From Bean to Cup | Equal Exchange
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From Bean to Cup

Coffee is a complex agricultural product that changes from year to year and deserves the utmost care in growing, harvesting, processing, roasting, and brewing.

Coffee is also a labor intensive business. Each step requires education and attention to detail, and we are fortunate to work with some of the hardest working coffee growing cooperatives in the world.

At Equal Exchange, we've discovered that the best way to learn and grow from harvest to harvest is through transparency and information sharing. These principles have always been a part of the Equal Exchange model, and this is no different for our relationships with our producer partners and our customers.

We rely on our producer partners to bring us the finest coffee available. We rely on ourselves to enhance the cup characteristics with each roast. And we rely on you to purchase, protect and release the fine attributes of each coffee you brew.

So, take a moment to get a steaming mug of your favorite brew and let us take you on a journey from the coffee nursery to the cup, exploring the deep and complex nature of the brew.

  • Growing

    Coffee grows in tropical and subtropical climates - usually no more than 1,000 miles from the equator, and will grow at altitudes between sea level and 7,000 feet. Coffee trees begin their lives in nurseries and stay there until they reach 18 to 24 inches tall, typically after 1 year. They are then transported to a farm and planted 10 to 12 feet apart. Coffee can grow to be 20 feet tall, but due to the difficulty in harvesting, coffee is usually pruned to grow 8-10 feet tall (depending on the country.) It takes 4-5 years for a coffee tree to start producing coffee. Flowers cover the branches of the coffee tree for 2-3 days and release a scent similar to jasmine. Six to nine months later small green cherries that hold two coffee seeds appear. During the ripening process, the coffee cherries evolve from green to yellow, then, at their peak of ripeness, to deep red. A few species turn dark orange/yellow when they are ripe. These berries are referred to as coffee cherries because of the resemblance of their color, shape, and size to cherries.The ripe red coffee cherries have several layers. Within the tough outside layer there is a fleshy pulp surrounding a layer of protective parchment and silverskin that encloses two round or oval seeds or 'beans' that are flat on one side. The beans can be planted to grow more coffee or processed to produce green coffee beans that will later be roasted and ground to make fresh coffee.

  • Harvesting

    Most of the world's coffee is grown by small farmers on five to seven acres of land. The farmers and their families harvest it by hand into large baskets or sacks when the cherries are ripe. In some coffee farming communities, the coffee harvest is a rotating project where the entire community shares in the activity and moves from farm to farm as the crop ripens. The saying goes, "today for me, tomorrow for you." In countries like Brazil, where the land is flat and larger farms dominate the landscape, mechanical harvesters are commonly used to pick the crop. All Equal Exchange coffees are harvested by hand. This is a tremendous amount of work! Coffee cherries ripen at different times depending on the farm, the tree and the climate. It may require three to seven pickings to complete the harvest.

    Coffee ripens throughout the harvest season, but is divided into the beginning, middle and end of the harvest. Generally, the lower the altitude, the warmer the climate and the sooner the crop will ripen. In other words, coffee at 1,800 feet will ripen faster then coffee grown at 3,000 feet. The beginning of the harvest yields a smaller amount of coffee and the flavor is oftentimes thought to be astringent, vegetal, and undeveloped in flavor. The middle of the harvest brings in the bulk of the crop, with a more developed and mature flavor. The end of the harvest is usually seen as the leftovers from the season. At Equal Exchange, we buy our coffee in the middle of the harvest when the coffee is more refined and mature in flavor and there is more coffee to choose from to match our specific flavor profiles.

  • Depulping

    After coffee cherries are picked, they must be depulped within 24 hours - either at the farm or a centralized depulping station. Depulping is the process of separating the coffee seeds from the outer layer of flesh. If the cherries pass the 24-hour mark without being depulped, they may produce an overly fruity, rotten flavor that can ruin the quality of the coffee.

    Hand Depulpers: Many producers have hand depulpers on their farms or share a hand depulper with their neighbors. A hand depulper is a machine with a small rotating burr that tears off the outer layer of the coffee flesh, exposing the two coffee seeds inside. Some producers operate their depulpers by hand and others have mechanized them to help with the labor. The depulper deposits the coffee seeds into a tank and the remaining skin and flesh is separated and commonly used for compost.

    Centralized Depulping Stations: Anywhere from 10 to 100 farmers may share a centralized station, depending on the size of the depulper and the makeup of their organization. The depulper station is usually run by electricity or some kind of sustainable energy source. As is the case with hand depulpers, the outer layer of the cherry is removed and separated from the beans that are deposited into a tank to begin the process of fermentation.

  • Fermenting

    The fermentation process is thought to accentuate the body and flavor of the coffee beans. To begin the fermentation process, the depulped coffee beans are deposited into large, clean tanks that are made of cement, wood and sometimes plastic water collection receptacles. The coffee beans ferment in the mucilage that is left on the bean after the depulping process, transforming the natural sugars to liquid. Fermentation can take from four hours to three days depending on the country, altitude and humidity of a particular area. It is especially important that the tanks are cleaned out after each use to avoid bacterial build up which can affect the flavor of the next batch of fermenting coffee. One common method used to determine if the fermentation process is complete is to submerge a clean stick into the fermentation tank, then pull it out. If the circle created by the stick remains, the sugars have not dissolved enough, and the coffee is not ready to be washed to end the fermentation process. If the coffee beans easily flow back together, fermentation is complete and the beans are ready to be washed.

  • Drying

    Many specialty coffees are washed once the fermentation is complete to halt the fermentation process. This is called "wet processing," where coffee beans are washed in a series of concrete or wood channels with clean water. This process ensures that the fermentation process has stopped. The coffee is then dried, either by the sun or mechanically. The process for sun drying coffee can take three to five days or almost two weeks, depending on the weather. It is very important that the drying coffee is turned many times each day and does not come into contact with any water after the washing process is complete and the drying process is underway. All of the coffee that we buy at Equal Exchange is dried by the sun on concrete patios or on raised screens. When the coffee has been dried down to 12% moisture and a thin shell, called parchment, encapsulates each coffee bean, the producers pull the coffee off of the patios or screen trays, put it into coffee sacks, and divide it in their warehouses to prepare for export.

    Dry Processing vs. Wet Processing

    Coffee is processed in many different ways throughout the world. In some cases, coffee cherries are not depulped, but harvested when ripe and laid out to dry. Or, the coffee cherries may be left to partially dry on the tree, then picked and placed on patio to dry in the sun. In both methods, the cherries are left to dry in the sun for two to three weeks and then put through a hulling machine to remove the dried pulp, parchment and silverskin. This type of processing, called "dry processing," is believed to produce a heavy-bodied cup of coffee. Within the coffee industry, these beans are usually referred to as naturals.

  • Sorting

    There are three ways to sort coffee beans for defects:

    By Hand: Coffee is sorted by hand removing all of the defects at individual and group tables.

    By Hand With Conveyor Assistance: A conveyor belt slowly moves coffee down a line of people, usually women, and they pick out the imperfect beans and remove them from the conveyor belt.

    By Machine: A mechanized system moves the beans through a chute at a controlled rate, while a "mechanical eye," programmed to sort beans by color, blows a puff of air to remove discolored, defective beans from the line of production.

    Most of the coffee from Equal Exchange's producer partners is sorted by hand.

  • Roasting

    Roasting requires a skill set somewhere between art and science. Roasters need to have a strong attention to detail, excellent sensory skills and sensory memory, and a love of all things coffee. These traits differentiate between good roasters and great ones. The goal in coffee roasting is to enhance the qualities of the green coffee beans and to develop them to their fullest potential. For example, we might try to tame a coffee's acidity while accentuating its citric flavor, or we might try to bring out the mouthfeel in a coffee while also enhancing its natural chocolate notes. As our roasters will tell you, the process is both challenging and extremely rewarding. Each batch of roasted coffee is tested with an Agtron roast analyzer to scientifically test the classification of the roast. The Agtron system is common in the Specialty Coffee Industry and the rating system is from 0.0 points (darkest) to 100 points (lightest). These samples are also "cupped" to ensure that the flavor matches our specifications and to provide our customers with consistency.

    Roast Levels

    Medium Roast: As coffee beans begin to develop, they reach the first stage of roasting that is light in color and bright in the cup. (Color: Cinnamon Brown)

    Full City Roast: The most desirable characteristics of a particular country or region are exemplified in our full city roast. Beans are at their most complex and most flavorful. (Color: Chestnut Brown)

    Vienna Roast: Rich coffee oils evenly cover the surface of the beans to produce a smokey aroma and smooth, rich cup. (Color: Dark Chocolate Brown)

    French Roast: The intensity of this dark roast is seen in the deep coffee oils that cover its surface. The sweet intensity of the aroma and velvety flavor make this an international favorite. (Color: Mahogany Brown)


    We employ two methods of blending called pre-roast blending and post-roast blending. The concepts are different, and each produces an array of flavor combinations that are unique to the palette and are a fresh experience for the coffee lover. Pre-Roast blending: Green origin coffees are selected to create an exclusive profile and then blended before they are roasted. Post-Roast blending: Two or more green coffees are roasted individually and blended after they have been roasted. The color difference between the roasts is distinct, and this method creates an exceptional flavor profile.

  • Quality Analysis

    Our farmer partners take representative samples from each lot of coffee in their warehouse set for export. The samples are milled to remove the parchment, then sent to Equal Exchange for approval. Each green coffee sample sent to Equal Exchange is put through a strict physical quality examination of the size, the color, the smell, the density, the number of imperfections and the amount of moisture in the green coffee beans. If the sample does not fall within our adopted quality standards - those set by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) - the lot of coffee will be rejected.

    Each sample is then roasted to a cinnamon color in our double barrel Probat sample roaster. This style of roasting is required for tasting the sample through "cupping." We use the internationally recognized cupping form of the SCAA which is based upon a 100 point system with 10 categories. This is similar to the system used for scoring wine, and highlights the outstanding characteristics that make coffee so special. The objective of cupping is to pull out the fine characteristics of a particular coffee through this lighter roast and to test the power and consistency of the sample. All coffee samples are cupped blindly to avoid bias.

    Quality Feedback for our Farmer Partners

    Each year, our buying team makes numerous trips to visit our farmer partners and to investigate coffee crops. In the process of selecting coffees, we work with our producer partners to deepen the relationships and share in the evolution of a common vocabulary. We share important information about the U.S. market, and the farmers, in turn, share their experiences with us. For each sample of green beans that we analyze, roast and cup, we send a report back to our producer partners. This is vital information for our producer partners and enables them to make changes, adjustments and improvements over time. The physical record of a particular imperfection, the way a coffee is roasted and the notes about a particularly unique characteristic in the cup are useful, and deepen the bond between buyer and producer. Most coffee companies do not provide specific feedback to producers, instead they get a simple rejection of the coffee.

  • Brewing & Enjoying

    By choosing Equal Exchange, you've demonstrated that your coffee is very important to you. As you brew with care, you continue to honor the hard work of our small-scale farmer partners and join a community of Equal Exchange coffee lovers.

    Download Brewing Tips brochure or see Brewing Tips for more information on brewing the perfect cup.

    See recipes for more ways to enjoy coffee.