About 83 percent of American adults drink coffee, according to a 2013 survey by the National Coffee Association. But how many actually know where coffee comes from? Most people can probably identify that the beverage comes from a plant – they’re called “coffee beans,” after all – but not many know about the complex process that results in that perfect morning cup.
Where it grows
Coffee’s journey begins far away from the United States. “Coffee grows around the equator,” says Tammy Rostov, second generation owner of Rostov’s Coffee & Tea in Richmond. “Any country around the equator that has mountains – that’s where coffee is grown.”
Why mountains? While coffee prefers warm weather, hence the tropical locale, it doesn’t like to get too hot. Like human beings, coffee is most comfortable in temperatures around 75 degrees. On top of that, coffee needs plenty of rain, which can be plentiful on mountainsides.
Meet the coffee plant
Coffee grows on a large shrub or small tree that can reach 16 to 33 feet in height. When grown commercially, they’re usually planted in rows a few feet apart, not unlike an apple orchard.
“There are two types of cultivated coffee, arabica and robusta,” Rostov says. “Robusta can grow at a lower altitude, so it’s easier to grow but doesn’t taste as good. That’s why it’s not commonly found in the United States. We really like the arabica.”
Coffee plants produce red fruit called cherries. The seeds of these cherries are where the magic is. These seeds, usually two per cherry, are what are commonly called coffee beans.
Cherries are hand-harvested and then milled. Farmers either mill harvested cherries on their own farms – if they’re part of a farmers’ collective – or take it to a commercial processor.
“The milling process takes the cherry off the beans and sorts them by size and defect,” Rostov says. “Then they’re fermented, dried and bagged. From that point, the coffee is imported into the United States.”
Traveling to the United States
Except for coffee grown in Hawaii, all coffee consumed in the United States has to be imported. That means dealing with customs and paying import taxes or tariffs, just as with any foreign goods brought into the country.
“Back when we started, there was no direct trade,” Rostov says. The term means the practice buying coffee directly from a coffee farmer in another country instead of going through a middleman. “In the old days, for example, all the farmers would bring their coffee to a central mill in their region,” Rostov says. “When you’d import coffee, you’d talk to that mill and get a blend of all the coffee from that area.”
Direct trade, by contrast, cuts out the middleman and gives more money directly to the community. “It helps the farmers,” Rostov says. “You have a better crop. Because you’re buying from a particular person, you can develop a relationship and know that the product is up to a particular standard.”
Rostov’s began purchasing some of its coffee in the direct trade manner in 1993 from a grower called La Minita in Costa Rica. “We talk to them every two to three weeks to go over offerings and see what’s coming in,” she says of their relationship. “We’ve been down to their farms probably about six times over the years.” La Minita is one of many different coffees that Rostov’s purchases in the direct trade manner. Now also included is a recent partnership with De La Finca of Honduras.
Once in the United States, coffee beans are stored in specialty coffee warehouses until they’re shipped to a roaster, such as Rostov’s Coffee & Tea. Unroasted coffee – called “green coffee” – can’t be brewed, and most people don’t have the equipment to roast at home.
Roasting techniques vary. Large commercial roasters use extremely hot, high-speed roasters to work in volume. Smaller roasters, like Rostov’s Coffee & Tea in Richmond, use more specialized – and idiosyncratic – equipment.
“We have a 1930s Jabez Burns roaster that uses natural gas and a perforated drum,” Rostov says. “Our coffee has a unique flavor that you can’t find in other places because we roast at a lower temperature. We are one of the few roasters in this area who roasts like that.”
Freshly roasted beans always make better coffee, but some coffee can actually be a bit too fresh. Roasted beans must “degas” to shed some excess carbon dioxide. This process can take 24 hours or more, depending on the darkness of the roast.
“We roast six days a week,” Rostov says. “You can come in and see the roaster and smell the different varieties. They all started in different places around the world, but they all wind up together at our store.”