The concept of “farm-to-table” cooking is pretty straightforward these days, thanks to the number of chefs and kitchens who have adopted the catchphrase as a philosophy. What exactly does “farm-to-table” coffee mean, though? Most people have a harder time imagining the many steps and stages that coffee goes through on its journey to the cup, and an even harder time fathoming how many variables along the way can impact the finished product, for better or worse.
Devoción, a roasting company based in Brooklyn and Bogotá, calls itself the first farm-to-table coffee company, and is attempting to shift the standard coffee-industry paradigm to achieve unmatched freshness and traceability. The company’s green-coffee buyers make direct connections with farmers and producers in Colombia, monitoring their progress throughout the various processes the crop goes through to prepare for export, and then bucks convention by air-freighting bags of green coffee to its roastery, rather than take the most common (and much slower) route by water on container ships.
Don’t be fooled by how simple that process sounds in summary, however: There are multiple steps that any coffee needs to go through before it becomes the base of your favorite latte. Here is an abridged (believe it or not) version of what most of the world’s best beans experience on their way to your table.
Coffee plants themselves are tricky little botanical wonders. They are perennial fruit trees (though some look more like bushes or shrubs) and, as such, they have a flowering and a fruiting phase, each one imperative to its development. In most growing regions, a rainy season will trigger the trees’ blossoming, and the branches will grow delicate, jasmine-like flowers. Once the flowers have wilted and fall off, cherry-like fruit begins to appear. Nine months after the rains, the coffee fruit will begin ripening, a process that takes several weeks (longer at higher elevation).
Very few countries, including Colombia, have multiple growing seasons due to the weather patterns and proximity to the equator, and there are harvests happening throughout the country in different regions all year round.
It can take 18 months all the way to five years, in some cases, for a coffee plant to start to develop fruit mature enough to harvest, which is a long investment for a farmer, and a long time to wait to discover whether the coffee is any good anyway. Once there are enough cherries to begin harvesting for commercial sale, the pickers will need to selectively pluck only the ripest ones in order to achieve the sweetest cup, and the picking itself requires great care. It will take several passes through the same sections of the farm in order to collect the cherry that’s ready.
Once the cherry is harvested, the seed (what we call the “bean”) needs to be extracted, a process that can happen any number of ways, and which demands a lot of attention to detail. In Colombia, most coffee is “washed,” which means that the seed is removed from the fruit very shortly after it’s picked, typically within 24 hours. Often the cherry will first pass through a depulping machine, which strips the skin off the fruit, exposing the sticky mucilage beneath. The sticky seeds are usually put in cement or tile tanks overnight to ferment, allowing yeast and bacteria to metabolize the sugars in the fruit and soften it for removal. The next day (or thereabouts), the seeds will be actually washed, using fresh water and often long wooden rakes that kind of slough off the remaining mucilage.
The coffee without its fruity material is now called “parchment coffee,” or pergamino in Spanish. It is typically sorted for density and quality after being processed, and then needs to be dried for export. In Colombia, it’s typical to see parchment coffee laid out on concrete patios, or in drying greenhouses with parabolic-shaped covers made of taut plastic. Raised beds, more typically found for drying coffee in Africa, are becoming increasingly popular as well, as they allow for air circulation all around the beans.
While the coffee is drying—a process that can take up to two weeks for washed coffees—it is not just left alone. Mill workers constantly rake and rotate the beans to prevent them from molding or baking in the sun.
After the coffee is dried to a stable internal moisture (10–12 percent typically), its parchment is removed by large hulling machines, and the green coffee is sorted again by density and/or by color or appearance. At the dry mill where this part of the process happens, the coffee will also be packed into jute sacks and sewn shut, then stacked in warehouses to rest and wait for shipping instructions.
While Devoción skirts the weeks-long ocean journey that most coffees make on container ships, it is typically a long process to physically move the coffee from its country of growth to its country of consumption. That means that most coffees might not arrive at their final destination for three or even four, five, or six months after they were picked from the trees. Green coffee is relatively stable, and many roasters actually prefer to wait at least six months before profiling a roast, but there’s no real hard and fast “shelf life” on green coffee: The general rule of thumb is that it tastes best within a year of harvest. (Your mileage may vary on this point, and it’s merely a matter of preference, as unroasted coffee seeds aren’t “perishable” like milk or fruit.)
Roasters like Devoción might make connections directly with producers to buy coffee directly from farmers, but many roasters will need to purchase through an importer, as the logistics of shipping containers full of green coffee is actually pretty unwieldy. They will agree on flavor profiles, price, and arrange other details in order to purchase coffee, and from there they need to begin the process of dialing-in the roast profile, just like a baker might need to test a recipe a few times before perfecting those cookies or that cake. A little tweak here and there during the roasting stage can make a big difference, and coffee-obsessed customers can tell!
While unroasted coffee has a longer shelf life, roasted coffee is ideally served and consumed within 2–3 weeks after roasting and is preferably stored in whole beans rather than ground, to prevent oxidation and staling.
Finally, the coffee is ready to be brewed! This step is just as complicated as all those that came before it, and the barista needs to be part magician, part artist, part scientist, and part hospitalitarian in order to complete the chain. Many baristas undergo extensive training to make coffee properly, including taste tests and studying the principles of extraction percentages and strength proportions. (Not to mention latte art!)
Of course, the rest—arguably the fun part—is thankfully up to you.