Seed-to-Cup: The Journey of a Cup of Coffee

It takes 00.5 seconds to say the words “Seed-to-Cup”, and only 00.05 to read the words “Seed-to-Cup” on this page; but do most people ever really wonder how long that journey actually is? As I sat in the lab at Cuatro M sorting through samples of green coffee I had pulled from the warehouse earlier that day, staring into endless piles of green bean cleaning out any defects, it hit me just how many hands a coffee has to pass through before ending up in your cup. It’s really quite astounding if you realize it.

And to think for so long coffee producers were getting paid next to nothing for their hard work. Even with the coffee market as it is today with prices well over $3 a pound for specialty grade green, it still seems like very little to pay once you’ve had the chance to be involved at every step of the Seed-to-Cup process. In America, where we buy our food in clean, safe grocery stores or restaurants, it’s easy to never once wonder where your food actually comes from. How many hands have touched that apple before you put it in your mouth? How many workers break their back day in and day out to pick, process, and prepare your food that you can literally buy whenever you want?

Ian Picco

Coffee, as a commodity, get’s bought, traded and consumed all over the world. It is, in fact, the second most traded commodity just after oil. The coffee one produces for the commercial market wins a pretty low price at the end of the day when you take into account the amount of labor and processing that must be done to make it exportable. If you are a specialty producer, producing coffee of high quality, separating micro lots, striving towards the best farming methods, investing in the best equipment, and investing in your employees from pickers to production; then that amount of labor and processing increases dramatically. Let’s take a look at each step of the process so we can understand just how many hands a coffee passes through.

Step 1: The Nursery

This is were the seed goes to begin it’s life as a tree. In case you didn’t know, it is actually the seed of the coffee cherry that we roast and brew to make liquid coffee. With care given by the farmer the seed will germinate and produce a sprout within 6 weeks of being planted. The young plant will typically stay in the nursery for another 4-8 months before it is ready to plant into the earth.

Step 2: Planting the Coffee Tree

Once tree is planted, it will take another 3-5 years to produce a profitable/quality yield of cherries. Depending on how well you maintain the tree and what farming methods you use, a coffee tree such as the acaia varietal shown above can continue to produce coffee for decades. The above photo shows a 3 year old tree, not yet producing.

Photo by Jeremy Charles

Step 3-5: Harvesting

Some coffee is picked by machines, like in Brazil for example where most coffee is grown in direct sun; however, the majority of coffee in the world is still picked by hand. That means a lot of people picking a lot of coffee. Take into consideration that each coffee cherry has only 2 seeds (or beans) inside of them, and it takes somewhere around 120 beans (that’s 60 cherries) to brew only an small 8oz cup. Now think of how many millions of cups of coffee is consumed everyday. That’s a whole lot of picking.

After picking the cherries from the tree the workers will sort through what they’ve picked and separate the unripe from the delicious ripe ones.

The bags of cherries are then weighed and loaded on trucks to be taken to the mill for processing

Photo by Jeremy Charles

Steps 6-10: The Wet Mill

When the cherries arrive at the mill, they are weighed, then ramdom samples will be pulled from the lot and the cherries will be graded by quality: better cherries fetch better prices. As soon as the cherries are graded and accounted for they get loaded into a hopper, ready to be fed through the pulping and washing station.

Photo by Jeremy Charles

A state of the art mill like the one at Cuatro M has the ability to process coffee in several different ways. If the coffee is to be washed or honeyed, it first needs to be depulped. The depulper machine removes the skin from the beans preparing them to be fermented or washed.

The demucilager washes off the “fruit” around the seed known as mucilage.

Once washed, the coffees get spread out onto concrete patios, and turned over frequently to dry in the sun. Large Machine dryers are also used to expedite the process, and control drying and fermentation rates.

a Guardiola horizontal dryer

naturals drying on the patio

For a natural processed coffee, the fruit and skin is left on the beans, and are dried and fermented on the patios. Understanding and controlling fermentation is key in this process, especially in humid enviroments such as El Salvador.

Step 11-14 the Dry Mill

When the coffee leaves the patio, it still has a layer of dried parchment surrounding the bean. at the dry mill machinery will hull the bean, destone the batch, and grade beans by screen size and density.

parchment coffee on the patio

The beans are stored in the warehouse with the parchment still attached. At Cuatro M every lot is kept separate in order to find unique batches of coffee that can be sold for higher premiums.

When a coffee is being prepped for export it gets run through the machines mentioned above, but also gets hand sorted to remove any defective beans. Specialty grade coffee only allows up to 5 full defects. It takes a lot of time and a lot of hands to sort through each bag of coffee.

Step 15-20?: The Cupping Table and the Lab

The lab is the place where coffees are cupped, graded, and tested. It is equipped with sample roasters, cupping equipment, brewing devices, espresso machines, grading tools, and all sorts of measuring devices. Every batch of coffee coming from the patio will be sample roasted, cupped, and graded. When customers come to the farm to purchase coffee, the cupping table is where they spend a good amount of their time. At the cupping table the customer and the producer taste and discuss the coffees in order to find out what the customer wants to buy.

My particular job down here now, is re-cupping coffees from the warehouse. I cup about 60 lots in a week. I’ll talk about that process in an up coming post.

Once a customer has made a contract with the farmer, the coffees that he buys gets prepped and exported by container. The typical buyer usually an importer (small to large) or a roaster (small to large). Most commercial grade coffee gets bought by trading firms on Wall Street or around the world, who then sell it to large commercial coffee companies.

Step 2?-??: The Roastery

So now the coffee gets to the roastery, where yet more steps are involved to properly roast and blend the coffees for sale in coffee shops and retail stores. The Topeca Roastery is a place were roasting theories, and brewing practices are tested and improved on, as well as, a training facility for baristas.

Yet Even More Steps: The Cafe

This is the last place coffee resides before being consumed. At the cafe, it is the barista’s job to skillfully prepare the coffee in such a way that showcases all of the hard work that made that coffee what it is. It is the final step in the Seed-to-Cup journey. Just think, at every step along the way you can only try not to screw up the coffee. It will never be more perfect than it was when it was picked ripe from the tree. Each step and each individual, from the picker to the barista, is just as important as the other. And that’s something not everyone realizes when they ask, “Well what’s so special about this coffee?”


For more in-depth info about the Topeca farms, processing and a full virtual tour of Cuatro M please visit here. Seriously one of the most cutting edge coffee mills in the world.

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