The journey of the coffee bean: the world behind your cup of coffee


Where does coffee come from?

Coffee is only grown in countries around the equator. These are more than 70 different countries that together form the ‘Coffee Belt’. In this Coffee Belt, two types of coffee are the most important, namely Arabica and Robusta. These coffees are often produced for export in countries with relatively low incomes. And what kind of export: in 2020 the EU imported at least 2.9 million tons of green coffee beans, which produced 1.9 million tons of roasted coffee. Green coffee is heavier than roasted coffee, hence the difference in weight. This makes Europe the largest coffee market in the world, with 33% of global coffee production exported to EU countries. This consumption amounts to an average of 5 kg of coffee per person per year in Europe! Coffee therefore accounts for a significant part of their export income in the producing countries.

Coffee is known for being produced by smallholder farmers. The beans are cultivated on more than 12.5 million different coffee plantations, 95% of which are smaller than 5 hectares and 84% smaller than 2 hectares. In addition, 25% of the farms are run by women who also provide up to 70% of the labor in coffee production. 

There are significant differences between the coffee-producing countries. Nevertheless, two core characteristics in the coffee chain can be distinguished:

1) Smallholder fields are generally small and in remote locations. As a result, the coffee from most small plantations is first collected and centralized in processing centers, where it can change hands up to 4 times before it reaches the centers. In countries such as Vietnam, which accounts for about 22% of European imports, you can find more than 640,000 small coffee farmers with an average plot of land between 1 and 3 hectares. These farmers sell their coffee to an intermediary, who in turn will resell it to another, larger intermediary, until it finally reaches the processing center. 

2) Large cooperatives, each with several thousand members, pool their coffee several times before the last batch reaches the processing center. In the center, it is remixed before being processed and prepared to ensure export quality.

How is coffee grown?

Until the second half of the last century, a traditional cultivation method was used on most coffee plantations, whereby the coffee bushes were grown under the shade of higher trees. The plantations have subsequently developed into growing coffee under full or almost full sun. Only in the past 10 years has it been seen that agriculture is gradually returning to its original, traditional model. On average, it takes 2 to 3 years for a newly planted coffee bush to bear fruit and another 5 or 6 years to reach full production maturity.

Coffee plants can live up to 100 years if properly cared for and are generally most productive between the 7th and 20th year. For 1 kg of green coffee, 5 to 6 kg of coffee cherries are needed. In addition, about 830 grams of roasted coffee or 380 grams of instant coffee can be made from 1 kg of green coffee.

How is coffee processed?

After harvesting, the coffee cherries are collected in a processing center. In general, there are two ways to process the berry: the dry or the wet method, where water is used or not to remove the pulp and pectin layer from the bean. There is also a third processing method, called semi-washing, where only the pulp is removed, not the pectin layer. Regardless of the processing method of the berry, it must be dried to a moisture content of 11-12% and peeled to remove the dried skin to create green coffee beans.

After this, the green coffee beans are sorted according to size and quality, mixed and packed for export in order to guarantee the right export quality. That is why the FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN) also states that coffee actively contributes to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because it generates income, creates employment in rural areas and alleviates poverty in the countries of origin.