From Seed To Cup®
The term “from seed to cup” gets thrown around a lot in the coffee industry. If you’ve worked in coffee, you’re probably familiar with the term, but most people don’t know the ins and outs of coffee like it’s their job. We’d like to back up and walk through the process of what “from seed to cup” really means, and what we do at Allegro Coffee during each step so our relationships stay sustainable and keep our coffee tasting great.
We source coffee from farms of all sizes. Small farms supporting one family, a large family owned farm that employs hundreds of local community members, cooperatives with many member from small farms, and very large scale enterprises. What’s important to us is that they share our values. When we begin a new relationship with a farm, we want the relationship to benefit everyone. Whether we are buying coffee for our Small Batch line, Certified Organic, or Rainforest Alliance Certified™, our decision is always rooted in what’s best for the farmer.
Let’s start with some basics about coffee farming. Coffee grows on a small tree, typically in temperate mountainous regions around the world known as the coffee belt (between the tropic of Cancer and Capricorn). Regions like Central and South America, parts of Northern and Eastern Africa, as well as Sumatra are prime locations for coffee to grow.
Once a coffee tree is planted, it takes three years for it to fully mature and produce coffee cherries. The cherries look almost like cranberries but can vary in color. They are green before they are ripe and begin to turn shades of orange to deep red when they are ready to be picked. Each tree produces about 2,000 cherries in a full growing season (multiple harvests) and it takes 4,000 cherries to make a 12 oz bag of coffee. Some coffee farms use machinery to pick the cherries, but all Allegro Coffee is hand-picked. This ensures only ripe cherries are picked, while also providing more jobs (cherry picking is usually done by women).
Once the coffee cherry is picked, it needs to be processed. This can happen at the farm, at a co-op or at another centralized location like a washing station. There are various processing methods, each one affects the flavor of the coffee. If you’ve ever seen “washed” or “natural” on your coffee’s label, this is where that step comes in. Washed and natural process are the two most commonly used.
Also known as sun-dried, natural processed coffee is laid out on drying beds, or sometimes on cement patios, with the skin of the cherry still on. Similar to real cherries, this fruit has a skin, pulp inside, and a seed (coffee bean). During the drying time, the natural sugars in the pulp begin to ferment and create great sweetness in the coffee bean. Once dried, the cherries are then hulled (the dried fruit is removed from the bean) and go on to be sorted. Natural processed coffees are known for their sweet and fruity flavor notes.
In a washed process, the coffee cherry is first pulped, which is when the skin and pulp are removed from the coffee bean. The beans then sit in tanks for a period of time to naturally break down any excess fruit clinging to the beans. The beans are then rinsed (or washed) to remove any remaining fruit from the beans and finally laid out to dry. Similar to a natural process, the beans dry on raised drying beds or cement patios. Once dried, the coffee is now ready to be sorted. Coffees processed this way typically have a clean, consistent taste.
It is important to sort the dried coffee before it is bagged and sent off to its destination. Coffee is sorted both for size as well as picking out any defects or discolored beans. When the coffee beans are sorted and separated by size, it helps each bag roast at the same rate, creating a better quality cup of coffee. Coffee is sorted by machines or by hand. Sorting by hand is a long process, but a highly coveted job, and typically done by women.
Once the coffee is sorted and bagged, it is ready to go onto a ship for export. We work with several different coffee importing companies to get all the coffee we need. The importer handles logistics like getting the coffee on and off the boat, getting the coffee through customs, dealing with all paperwork involved, insuring the coffee, and storing the imported coffee if needed before it’s shipped to the roaster. We choose to work with different importers like Atlas and Olam based on their strengths in certain regions we source from to make sure there is a positive experience between the farmer and the importer.
Once we receive the coffee, we inspect it for defects and to ensure it meets our required certifications. Then it is ready to be roasted. Most of our coffee is roasted at our headquarters in Thornton, CO but our Small Batch line is roasted not too far away at our Flagship Roastery on Tennyson St. in Denver, CO. We have an amazing team of roasters at each location that take the hard work of our farmers and transforms the beans into a delicious roasted bean ready for you to brew. Roasting has a lot to do with how your coffee tastes. Two different roasters can buy the same coffee from the same farmer but roast it completely differently and create a very different tasting cup of coffee. We have three main roast levels: light, medium, and dark, but also offer two variations of dark roast: medium-dark and extra dark.
To begin roasting, the roaster must be very hot, over 400 degrees. Once it’s ready, the beans are “dropped” into the drum of the roaster that spins around continuously so the coffee doesn’t sit in one hot spot and get burned. It continues to move the entire time it is roasted. The person roasting the coffee keeps track of the time and temperature during the entire roast as well. We use software to help us keep precise records of these variables. Coffee is usually roasted between 10-15 minutes depending on the roast level – just a couple minutes is the difference between a light and dark roast. Towards the end of the roast cycle, the beans begin making a cracking sound, almost like popcorn. This is called “first crack” and indicates that it’s time to bring the temperature down and the coffee is almost done. Once the roast is complete, the coffee is released from the hot turning drum and pours onto a cooling tray. The coffee is now ready to be bagged, ground, and brewed!
Cupping is an important step in the “from seed to cup” process to ensure the quality of the coffee we buy and roast remains up to our standards after it is bagged and ready to sell. Cuppings are set up in different ways and have a few or many people, but the primary goal at a cupping is to determine flavor notes and score a new coffee, taste for defects, and taste for consistency.
To set up a cupping, a coffee is ground and placed into several small cups. The people participating (also known as cuppers) will go through and smell all of the cups. Then hot water is poured over the coffee to let it brew. They will go back through and smell again for aroma, during this time a crust begins to form on the top of the cups. Once the coffee is done brewing, a spoon is placed on the inside edge of the cup and pushes the crust back, allowing new aromas to burst through. People will alternate “breaking the crust” so they all get a chance to smell during this step. After the crust is broken, it is then carefully scraped off the top with the spoon and dumped out. Now the tasting can begin. Cuppers get a small spoonful of coffee and slurp it loudly to coat their entire palate. Then will then go back through and do this again as the coffee cools and changes flavor. Coffee experts cup daily. Whether it’s a sample of coffee from a new farm or they are making sure existing coffee is being roasted correctly, cupping is a very important step.
From Seed to Cup… Your Morning Cup
Did you think there were so many steps and hundreds of people involved in getting you that morning cup of coffee? Sourcing coffee is a long, complicated, and detailed process. Not all farms are the same and it’s important we treat each relationship uniquely. Farmers have different access to different resources and we work with each one to help them grow their business and the quality of their coffee. This allows us to create a long-lasting partnership for many years down the road. Our incredible sourcing and roasting teams put in a lot of work “from seed to cup” so that cup of coffee tastes just the way you like it every single morning.