What is coffee?

Coffee Beans. It’s a bean, right?

While it makes sense on face value, many consumers haven’t thought any further than this over their morning brew.
Now, if you know already the differences between a pulped natural and a black honey process, then this article isn’t for you. If you want more in-depth technical information we love the work that the Coffee Quality Institute do, check them out!

I’m going to be keeping this simple today and just outline the basics of where coffee starts.

Where coffee comes from.

Spoiler alert! Coffee beans come from a fruit. Or more specifically, it’s the seed of a certain kind of cherry, that grows on varieties of the coffea plant. In this family are a number of sub-families, the major two being Robusta and Arabica, which both have countless varieties that are all subtly different.

Think of all the different varieties of apples you know, and how different they can taste, then compare them to the varieties of pears that you have tasted. (Fun fact, both are part of the pome fruit family.)

From there the similarities to apples and pears become less, as coffee does not necessarily grow in neat little orchards, but often in diverse mountainous forest areas, surrounded by larger trees and other crops. Coffee trees grow best in tropical regions, with major producing areas in South America, Africa and Asia.


It can take 3 - 4 years for coffee trees to mature enough to have a sellable crop. It can take roughly 10 weeks to harvest a crop, and then another 9 months of waiting (and hoping for good weather) until the next harvest. Not to say that the farmers are on holiday for 9 months of the year, an awful lot goes into maintaining a farm in optimal condition during the off-season, but the harvest is when a lot of the hard work is done.

Like most fruit, coffee cherries ripen at different rates, so there will usually be 3 – 4 stages of the picking process, and although machinery is sometimes used on larger farms, more often than not each coffee cherry is picked by hand, and on a steep incline. This is hard work!



It’s during the processing phase that the most dramatic impact on the final flavour in the cup happens. Coffee cherries have lots of layers, and most of these layers we don’t want.

Essentially, we want to remove the excess fruit, leaving the “silverskin”. There are dozens of ways of removing all of the excess fruit, but I am going to keep it simple and just talk about the two major methods.

The washed process and the natural process.


Washed process

As the name suggests, this uses lots of water but makes it easier to remove some of the less than tasty cherries that have been harvested, leading to a coffee with a cleaner crisper taste.

Unripe and damaged cherries are screened out

Cherries are loaded into the depulper

The Depulper breaks the skin and removes some of the excess fruit

The cherries are soaked to help remove the remaining sticky fruit

The coffee seeds are now rinsed, leaving a clean coffee, in parchment

The seeds are then dried in the sun, being turned continuously, until they reach 12-14% moisture content

Natural process

This is the other end of the scale, where we skip steps 1-4 in the washed process and lay the cherries still intact, out to dry.

Because the flesh and skin are left intact, more concentrated sugars are absorbed into the seed, leading to bigger, sweeter flavours and can often taste like ripe fruit or even wine in the final product.

The opposite of a washed process, this method requires much less water, however, can come with other challenges. Naturally processed coffees require high levels of sun radiation, and where they are processed in inappropriate climates, defects can arise, causing mould or other off flavours.

There are some ways to avoid this, for instance using mechanical drying equipment, or methods like the raised drying beds that the Sourced family are funding, which you can read more about here!

Dry milling and classification/grading

To protect the coffee before shipment, the seeds are stored in parchment until being sent to the dry mill.
When the coffee is fed through the dry mill, coffee will have its protective parchment layer removed before being graded and classified. The coffee seeds go through multiple levels of sorting before it is ready for shipment. One basic level of objective quality we’re able to apply to coffee is that larger, heavier beans are “better”.

To achieve this coffee beans are first sorted for density which also helps to remove chips and any leftover parchment that may have made it through the mill. The beans are then sent to screens where they are graded for size before finally being sorted for colour done by a very impressive (and expensive) laser sorter where any off colour beans (blacks or faded for example) can be removed. In some countries, this step is still done by hand!

What we’re left with is a small dry seed with a greenish blue colour, this is the raw product ready for export, this is what is known as green coffee, and they are stored piled up in sacks like below.

Buying, Shipping and Roasting.

Lastly, the green coffee is loaded onto a container where it spends 6-8 weeks on a ship before we receive it, roast it and pop it in a bag, all before it gets to you, at the end of the chain!

Now, there is a lot more to how these steps actually work. How we select, buy and roast our coffee is a lengthy and complex process, and deserves its own blog (which will come!)

For now, I will leave you with this simple info-graphic to step you through the process.

If you have any questions or want to know more about any of these steps, ask us a question below!


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