What is Coffee?

The beans used to brew coffee are actually the processed and roasted seeds from the fruit of the coffea plant. The fruit is referred to as a coffee cherry. So, yes, coffee is a fruit!

History of Coffee

Consumption of coffee is believed to have begun around 700 AD in what is now Ethiopia, but the first documented evidence of coffee consumption is from Yemen in the 15th century. From there, coffee began to spread throughout the world as trade routes developed. Today, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world (exceeded only by oil), and it is estimated that 400 billion cups are consumed each year. Of the 37,000 coffee shops in the U.S., Starbucks and Dunkin’ represent 25,000 of them. We hope you will consider supporting your local independent café!

How is Coffee Produced?


A coffee bean is actually a seed. When dried, roasted and ground, it’s used to brew coffee. If the seed isn’t processed, it can be planted and will grow into a coffee tree.

Depending on the variety, it takes approximately 3 to 4 years for a newly planted coffee tree to bear fruit. The fruit (aka the coffee cherry), turns a bright, deep red when ripe and ready to be harvested. There is typically one major harvest a year, but in some cases there are two.
In most countries, the crop is picked by hand in a labor-intensive and difficult process, though in places like Brazil where the landscape is relatively flat and the coffee fields immense, the process has been mechanized.



Processing refers to the steps taken to remove the fruit and skin of the coffee cherry and to dry the seed (bean) inside to prepare it for roasting. Once the coffee has been picked, processing must begin as quickly as possible to prevent fruit spoilage.

Depending on location and local resources, coffee is processed using one of two primary methods:

  • THE DRY PROCESS (also called Natural) is the oldest method of processing coffee and is still used in many countries with limited water resources. In this method the whole cherry is dried intact, and the skin and pulp are removed afterward. The freshly picked cherries are simply spread out on huge surfaces to dry in the sun. In order to prevent them from spoiling, they are raked and turned throughout the day and covered at night or during rain. The process might take several weeks, continuing until the moisture content of the cherries drops to 11%. Then the dried cherries go through a mill to separate out the beans from the rest of the fruit.
  • THE WET PROCESS (also called Washed) is the most commonly used process. The skin and pulp are removed from the coffee cherry after harvesting so that the bean is dried with only a thin outer layer of skin around it (called parchment). The beans first pass through a pulping machine to separate the skin and pulp from the bean. They are then transported to large, water-filled tanks where remaining membranes attached to the parchment are removed through fermentation. Finally, the beans are rinsed and dried and then hulled to remove the parchment from the bean.

Either way, the coffee is now referred to as “green coffee” and is ready for export and distribution to a roaster.



Roasting transforms green coffee into the aromatic brown beans that we’re familiar with. Most roasting machines maintain a temperature of about 550 degrees Fahrenheit. The beans are kept moving throughout the entire process to keep them from burning.

When coffee beans reach an internal temperature of about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, they begin to turn brown and the caffeol, a fragrant oil locked inside the beans, begins to emerge. This process, called pyrolysis, is at the heart of roasting. It produces the flavor and aroma of the coffee we drink.

If the coffee is to be decaffeinated, the beans are warmed and soaked in water (or a mixture of water and solvents) before roasting to dissolve and remove the caffeine.

After roasting, the beans are immediately cooled either by air or water. Roasting is generally performed as close to the final destination of the beans as possible because freshly roasted beans don’t stay fresh for long!

Coffee comes in four main roast levels: light, medium, dark, and darker than dark. Within these four levels, you’ll find varying degrees as well. Minimal standardization of roast levels across the coffee industry also leads many roasters to create their own names and definitions for their different roast levels.

You will frequently come across common descriptions of coffee roasts. The different roasts are determined by the amount of time the coffee is roasted. The longer a coffee is roasted, the darker and less acidic it becomes.

Common roasts include the following:

  • LIGHT ROAST: Light roasts offer multilayered complexity, revealing traces of sweetness, fruit tanginess, or even a subtle floral aroma. Light roasts are lighter in body than other roasts because the coffee bean has not been roasted long enough to produce caramelized sugars or oil.
  • CITY ROAST: This is a medium roast denoting the full development of coffee flavor. The beans are dark brown, with few traces of oil on the surface. The flavor can be caramel to chocolate-like, with some hints of smokiness.
  • FRENCH ROAST: A French roast results in beans that are very dark brown in color and have a significant amount of oil on the surface. The beans are bittersweet, smoky, bold, and rich and often have that decadent dark chocolate flavor.
  • ITALIAN ROAST: An Italian roast creates beans that are coal black and soaked with oil. They are amazingly aromatic, with more pronounced characteristics of the French roast yet lower acidity.


Most of the organic compounds of a coffee bean are insoluble, meaning that they don’t dissolve in water. Grinding coffee beans into smaller particles solves this problem by making it easier to extract the soluble contents of the bean. The objective of a proper grind is to get the most flavor in a cup of coffee. The optimal level of coarseness or fineness is determined by the brewing method, specifically by the length of time the grounds will be in contact with water. Generally, the finer the grind, the more quickly the coffee should be prepared. That’s why coffee ground for an espresso machine is much finer than coffee brewed in a drip system.


There are countless ways to brew coffee, but they generally fall into four basic methods:

  • PRESSURE  (espresso machine or single-serve pod machine)
  • DRIP (automatic drip coffee maker)
  • STEEP (French Press or instant coffee)
  • BOIL (Turkish coffee)

Did you know? Espresso machines use 132 pounds per square inch of pressure to extract coffee!


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