Before your steaming mug of coffee reaches your doorstep or is served at your favourite café, it goes through a lengthy process. Previously, we provided an overview of coffee-making, from beginning to end. This time, we’ll delve deeper into how coffee is grown, starting with a coffee cherry until we have a full-grown fruiting tree ready to be harvested.
Coffee cherries and coffee beans
Before we continue, it’s important to distinguish coffee beans from coffee cherries. Coffee cherries are the fruits, and coffee beans are the seeds. If the seeds aren’t processed into coffee, these can be planted and grown into a coffee plant.
In general, coffee-growing countries only have two specific seasons: wet or rainy season and dry season, which corresponds to summer. Coffee-planting in the farm usually takes place during the wet season, when it is easy to dig holes for the seeds to establish roots.
The coffee plant thrives in the tropical and subtropical climate and should ideally be grown within 1,000 miles or 1,600 kilometres from the equator. It’s possible to grow it at sea level as high as 7,000 feet or 2,133 metres.
Coffee is grown primarily in Central and Latin America, Africa, Indonesia and the Pacific Rim.
Coffee planting proper
The traditional method farmers use is putting around 20 seeds into a hole. This process leads to the germination of about half of the seeds. The farmer would then choose the best saplings out of one bunch.
Today, however, a new method is becoming more popular, as it is known for having better outcomes. In this method, coffee seeds are cultivated in large beds in shaded nurseries or greenhouses by coffee-growing experts. Great care is practised in ensuring the coffee seedlings get just the right amount of sunlight, food and water and have ideal soil conditions.
The seedlings are watered regularly whilst being shaded from direct sunlight until they are ready to be transplanted. Planting usually takes place during the rainy or wet season to ensure the soil is soft and moist enough for the seedlings to grow healthy roots.
When the coffee plant reaches a height of around 18 to 24 inches (45.72 to 60.96 centimetres), it would already be about a year old. It is ready to be transferred to a coffee farm where it is planted along with other coffee plants, preferably in shaded areas. They are planted at a distance of 10 to 12 feet (3.048 to 3.6576 metres) apart to make room for further growth.
It takes about three to four years before a new coffee plant becomes mature enough to yield fruit. During its peak years, a single coffee plant can produce around 1 to 1.5 pounds (roughly half a kilogram) of coffee beans in a single year.
Full-grown coffee plants can reach around 20 feet or 6 metres high. To prevent the difficulty of harvesting from overly tall coffee plants, they should be pruned once they are around 10 feet or 3 metres high. Mature coffee plants grow sweet-smelling flowers every four to five years, which then produce small green cherries within six to nine months.
When the cherries are ripe or turn deep red, they are ready to be harvested. Harvesting can be mechanised or done by hand.
When you open a ripe cherry, you’ll find two coffee seeds inside. These seeds may be processed into coffee or unprocessed for planting — and the cycle starts all over again.