From farm-to-fork to sea-to-table, sustainable dining is unquestionably the culinary experience du jour.
It makes sense, too—and on nearly every imaginative level. Strides in technology, expanding, dynamic concepts of family and community, myriad forms of communication—it’s no wonder many of us seek to carve out a small niche that cultivates a sense of intimacy and togetherness. “Slow food” and eco-eating contribute to this—and this isn’t even getting to the politics, environmental advantages, and nutritional value of eating (and drinking) not only locally, but from companies and farms that treasure quality and sustainability.
Add seed-to-cup to the burgeoning mix. From coffee geeks and hipsters to general connoisseurs, those who are conscious about their coffee want to know its origins, giving rise to a small number of cafés where you can select the varietal, farm, and brewing process, and spawning dozens of not-insignificant questions: Where was the coffee grown? When? Was it a large, commercial farm, or a sustainable plantation? Were pesticides used; do they practice fair trade?
And, well, how does it all happen?
For as quickly as we can order—and get served—a daily drip, Americano, or French press, a long, meticulous process has taken place in order to put that joe into your mug. A number of venues—from Hawaii to Costa Rica and all across the globe—are shedding light on this journey with entertaining and enlightening seed-to-cup tours. And while we can’t give you the pleasure of plucking a coffee cherry from a plant—or roasting a brew to perfection—we can give you the basics on how a cup of coffee happens. Here’s a summary of the path from seed-to-cup—and why you should treat your java with even more reverence.
Coffee is a fruit that’s native to Ethiopia. In the fifteenth century, the woody perennial evergreen, which starts as a flower that smells like jasmine, began to spread its roots—literally. Thanks to “traders and thieves,” as The New Yorker puts it, coffee proliferated throughout the Arab world and onto India, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean before reaching the Americas, where it would eventually dominate. For a time, El Salvador—as part of the Americas—ruled the coffee scene, an industry that caters to the 3.5 billion cups of coffee that are consumed around the world daily and requires a staggering 5 million workers globally. (Seem impossible? Coffee is the world’s second biggest commodity, second only to oil.) While El Salvador has since been surpassed by the other “Bean Belt” countries of Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Guatemala, and Colombia—with Kauai Coffee Co. maintaining its position as the largest coffee grower in the U.S.—what largely remains is the way coffee is processed.
“Coffee seeds are generally planted in large beds in shaded nurseries,” the National Coffee Association reports. “The seedlings will be watered frequently and shaded from bright sunlight until they are hearty enough to be permanently planted.” Plantings usually take place in the wetter months of winter, when the soil is moist enough to accommodate new life as the roots become established. But the new coffee plant—which can grow to 30 feet tall but is kept short for easier harvesting—requires another three to five years for it to bud fruit. Aptly named the cherry, given its deep red color, coffee, which produces continually, is typically harvested once a year. During this time, the coffee cherry is either strip or selectively picked, with the latter (a more labor-intensive process) generally being used for finer beans and at boutique plantations. 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries are picked by a single picker on a good day, yielding to 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans.
Cherries in hand, the processing of them begins immediately so as to avoid spoilage. In this phase, the mucilage—a thin, gooey layer that surrounds the parchment around the fruit—needs to be removed, in addition to the pulp.
Two methods are used: either wet or dry. In the former—also called the washed process— water is used to remove the pulp from the cherry and the bean is dried with its parchment intact. In this method, “good” cherries sink while “bad” (read: unripe or otherwise compromised) will float. Normally resulting in a more homogenous product, it necessitates a de-pulping machine.
In the dry process—a centuries-old practice that’s also called natural or “unwashed” coffee—the sun is relied upon to dry the cherries, which are turned over by hand or raked to skirt mildew; this is usually done on patios or raised matted trestles. (This is expedited on larger plantations, which employ machines to do part of the drying.) The objective here is to get the coffee to an ideal moisture level of 12.5%.
Next up? The “green” beans are sent to a mill to be cleaned and sorted—even a single bad bean can change the flavor of a brew—before they’re prepared for export. But before they’re delivered to your favorite market or café, they’re analyzed by experts. Called “cuppers,” these pros assess the beans for taste and quality, and to determine blends.
In the next phase (roasting), those green beans turn brown—that deep chocolaty color we see when we buy our beans whole. Roasting releases an aromatic oil locked within the bean—a fragrance so rich it’s inarguably birthed more than one coffee addict—in a chemical process in which starches are converted to sugars. The most fundamental step here is extracting “caffeol” from the bean—the essential oil (a “volatile” oil, in chemist circles) that gives coffee its flavor and scent. Temperatures and roasting times are manipulated to create light, medium dark, and dark roasts of varying intensity. (And here’s some…java for thought: the lighter the roast, the purer the bean and the higher its caffeine content.)
But it isn’t just the roasting temps and times that determine a coffee’s taste: The region in which those beans bloomed into cherries plays a huge role in the coffee’s quality and flavor, as soil, climate, water, and other factors influence the bean. Arabica beans—one of two primary types of coffee, and accounting for 70% of the world’s kind of coffee— flourish here on Maui, thanks to the tropical climate the plant favors. Within this grows varietals that range from Yellow Caturra and Red Catuai to the award-winning, inimitable Maui Mokka; all underscore why Hawaii has been growing coffee since before it even became a state.
Visitors and kama’aina can glean an in-depth, hands-on understanding of why this at a number of seed-to-cup tours around the island, including Maui Grown Coffee’s tour in West Maui (where 500 acres of former sugar plantation land have been cultivated for java), at O’o Farm in Kula—a small plantation that caters to Pacific’o and The Feast at Lele—and at Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu, a leading tourist destination that also hosts the annual Seed to Cup Coffee Festival. But wherever you learn about seed-to-cup, here or in an orchard, it ought to fortify your appreciation for coffee—just in case you needed another excuse to say “oh wow” upon that first sip.