What are coffee beans? The answer may surprise you! Coffee beans are the seeds of coffee plants. They’re roasted and ground to make coffee. Coffee is a popular drink around the world, and it’s also used in many different foods.
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What are coffee beans?
Coffee is a plant that grows in the tropics, and the beans come from bright red coffee cherries. What’s inside of a coffee cherry? Well, the pit or seed is actually what we use to make coffee.
So next time you’re enjoying a cup of Joe, remember that it all started with a little cherry!
What are coffee beans and how are they processed?
Where do coffee beans come from?
The coffee beans that we roast, grind, and brew are the seeds of the fruit of the coffee plant.
Coffee trees can grow to over 30 feet in height. However, farmers cut them down to conserve plant energy and help with harvesting. A smaller tree will produce a higher yield and better quality in a small space.
Each coffee plant is covered in green, waxy leaves. They grow in pairs and coffee cherries grow along their branches. Depending on the variety of coffee, it takes three to five years for a plant to produce its first fruit.
According to the National Coffee Association, an average coffee tree can produce 10 pounds of coffee cherries per year. This results in approximately 2 pounds worth of beans.
There are many varieties of coffee, and each variety has its unique characteristics such as size, flavor, and disease resistance.
The coffee fruit anatomy
The exocarp is the skin of a coffee cherry. It is usually green until it ripens to become bright red, yellow, or orange depending on the variety.
Green coffee cherries should not be confused with green coffee beans. These are the unroasted seeds inside the ripe coffee cherry.
The mesocarp is the thin layer beneath the cherry skin. It is also known as the pulp. The pulp’s inner layer is called mucilage.
Under the mucilage, there is a layer of pectin. These layers are rich in sugars that are essential for the fermentation process.
Next, we come to the coffee seeds. Although technically the endosperm, they are better known as beans.
Two beans are typically found in a coffee cherry. Each one is covered by a thin epidermis known as the silverskin and a papery shell that we call parchment (technically, the endocarp).
Sometimes these green beans are sold as parchment coffee, with this layer intact.
The silverskin is a collection of sclerenchyma cells attached to the beans. These cells are there to protect and support the seed. They are known as chaff when they fall off during roasting.
Sometimes, there is only one seed in a coffee cherry. This happens in approximately 5% of coffee cherries. The beans are called peaberries.
Peaberries can be an anatomical variation of the coffee plant or they were formed due to insufficient pollination. Sometimes, the seed fails to grow due to environmental or genetic factors. When a coffee plant is exposed to severe weather conditions, it is likely to produce peaberries.
Peaberries are often sold at a premium because they have a sweeter, more appealing flavor. Their rounded shape makes it easier to roll in the roasting drum. To avoid inconsistent roasting, it is best to keep them separate from other beans.
How processing impacts the flavor profile of the final coffee
The skin and fruit of coffee cherries are usually discarded. However, they can be dried to make cascara for other products.
The process of removing the skin and mucilage from coffee beans is not an easy task. Various methods have been developed to help make this process easier, each with its unique effect on the flavor and profile of the final coffee product.
Washed coffee, for example, has all of its fruit flesh removed before drying. Natural coffee has the fruit flesh removed after drying.
Honey and pulped natural processing remove the skin and some of the mucilage before drying. However, the remaining mucilage is removed after.
The resulting coffee is sweeter with more body when the mucilage is retained. Comparing both dry and wet postharvest processes makes it easier to understand why.
The coffee cherries start to germinate when they are removed from the branch. Germination ceases when the drying begins. Naturally processed coffee proceeds to dry earlier than washed or pulped coffees.
Because of this, more sugar remains in natural coffees resulting in a sweeter bean.
Washed coffees have more consistent flavors and can be very acidic. Natural coffees are richer in sweetness, fruitiness, and body.
The sugars in the mucilage can also ferment during processing, regardless of whether it is done wet or dry. This can have a significant impact on the flavor of the coffee. If not controlled and dried consistently, fermentation can lead to undesirable results.
So, what are coffee beans?
Understanding the basics of the coffee cherry can help you better understand production, processing, and roasting. Next time you are choosing between a natural processed and washed coffee, you can have more confidence in knowing what that means and its impact on your cup.