Coffee Tree to Cup in Brazil: Part 3, The Processing

Author's note: In early June, I attended the coffee harvest in Pedregulho, Brazil, with leading specialty coffee producer Octavio CafĂ© and Dallis Coffee, the highly respected New York coffee roaster Octavio recently acquired. Down at Octavio's Nossa Senhora Aparecida farm, I leaned how coffee goes from the plant to your French press—as millions of coffee trees are picked, sifted, seeded, dried, roasted, and brewed into the coffee that wakes you up every morning. Here's Phase 3: turning the fruit into beans. —CJ

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[Photographs: Carey Jones]

Missed Part 1, all about the farm? Check it out here »
Missed Part 2, all about the harvest? Check it out here »

Step out of a car at Octavio's processing plant and you're instantly hit with the smell: toasty, warm, nutty, like a peach pit drying in the Georgia sun.

It's the smell of coffee beans—themselves, of course, fruit seeds, spread by lot in long, even rows.

But in order to get there from here...

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... there's an awful lot that has to be done.

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Here's Octavio's processing plant, where all the magic happens. On one end? Those dump trucks unload their mountains of rainbow-hued coffee fruit. On the other: dried black fruits, naked coffee beans, and immature green fruit, all separated out and sent in different directions.

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As we saw in our look at handpicking, getting coffee cherries off the trees inevitably brings some sort of debris along for the ride; the relatively imprecise machines, of course, rip off even more unwanted material. The first step is to separate the cherries from the twigs, leaves, and dirt you don't want. The cherries are funneled onto a continually bouncing platform with holes just large enough for them to slip through; with enough jostling, they all find their way into a stream of water that carries them forward.

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Next step? Separating the "mature" fruit (just ripe, and here yellow in color) from the "naturals" (black in color, already drying on the vine.) Since the black ones have already lost a good deal of moisture, they're less dense than water, and will float; the denser yellows and greens will sink. Density allows for a simple, low-tech way to separate them.

Once the naturals are separated out, the yellow and green guys go into the smasher. Think of the coffee cherries as bananas. Yellow and yellow-black fruits, softer and riper, yield to pressure far more easily than the still-hard greens; this resistence differential gives you another way to tease them apart.

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After a run in the calibrated smasher, the yellow cherries are de-fruited—the extra fruit, shown above, ends up as fertilizer. Only the green-ish husked seeds remain.

The green fruits, or "immatures," are re-routed for processing, but the beans don't go into Octavio's premium coffees; they're sold off for that lower-end stuff we've already called "bus station coffee."

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Only then are they spread out to dry in the winter sun of Alta Mogiana, where the daytime temperatures climb up to the seventies and rain is rare. "Pulped naturals," the seed of the yellow fruit with some residual pulp clinging to the seed, are spread in the pale rows; the "naturals," all their fruit still attached, the dark.

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Here they sit for days, gradually drying in the sun; they're raked around so that moisture can't form in any one area of beans, in what Dallis VP John Moore calls "a constant battle against ferment." Spontaneous fermentation will alter the flavor of the finished coffee in a way that would render the entire lot unfit for Octavio's "specialty coffee" status.

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Those few days of sunbathing? Another reason the climate of this region of Brazil is so critical to the success of each coffee harvest. If you couldn't count on daily sunshine, you couldn't use the sun's natural energy to dry out the beans.

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After a tumble through these wood-fired dryers (burning 70% local eucalyptus) the coffee beans get down to about 11% moisture; they're then transfered to enormous silos in which they're held to rest for two to three months.

Finally, the coffee beans are milled to strip off an outer layer of bean skin, or "parchment"; cleaned, before they get too much closer to your coffee pot; and sorted.

The sorting is where Octavio really gets out the shiny machinery. "We've got all the toys," laughs John Moore. First, the coffee beans are sorted by size to a level of extreme precision—a uniform roast demands uniformly sized beans, so that nothing burns and nothing under-browns. But more impressive is the density table, a precisely inclined plane that isolates the high-quality hard, dense beans from any lighter defects that may have made it through.

And finally? Color is a good indicator of defective beans—if they're anything other than a pale green, something didn't go quite right. But short of picking out the bad guys by hand (and once you stare down into a 30-foot tall coffee slio you understand how impossible that would be), how do you separate by color? Infared technology. An infared sensor can identify the defects by color and pop them right out of the coffee bean stream. Yeah. Pretty cool.

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Density tables? Three-day bean-raking? Infared? It may all sound like a bit much. But when you consider that all the beans in a single sack are ultimately ground in with each other, and that one bad bean could ruin a whole lot's worth of coffee—or, as we'll see later on, a producer's reputation—every wonky gadget seems worth it.

"Aren't coffee beans dark brown?" some of you may have wondered. That's only once they're roasted. Tune in tomorrow for Part IV: the roasting.

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