Category Archives: The Life of a Coffee Bean

The Life of a Coffee Bean: Part 3

Freshly roasted coffee beans

Just before Fairtrade Fortnight, we left our Kenyan arabica coffee bean after it had just been sold under the hammer at an auction house in Nairobi. Bidding was frantic and a coffee exporter bought our bean along with another 19 tonnes of others that were then packed into hessian sacks and stuffed into a 20 foot container to be loaded onto a ship at Mombasa bound for the UK.

From Mombasa, our beans are shipped to Salalah in Oman. Here they are loaded onto a larger ‘mother’ ship – the length of four football pitches – that transports our bean to Rotterdam via the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal. There our container is loaded onto a smaller feeder vessel and shipped across the North Sea. The whole trip from Mombasa to Britain takes around 37 days, on average.

The captain of the ship sails into Teesport – one of the UK’s three largest ports on the coast, a few miles from Middlesbrough. This incredibly busy deep water port handles over 6,000 ships and 235,000 containers carrying over 35 million tonnes of cargo a year. Teesport is where we have a storage facility for our arabica and robusta coffee beans which come from Africa, the Caribbean, India, Indonesia and Central and South America. A few years ago, all our coffee used to arrive at southern ports such as Felixstowe and Tilbury, 250 miles away from Harrogate. By switching docking north to Teesport, we save around 100,000 road miles a year and can manage the flow of coffee to our factory more efficiently.

The very day our container lands, a sample of the coffee (containing our Arabica coffee bean) is whisked off on its 55-mile journey to our coffee buying team at our factory in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Here, a moisture reading is taken of our green beans, their appearance and colour are checked and we also roast and ‘cup’ (or taste) the coffee The coffee buyers compare it to the sample the exporter sent from Nairobi before it was shipped. If it has travelled well from Kenya, meets all our exacting quality terms on the contract and matches the pre-shipment sample, it’s finally made it.

What defines a great Kenyan bean is its bright citric acidity, liveliness and notes of honey and blackcurrant. If it’s got all these wonderful characteristics, it’s got what it takes to go into a pack of Taylors coffee.

So the next time you’re in a supermarket and putting one of our packs of coffee into your bag, be gentle. The coffee inside has been through an incredible journey just to make you a gorgeously rich cup of coffee. We’d be interested to know which Taylors coffee you’d travel to the ends of the earth for. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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The Life of a Coffee Bean: Part 2

Last week, we left our Arabica coffee bean at the Gikanda Farmers Co-operative in Kenya awaiting a buyer. He’s in great shape and, along with his fellow high quality beans, is likely to attract a good price at auction in Nairobi.

Now, depending on where you are in the world, the way coffee beans are bought and sold can vary, but in Kenya the majority of coffee produced is sold through an auction system. Coffee producers wanting to sell their beans at auction in Nairobi must appoint one of eight marketing agents who are authorized to submit lots to the auction. The marketing agent creates a catalogue of all of their lots for auction, detailing all the information a buyer needs to know including the lot number, description, producer, grade, number of bags, weight, and certification.

The buyers at coffee auctions are mainly coffee exporters. They ‘cup’ (the professional term for tasting) samples of all of the lots before the auction and study the catalogues so they can bid to buy the coffee that is best suited to their customers’ requirements. Like us, they know their coffee and they know precisely the quality and quantity of coffee the buyers at Taylors demand.

At the auction house in Nairobi – where nearly 250 separate lots are sold every week – all eyes are fixed on a large screen that displays details of each lot. Registered buyers are seated at tables with buttons to place bids and red lights that flash when they are the current highest bidder. The lot our coffee bean is contained in appears on the screen and the auction begins. Bidding is fast and furious as the coffee is a high grade and scored well in cupping. Finally, bidding ends and the name of the exporter with the highest bid appears on the screen. The exporter is confident that the beans he has just bought will be of the flavour and quality set out in their contract with Taylors, but they’ll need more to make up the quantity required for a full container – just over 19 tonnes. So this lot will be combined with others of the same quality and the exporter will courier a pre-shipment sample to our coffee buyers in Harrogate, who are waiting to taste it to ensure it is of precisely the right quality. If it is, the exporter gets the green light to ship.

Our coffee bean is now a Taylors coffee bean, but he is still thousands of miles from Harrogate in Yorkshire. Next week he takes to the high seas, and arrives on our shores destined for your shelf. Want to know more about how we buy and import coffee? Leave a comment and we’ll get back to you.

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The Life of a Coffee Bean: Part 1

The aroma that envelopes you when opening a pack of fresh coffee really is one of life’s little pleasures isn’t it? But what do you actually know about coffee and how it came to be in your cup? Well, if you’re sitting comfortably, we’ll begin at the very beginning – with one single arabica coffee bean growing around 5,000ft above sea level in the highlands of Nyeri, nestled between the Aberdare Mountain range and Mount Kenya, in East Africa.

Well, for a start, our coffee bean isn’t actually a bean. It’s the seed in a cherry of a coffee plant. People call it a bean because, well, it looks like a bean, and usually there are two inside each cherry, though a few cherries do contain single coffee beans that are known as “peaberries”.

Our coffee bean has been growing happily inside its cherry, which slowly ripened and turned red. It was then picked by hand and placed in the cherry hopper at the mill.

There are two principal ways to process coffee – by the dry process, also known as the natural method, or the wet process, also referred to as the fully washed method. The wet process involves removing the skin and the pulp from the cherry before drying.

The wet mill is at the nearby Gikanda Farmers Co-operative, a Fairtrade certified coffee producer. Here the hand-picked coffee cherries are pulped. Pulping needs to be done as soon as possible after harvesting and involves the coffee beans being added to water and then passed through vertical spinning discs to remove the skin and some of the pulp. Our coffee bean, still in its “parchment” coating, is swept along by water with other beans and over a screen that moves back and forth. Good quality dense beans like ours sink and fall through the screen, and poorer quality light beans float across the top. These two grades of coffee are then separated into different fermentation tanks.

Our coffee bean, along with its high quality company, is then left to ferment – that’s when naturally occurring enzymes in the remaining fruit of the cherry get to work breaking it down. Knowing when to stop fermentation is crucial as over fermenting can result in a flavour of rotten fruit. So as soon as the parchment feels rough, not slimy, the beans are ready, and they’re washed in fresh water.

The best grades of parchment coffee are improved by being soaked in tanks of water for anything from twelve hours to seven days and water is replenished every twelve hours. Once the beans have soaked, they are transferred to the skin drying tables. This is when they get their “coffee passports” that carry a reference number and details of the dates that the cherry was received and fermentation was completed.

The waist high drying tables let air circulate around the parchment coffee for a day until surface moisture has evaporated, leaving a moisture content of around 45-55%. After skin drying, our arabica coffee bean is moved to a drying table where its moisture is carefully monitored.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, and coffee is sensitive too, so beans are spread thickly on drying tables and covered during the hottest part of the day. This stops our coffee bean drying too quickly and its protective parchment casing from cracking. When its moisture hits 30%, the amount of coffee on the table is halved and spread much more thinly to get plenty of sun and dry to between 10-20% moisture.

Once moisture is at an optimum 12.5% the beans are placed in special conditioning bins – huge mesh containers that are raised off the floor to allow air to circulate freely. Here our arabica coffee bean will sit out of the sun in a stable environment waiting for its moisture content to settle and even out. Finally, just before auction and export, beans are sent for ‘curing’ where they are ‘hulled’ to remove the parchment. Finally, they are cleaned, screened, sorted and graded.

Then our bean waits for a buyer. This is also where we’ll leave you waiting… until the final part of our coffee bean’s journey in next week’s post. Any questions so far? Do leave a comment and we’ll get back to you.

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