Coffee Guide: The development of coffee culture across centuries and continents is a real epic, a story of thieves and sailors! All you need to know about coffee – Consumed for centuries, coffee is part of our daily lives today. Plantation, treatment, history, transport, economy… Everything you need to know about coffee can be found in our file.
We’ll take a look at:
- 1 What does a coffee tree look like?
- 2 Coffee Guide: the fruits of the coffee tree
- 3 How does the coffee tree grow?
- 4 The plantation of coffee
- 5 Enemies of the coffee tree
- 6 The harvest of coffee beans
- 7 Treatment: the extraction of coffee beans from the cherry
- 8 The wet method
- 9 The dry method
- 10 Transportation of coffee
- 11 Environmental Issues
- 12 What role for coffee crops?
- 13 Impact of the roasting industry
- 14 Social issues
- 15 World production & consuming
- 16 International exchanges
- 17 The different forms of “alternative” trade
What does a coffee tree look like?
#1 The coffee tree is a shrub that can reach up to 10-12 meters high for Robusta and 5-6 meters high for Arabica.
#2 Its production becomes profitable after 5 years.
#3 Its production period is from 10 to 80 years.
#4 The primary branches grow horizontally and are opposite each other along the trunk of the shrub. They are the ones that bear the flowers and fruits. If they break, they do not renew themselves, unlike secondary branches.
#5 The flowers and then the fruits grow at the base of the leaves, on the wood of the year.
#6 Coffee leaves are evergreen, always green, elongated. They are opposed two by two along the stem. Their upper side is shiny.
#7 It is necessary to wait for 6 to 9 months for the fruit to reach maturity.
#8 The flowers of the coffee tree are white. They wilt after only a few hours.
#9 The coffee tree can bloom almost all year round. Its flowers give off a delicious scent similar to jasmine.
#10 On the same tree, there are green leaves, white flowers, green and ripe fruit, which are either red or yellow depending on the variety.
Coffee Guide: the fruits of the coffee tree
The fruit of the coffee tree, called cherry (or drupe in botanicals), ripens in 6 to 12 months. Green in color, the cherry turns yellow then turns red when ripe, and garnet when over-ripe. In some varieties called “Amarello” or “Amarelho” cherries are yellow when ripe.
The cherry contains two oval seeds, flattened on one side and separated by a groove.
Each seed is protected by a membrane, the parchment. Most of the time, the cherry contains two seeds, but sometimes it contains only one, in which case this single seed is called “peaberry”.
How does the coffee tree grow?
The coffee tree needs a fairly warm temperature, around 32°C. It also needs a humid climate. These conditions are found in the intertropical zones.
Growing coffee is extremely delicate work!
The coffee tree generally multiplies by seed. The seed takes the form of parchment coffee, i.e. the bean still wrapped in the parchment. The germination is done between 4 and 8 weeks. The young plants are then transplanted in a nursery. The coffee trees suffer from too much exposure to the sun, it is thus necessary to provide them with shade.
10 months later, the coffee plants grow to about 30 centimetres. They are then ready to be planted in the ground to create a plantation, to enlarge it or to replace dead or too old coffee trees.
The plantation of coffee
A coffee plantation is called a coffee plantation. To plant the young coffee trees, the growers preferably choose a rainy or cloudy day. The most favorable time is the beginning of the rainy season.
Plantations should be shaded. For example, large trees of 8 to 10 metres in height protect the coffee trees from the sun and temperature variations.
The terrain is also important. Without being particularly rich, the soil must contain a high proportion of humus. It is then reinforced by natural and chemical fertilizers, except for small farmers who practice organic farming.
The productivity of the coffee tree naturally declines in a few years. In order to maintain productivity at a high level, two modes of management are commonly practiced:
- free growing with periodic re-growth: with this type of management, 3 to 5 trunks are allowed to grow continuously for a period of 5 or 6 years. At the end of this period, all the trunks are cut and 3 to 5 shoots are allowed to grow again.
- pruning (or topping) at a height of 1.80 to 2 metres: this technique consists of cutting the top of the trunk to limit its growth and thus avoid re-growth.
In addition, the coffee tree emits many shoots that must be removed regularly. The first flowering occurs after 3 years. Harvesting can begin at 4 years but becomes truly profitable after 5-6 years.
Enemies of the coffee tree
The enemies of the coffee tree are, on the one hand, diseases and, on the other hand, insects.
The two main diseases that can affect the coffee tree are orange rust, a leaf disease, and anthracnose berry disease, a fruit disease.
In the 19th century, orange rust due to a fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) was responsible for the destruction of all Dutch plantations in Java and English plantations in Ceylon; they were replaced by tea plantations… the famous Ceylon tea!
The fight against orange rust has several components:
- chemical control by spraying copper or synthetic fungicides;
- genetic control by creating resistant varieties;
- agronomic control using cultural practices to reduce the impact of the disease.
Insects can also attack coffee. The most formidable are weevils and bark beetles, which enter coffee beans by drilling small holes.
The harvest of coffee beans
In the northern hemisphere, harvesting takes place from October to January, while in the southern hemisphere it takes place between May and September. It should be noted that in countries below the Equator (Kenya, Uganda, Colombia, etc.) there are two harvest seasons per year.
The yield of coffee trees depends mainly on the climate. It varies from 200 to 600 kilos of coffee cherries on average per hectare.
A coffee tree produces about 2.5 kilos of cherries per year. After processing, between 500 and 800 grams of green coffee is obtained, which is 400 to 700 grams of roasted coffee. As it takes about 10 grams to prepare one cup of coffee in filter coffee, 7 grams in espresso, the production of one coffee tree during one year makes less than 80 cups!
The picking of the cherries is mainly done according to two methods :
All the fruits of a branch are harvested at the same time.
One waits until there are a majority of ripe cherries and grasps the branch with the left hand, and, by sliding the right hand up and down, one tears off everything: flowers, green fruit, immature yellow fruit, ripe red cherries, overripe black cherries, etc.
Sometimes a kind of comb with wide, soft teeth is used. The ripe cherries fall off, while the green leaves and cherries resist and remain attached to the twig.
In some countries, various machines are used, for example vibrators, which are attached to the trunk of the tree and which, by their vibrations, cause the ripe cherries to fall to the ground, or a machine equipped with vertical brushes that rotate in the opposite direction. This mechanical method is mainly used in the plains of Brazil. It is effective but damages the trees since flowers and leaves are pulled out, and is incompatible with shade.
The ripe cherries are picked one by one by hand. It is a long job that requires skill on the part of the pickers. The frequency varies from one country to another: in Kenya, 7 per ye; in Jamaica, for the famous Blue Mountain, as often as necessary.
Of course, the cost of these methods is very different, the yield even more so!
- Stripping, which is done manually or mechanically, we pick all the fruit of a branch at once; this method gives bad results because not all the fruit is ripe (economic reason).
- picking which is done exclusively by hand, only ripe cherries are picked (several passes), (60 kg per day).
The harvesting calendar :
- the Arabica cherry is ripe after 8 to 9 months.
- The Robusta variety requires 8 to 11 months.
The time of harvest varies according to the geographical area
- Brazil: June to September
- Colombia: main harvest from October to February; secondary harvest from April to June
- Central America: October to March
- East Africa: July to December
- West Africa: October to March
- Central Africa: November to February
- Vietnam: November to April (depending on geographical areas and altitude)
- India: Arabica = November to February; Robusta = January to March
- Jamaica: August to September
Treatment: the extraction of coffee beans from the cherry
Once the cherries are picked, the coffee beans must be extracted. Before proceeding to the actual processing, the leaves, green or rotten fruit, small stones and various debris remaining in the harvested batches must first be removed.
This is done by manual or mechanical sorting.
There are two methods of extracting coffee beans from the cherry:
The wet method
Cherries must be processed within six hours of picking. After being sorted they are washed and in some countries they can be immersed in water basins where they swell overnight. They are then passed through a machine that mechanically removes much of the pulp.
The pulped pulp is removed by a stream of water. This machine is called a “pulper”.
In order to remove the pieces of pulp that have stuck to the parchment, the grains are washed in a water path that is also used to sort the seeds. Finally, they are left in fermentation tanks for about twenty-four to thirty-six hours, depending on the country. At the end of the fermentation process, the coffee beans are washed again thoroughly in a stream of water.
The beans are still surrounded by their silvery skin and parchment. They are then dried, either for about ten days in the sun or artificially in drying machines for two to four days.
The coffee then takes on a beautiful yellow hue. The dried parchment must then be removed.
It can still undergo a polishing operation before being packed in 60 kg bags for sale.
This method is used to prepare most premium coffees.
- Need for a homogeneous harvest
- Picking method (hand picking)
- Different washes erase the defects of the coffee
- Excellent quality coffees obtained
- Requires a large quantity of water: 50 to 100 liters for 1 kg of green coffee.
- The necessity to provide for water recycling with a purification plant.
- Risk: If the basins are not properly cleaned, the beans may ferment a second time, resulting in the appearance of stinking beans that can make the coffee uncomfortable to drink.
- Central America
- East Africa
- South America
- West Indies
The dry method
It consists of separating the coffee beans from all their husks at once. To do this, the cherry must be completely dry. However, at the time of picking, it contains about 75% moisture.
After being sorted, the cherries are then spread out over large drying areas in the sun for a fortnight. They are stirred very regularly using tools that resemble large rakes. In the evening or if it rains, the fruit is grouped in large piles and protected from water or dew by tarpaulins.
In some plantations, the cherries are dried using hot air drying machines. It then lasts only three to four days.
When the fruit is dry, it is shelled. Hulled coffee passes through a hulling machine that removes the beans from the shell and, if possible, from the silver skin.
If the silver skin is not completely removed, it is not removed until the coffee is roasted. It gives the beans a light brown tint.
The beans are then cleaned, sorted and graded mechanically according to size, colour and shape. They are placed in 60 kg bags. This method is mainly used in Brazil, West Africa and Vietnam.
- The method used by countries without abundant water supplies
- Inexpensive method
- Allows removal of both pulp and parchment
- Makes less homogeneous coffees
- Risk of taste alteration
- Very irregular harvests
- West Africa
The coffee beans obtained with these two extraction methods are called green coffee.
The beans are classified mainly by size (for grading) and colour. They also undergo moisture analysis and taste tests. Finally any defects (broken beans, hulls, …) are identified and counted on 100gr samples.
Thanks to these detailed analysis operations the coffee obtains a grade and a size, which, together with its moisture content, gives it its market value. The price of the coffee will be estimated plus or minus the daily price depending on its quality. Some excellent coffees may be out of grade. The best grade is G1. Grading is estimated in two parts: 14, 16, 18 are the most common. Moisture content should not exceed 13%.
Transportation of coffee
We’ll have to transport the coffee from the plantation to the roasting plant. Until recently, coffee was always packed in mainly jute sacks. This allowed it to “breathe” with the obvious risk of taking on an odour.
For example, a coffee that had travelled on a banana boat would have a strong banana taste. This could be even worse when it was placed in a hold near chemicals such as fertilizers.
During storage, the coffee was also at risk of insect attack and in any case, it had to be kept away from moisture.
The handling of these 60 kg bags was time-consuming and expensive, so more economical solutions were sought.
Palletization was a first step forward, which did not affect the quality of the product.
Then the idea was to put the bags in “containers”, a satisfactory solution provided that the journey does not last too long and that perfectly clean containers are used that have not previously been used to transport products with a strong odor.
Then came the “big bags” containing some 600 kg of goods. Finally, bulk transport in containers was depending on the duration of the journey, and the ambient temperature, the coffee may be heated and fermented.
In environmental terms, the major challenges of the 21st century are climate and energy.
Global warming linked to the greenhouse effect, itself a natural phenomenon essential to life, is being disrupted by industrial societies.
Responses include the fight against pollution, maintaining the capacity of the soil to produce and the fight against soil erosion, the preservation of biodiversity and forests in order to sequester carbon (fight against the greenhouse effect).
As far as energy is concerned, maintaining increasing oil production to meet growth needs requires costly investments because the deposits are increasingly deep and complex to exploit. Moreover, peak production will soon be reached, (estimated between 2010 and 2025) beyond this peak, the price of oil will become a disincentive.
The solutions lie both in research and development of renewable energies and in a radical improvement in the efficiency of energy use.
What role for coffee crops?
- Coffee growing is often the only possible crop in steep mountainous areas. Thus, it is a factor in maintaining rural activities and landscapes.
- The shaded coffee cultivation practiced in many countries represents one of the best systems, after the primary forest, for the preservation of biodiversity.
- Efforts are being made to rationalize water use in coffee growing and to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers by using insects to preserve the trees.
- Finally, botanical research has made it possible to create more resistant coffee tree species through hybridization, thus limiting the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Impact of the roasting industry
The coffee industry does not present any particular characteristic apart from generic industrial issues.
However, it does have two specific features:
With regard to energy consumption, the situation varies from one sector to another. While it takes about 3gigajoules to produce one tonne of roasted coffee, much more is needed for soluble coffee.
Roasting companies operate mainly with gas.
CO2 emissions are limited (approximately 0.25t of CO2 per tonne of product for roasted coffee) and although coffee falls within the scope of the European directive of 13 October 2003 creating a trading system for greenhouse gas emission quotas, no roasted coffee production unit is currently concerned in France (they are all at a lower level).
Waste raises global and local issues. They consume energy, can cause direct pollution (air, water), or indirect pollution (via their elimination) and generate costs.
The food sector is generally the biggest consumer of packaging (in 2004, out of the 3.6 million tonnes of packaging produced in France, 3 million tonnes were directly generated by the food industry – an eco-packaging source).
The major challenge for the industrial and commercial coffee sector is controlling the production of household waste (the roasting industry generates virtually no industrial waste).
The technical constraints to preserve the organoleptic quality of coffee in good conditions imply the use of complex materials that preserve the coffee from air and light. For the 250gr packs, the most sold to date, the industrialists have made considerable efforts to reduce these packs as much as possible without damaging the quality of the product.
On the other hand, there is a tension between the demands of innovation and service improvement and environmental issues. Gourmet coffees in individual doses that can be used to prepare espresso, if they generate less organic waste (less coffee wasted, less water wasted), they cause congestion in the waste bins.
Consumers are sensitive to the ease of use of these individual doses but are also concerned about the increase in waste. This can even be a hindrance for young consumers who are more sensitive to the environment.
Industrialists are therefore sensitive to the environmental argument. All the more so as this packaging also has an additional cost in the overall cost of the product.
Work is underway to find the most appropriate solutions to preserve quality, ease of service and use, and to protect the environment.
However, the room for maneuver remains limited today.
The coffee industry also has a responsibility for the transport of goods as a raw material in terms of delivery of the finished product.
The human dimension is the largest and most controversial of all development indicators.
We consider 3 criteria of appreciation (source UN):
- Health: leading a long and healthy life
- Education: acquiring knowledge
- Economic: having access to the resources needed to lead a decent life
These criteria are assessed for each company on the basis of “internal responsibility” and “extended responsibility”.
Internal responsibility: is the obligation of the company to respect workers’ rights. Labour law lays down the basic rules for this respect. The company may also set itself a social ambition and go, within the framework of branch or company agreements, beyond the simple respect of legal rules.
Extended responsibility: is a choice made by the company to participate in a more equitable distribution of wealth.
The chronic fall in coffee prices in recent years has made the issue of “fair trade” crucial for companies in the sector.
There is of course a simple solution for companies: the implementation of a rigorous selection of a small number of suppliers who must meet social criteria.
However, this solution presents risks: it is a discriminating factor between farms that limits the opening to the market of certain producers.
Moreover, this solution, while it is of immediate benefit to the producers concerned, does not provide a solution to market imbalances.
As part of its extended responsibility, the company has the choice to apply individual or collective standards and to participate in voluntary affiliations to certain labels.
These certifications have a cost to either the producer or the consumer.
Labels that concern environmental protection, in particular “organic” certifications, require affiliation on the part of producers, which is not always compensated for by a sufficiently significant increase in price or outlets to justify the expense.
Labels that guarantee fair trade have a cost for the consumer which, through a higher purchase act, enables manufacturers to pay better remuneration to producers (Max Havelaar). The associations that represent these labels identify plantations and cooperatives in producer countries that are able to meet the human criteria required by the label. In exchange for compliance with the rules dictated by the label, producers receive higher remuneration for their harvests. The label is then responsible for finding outlets for these products from manufacturers, who sell them to consumers at an additional cost that can be described as “solidarity”.
Unfortunately, these organizations are not possible in all countries because of social, political, or economic constraints.
There is also certification jointly financed by the roasting industry, growers’ associations, and some international solidarity organizations and funds.
World production & consuming
“As long as there was coffee in the world, how bad could things be?”― Cassandra Clare, City of Ashes
Originally from Yemen and Ethiopia, coffee is now grown in more than 50 countries in the tropical belt. 25 million people live directly from the crop, but an estimated 100 million people are involved in the agricultural sector. 70% of farms are less than 10 hectares in size. Cultivated in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, coffee is mainly consumed in the United States, Europe, and Japan. In the early 1990s, these three regions accounted for more than 80% of imports.
As the second most important traded commodity in the world (after oil) and the leading agricultural commodity in volume terms, coffee is still among the world’s leading commodities in value terms. From 1996 to 2001, an average of 5 million tonnes of coffee were exported each year in the world out of a total production of 6.5 million tonnes. Brazil, the largest producer, is also the largest exporter.
The coffee year runs from October to September.
The unit of reference for volume assessments is the 60 kg bag of green coffee and for financial assessments, the English ‘pound’, i.e. 453g.
Coffee is an agricultural product that is subject to many hazards: climate, productivity, for example. Therefore, coffee producers need an average of 5 years to adapt their crops to supply and demand conditions.
Prices reached their lowest level in 2002; supply exceeded demand by more than 5 million bags of green coffee (equivalent to France’s annual consumption)! Since mid-2006, coffee prices have started to rise again.
“The 2005/2006 coffee year saw the slow but steady consolidation of the price recovery process after the crisis in coffee prices from 2000 to 2004. The average ICO composite indicator price for the coffee year 2005/06 was 91.44 cents US$ per lb compared to 85.30 cents in 2004/05 […]. The world coffee market is now in a state of virtual equilibrium between supply and demand, although a supply deficit is a forecast for 2007/08 […]. Production has declined in several exporting countries that have been hard hit by the long period of declining price levels. Consumption remains buoyant, increasing pressure on stocks, which are at their lowest level for several years, particularly in exporting countries, although importing countries still hold comfortable stocks […]. »
The upward trend referred to by Nestor Osorio in the 2006 Annual Review of the International Coffee Organization, of which he is Executive Director, is continuing.
The first few months of observation in 2007 confirm a strong pressure on supplies, which is leading to a significant and lasting rise in prices. In June 2007 robustas reached their highest level since June 1997 at US$84.82 cents per lb. This increase is largely related to problems in the supply of quality robusta. A portion of the imports of robustas from Vietnam was rejected at the entry of European ports because these coffees did not meet the quality requirements for this market. The Vietnamese authorities have announced stricter measures to control the export quality of coffees from that country.
As far as Arabicas are concerned, the increase continues slowly but surely. Drawing on their stocks, exporting countries, and Brazil, in particular, have been able to meet both domestic and export demand.
Over the first nine months of the coffee year (October 2006 to June 2007) total exports were up by 14.45% compared to the same period the previous year.
Domestic consumption in Brazil increased by almost 7%. Significant increases in domestic consumption have been recorded in many other producing countries, particularly India, but also Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Indonesia.
History of coffee trade
As early as 1940, an inter-American agreement was signed between 14 producing countries in the Americas and the United States to guarantee outlets for exporters and regular supplies to American factories, but the war, resulting in a price freeze, had deprived the signatories of the benefits of the agreement.
Under the aegis of the International Coffee Organization, created for this purpose between producing and importing countries, several agreements, therefore, regulated the market between 1963 and 1989.
As early as 1963, it was a question for the signatories, particularly the producers, of guaranteeing their income in the context of (already) overproduction. For the importers, and especially the Europeans, it was above all a question of preserving the economic and development level of the former colonies. As for the United States, they were concerned to preserve the economic and social balance on the American continent and to avoid tensions such as those known on sugar with Cuba.
From the outset, although they were not involved because these were intergovernmental agreements, roasting companies and traders supported the establishment and application of these regulations in order to preserve their supplies and limit economic imbalances linked to price fluctuations.
The International Coffee Agreement
The International Coffee Organization ensured that the agreement was properly implemented, setting and adjusting quotas in line with prices; if prices fell below those set by the agreement, it restricted quotas, while if prices rose, it released stocks.
Of course, this system generated tensions between the players and the quota system sometimes limited supplies of certain qualities.
Nevertheless, the agreements maintained certain stability for almost 30 years. They ensured regular supplies to consumer countries and profitable outlets for producer countries.
However, the disadvantages of the quota system were magnified by the fact that there were ultimately two markets. A market of the members of the agreement, comprising 90% of the producing countries and 65% of the consuming countries, where everyone paid more to guarantee the terms of the agreement, and a market of the non-members, where free prices were lower. This led to temptations that led to the organization of parallel circuits. Confidence fell and new positions emerged.
The Europeans wanted to maintain the agreement to protect their former colonies; the United States wanted to put in place inter-American agreements to limit Robusta imports and to increase imports of Arabica more suited to their needs. As for Brazil, it rebelled against the quota system which limited its production while other countries not members of the agreement could develop outside the system at very competitive costs. The free trade law, therefore, took over from 1989. Since the end of the agreement, the law of supply and demand has set the prices, which have fluctuated incredibly.
Recently, the demand for coffee has increased steadily, mainly due to demographic changes and rising living standards.
The different forms of “alternative” trade
See Sustainable Development chapter
Coffee prices are established in two international coffee exchanges, in New York and London, according to quality. These exchanges operate according to the principle of futures markets and are the preferred place of intervention for professionals in the sector but also for investment funds.
The real coffee prices paid to farmers are assessed in relation to these prices, depending on the quality, with a negative or positive differential in relation to the price of the quality offered.
The market system, like any system, has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that any grower, regardless of his situation and the quality he offers, can have access to the market and have his production valued and purchased; the disadvantage is obviously that prices are highly fluctuating and subject to possible interventions by non-professional players who can amplify upward or downward movements.
In light of these considerations and in view of the strategic and economic importance of coffee in world trade, several attempts have been made to regulate the market.