You roll out of bed and head straight for the coffeemaker. Filling the grinder, you find yourself thinking about how these coffee beans—a sensitive crop that thrives only between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn—found their way to you. And how did they stay so fresh?
Coffee beans take a long and winding journey from the hot, often sweltering environments in which they are grown to your cup. They pass through the hands of pickers, into jute bags and storage bins, across oceans and continents, into and out of cargo holds, and onto trucks before they reach your home.
First Leg: Global to National
Over 75 countries along the earth’s equator cultivate coffee beans: they are grown in South America (Brazil, Columbia), Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania), Central America (Guatemala, Costa Rica) and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Indonesia). Hawaii also produces some of the world’s best coffee—America’s lone contributor.
In Guatemala, coffee pickers must hike into the top of the mountain to gain access to the best beans. Their bags full, they then walk down the mountain to processing plants. After picking and processing, the beans are ready to ship. Since coffee beans are sensitive to moisture, they must be packed in bags that allow air to circulate—sealed bags would promote condensation and deterioration of the bean. A natural fiber such as jute, which allows for circulation yet tends to hold water at the surface (which renders only the outermost layer of beans susceptible to rotting), is preferred for shipping. Keeping moisture consistent for the cargo is often difficult as most coffee travels by ocean.
Many of these jute bags are bound for the U.S. The United States consumes more coffee per day (about 400 million cups) than any other country. (Though not the most per capita—that distinction belongs to the Netherlands, at 2.4 cups per person per day.) Upon arrival in port, and after passing through customs, the bags are generally stored in company warehouses at various locations along both U.S. coasts.
Second Leg: National to Regional
Off the boat and onto the truck or railroad car: Fleets of delivery trucks and endless links of railroad cars cross the country every day, delivering green, unroasted beans to roasting companies large and small. Since coffee beans are a natural product (and a relatively fragile one), time is of the essence.
Third Leg: Regional to Local
Once beans are roasted, packed and sealed, the race kicks into an even higher gear. Roasting brings the caffeol (the natural, fragrant coffee oil contained within the bean) to the surface, accelerating the process of oxidation; beans are at their best within 24 to 72 hours after roasting. They are typically shipped to supermarkets, cooperatives and cafés by truck.
So when you brew your first cup of the day, feeling your senses begin to awaken at that wonderful, familiar scent, it’s great to have an appreciation for the journey your coffee beans took to make it into your cup!