The first cup of coffee in the morning doesn’t just wake you up, it warms your soul. Whether you gulp down iced latte’s by the ounce or wrap yourself in your duvet and sip from your favorite mug, coffee is an important part of your day. However, most people aren’t fully aware of the journey coffee beans take from the Earth to the second your favorite barista calls your name. It’s a process that connects farmers around the world to scientists in the United States to roasters in and shops in our towns. Coffee builds relationships between small businesses in America and charitable foundations across the planet. Coffee brings people together both in their local café and in the global community. It brews kindness and cooperation, and the whole process starts with a seed.
Legend tells us that coffee was first discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi in the ancient coffee tree forests of Ethiopia around 850 AD. According to myth, Kaldi noticed his goats wouldn’t sleep at night after eating the fruit from the world’s first coffee trees. The goat herder shared his discovery with his neighbors, and as a result coffee spread to the furthest corners of the globe as a healthy, delicious stimulant. The popularity of coffee in the U.S. rose in the years leading up to the War of Independence as revolutionaries switched from tea to coffee to spite King George III. And, ever since, the popularity of coffee has only increased. It kept soldiers on both sides of the Civil War alert on the battlefield and helped fuel the fast pace of the Gold Rush. Large coffee companies like Maxwell House and Folgers sprang up and started selling pre-roasted coffee beans and instant coffee powder to everybody from cowboys to coal miners and the first astronauts.
All that changed in the late ’60s when Peet’s Coffee opened up in Berkley, California. At Peet’s, customers drank freshly roasted coffee that celebrated the individual characteristics of different beans and offered a variety of roasts including dark or french. In Seattle, Starbucks duplicated Peet’s model of selling fresh coffee and a variety of coffee beverages like espresso, cappuccino, and macchiato. By the early 2000s, Starbucks had brick and mortar locations everywhere, and small independent coffee shops started taking coffee to the next level. This “Third-wave” coffee movement led to the opening of American coffee companies like Stumptown in Oregon, Intelligentsia in Illinois, and Counter Culture in North Carolina. These specialty coffee companies work to educate their customers about coffee, establish relationships with growers, and highlight the best characteristics of each variety of bean.
For as much as American’s love coffee, you’d expect to see fields of coffee plants in the countryside, similar to how we see acres of corn. However, coffee trees are picky about where they will grow. Most of the coffee in the world is grown in mountainous, tropical places like Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Africa, but to understand the process from seed to mug, the best place to start is Big Island Coffee Roasters of the Hawaiin Islands. As one of the United States’ only coffee growers, Big Island Coffee Roasters grows three coffee varieties on two acres of rich, volcanic earth. With over 99% of the world’s coffee grown outside of the US, Big Island Roasters is heavily invested in growing, harvesting, roasting, and selling the highest quality coffee on the market, perhaps that’s why they made the Forbes list of the top 12 roasters in the United States.
Coffee starts, like all fruit, as a fragrant blossom. The flowers eventually produce small red or yellow fruits commonly known as “coffee cherries.” The seed or “pit” of these cherries are what will eventually become the coffee bean. When the fruit is mature, the folks at Big Island pluck the fruit and bring it to their pulper. This machine separates the skin of the fruit from the seed, then the seed is thoroughly washed. Once rinsed, the seeds are dried on racks in the open air where it is raked daily. Once the coffee is dry, it is milled to remove the “parchment,” sorted, and ready to be roasted.
Roasting transforms the dull, green coffee seed into the light, aromatic bean that we drink and enjoy. Coffee is often roasted in purpose-built machines that agitate the coffee and blast it with heat. During roasting, coffee changes colors various times from a greyish green to yellow until eventually darkening into the warm brown color associated with coffee beans. Once the beans get hot enough, they crack like popcorn and release steam. For a smokier, richer flavor, a roaster will continue applying heat to the beans, and it will crack a second time as natural oils in the bean cause it to burst. The roasters at Big Island Coffee are masters at producing both delicate, lightly roasted coffee like their super sweet Kona Peaberry and rich dark coffee like their creamy Hawaiian Harmony espresso blend. Their obsession with coffee from seed to cup has earned them the national recognition they deserve, and they earned a certificate from the Hawaii state senate “for developing Hawaii’s agricultural resources and putting Puna on the map in the coffee world.”
Besides being one of the only American coffee companies to roast the beans as well as grow them, Big Island Coffee Roasters shares their farming technique with local coffee growers. These days they source their coffee from all over Puna. “Today we’re a team of wild coffee lovers with a deep decade in the coffee industry, working alongside dozens of local farmers to share the best Hawaiian coffees available,” they say on their website. Not only is Big Island Coffee Roasters one of the only American coffee companies that handle coffee from seed to mug, but they also treat coffee with the respect it deserves. Ten years after taking over the farm, the owners and operators shared on their website, “A love for wild and beautiful places brought us to the Big Island. Love of the land and respect for the craft of farming has kept us here. And each of you has made it possible for farms like ours to continue doing what we love.”
Mahalo and thanks for the brew!