More than 80 percent of Americans drink coffee, making us the world’s biggest consumer of the beverage. But it doesn’t grow in abundance on the U.S. mainland. That cup you had this morning probably began its life in Africa or South America—so many Americans are unaware of the long process that coffee beans go through to end up in a mug. We visited Bold Bean’s Roastery, one of the city’s coffee pioneers, to get the scoop.
Coffee beans are the seeds of the “cherries” from the coffea plant. They’re best harvested when they’re red and ripe. Green cherries will produce a sour, acidic cup of coffee; overripe ones yield a moldy flavor. “They used to be able to set their watches to the first rain of the season, and that rain is important because it makes the shrub flower and each flower forms into a cherry,” says Zack Burnett, managing partner of Bold Bean Coffee Roasters. “Now, because of climate change, the rains are so sporadic it causes the plant to flower all throughout the year. So now somebody has to go throughout the year and pick through all these stages of development.”
In “wet processing,” berries go through a pulper to extract the bean. A slimy layer, similar to the one found on a grape seed, must then be fermented off the beans in large, water-filled tanks. They remain in these tanks for anywhere from 12 to 48 hours. While resting in the tanks, naturally occurring enzymes will cause the parenchyma to dissolve.
If “dry processing” is used, the whole cherries are dried on a large surface in the sun and moved around periodically to ensure even drying. Once dried sufficiently, the beans are stored for 30 to 60 days to develop more flavor. After this they are ready for wholesale and further processing. They are sorted for size and quality and then bagged and shipped.
Burnett and his colleagues often visit places of origin to choose coffees for Bold Bean via a process called cupping. The procedure involves smelling and tasting prepared cups of coffee, then grading them on several measures such as fragrance, acidity, body and aftertaste. “Cupping is the first thing that ever happens before we ever think about buying from a farmer,” Burnett says. “Anything over 80 points is considered specialty coffee. Ninety or above is like mind-blowing. Typically we buy 86 or higher for all of our single-origins.” The coffee beans chosen during cupping arrive green at Bold Bean’s roasting facility on the Southside in bags a few months later. Then it’s time for their team to take over to create the finished product.
Roasting coffee beans brings out flavors inherent in the bean by degrading acids and caramelizing sugars. But no two coffees are alike, so each must be roasted differently. When a new coffee comes in, the team at Bold Bean roasts samples six different ways, tastes each and decides which is best. Each trial generates a “roast profile,” a graph which shows the rate of temperature rise and fall and bean and ambient air temperatures. Those temperatures can fluctuate from around 200 to 450 degrees over the 10 to 15 minute roasting time, depending on the coffee.
“Maybe one of them is good but the acidity isn’t developed the way we want it to be. We’ll look at the profile and say, ‘We hit it too hard with the heat at this point. Let’s try the next batch with a little less heat input,’” Burnett says. After a lot of trial and error, a profile is finalized. The beans can then be roasted in large quantities, following the “map” of the graph to tell the roaster when to turn up and down the heat and manipulate the air flow to roast the coffee just right.
After roasting is complete, the beans are stored in barrels until they’re bagged and sent out to shops. The bagging machine, operated by hand, measures out 12 ounces at a time, filing the bags one by one. The team goes through a pallet of 43,000 bags in about a year, filling approximately 750 bags of coffee beans per week.