
The BCA’s Paul says: “Instant coffee is sold in glass jars as it best preserves coffee quality. But the beans first need to rest as grinding creates a lot of gases and they would explode if immediately packaged.”
That really would start Monday morning off with a bang.