From crop to cup: How coffee travels through its supply chain

Dan Streetman, vice president of wholesale and coffee buyer for Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, holds a handful of La Bendicion coffee beans from Nicaragua at Irving Farm in the Manhattan borough of New York September 23, 2014. For the first time in three years, Streetman is buying coffee beans in bulk from Colombia, exploiting low comparative prices and reflecting new flexibility by U.S. roasters who had become over reliant on a single country for premium arabica. Streetman, the buyer for New York City-based specialty roaster and retailer Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, stopped ordering from the South American country in 2011 as disease devastated crops, supplies became erratic and prices soared. Instead he bought more from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Now, leaf rust fungus, known as roya, is threatening Central America's crops, lifting the cost for many of those grades above Colombia's for the first time in more than eight years, according to Reuters data on physical coffee prices, which are expressed as differentials above or below New York futures. To match story USA-COFFEE/ROASTERS     Picture taken September 23, 2014.  REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS AGRICULTURE COMMODITIES) - GF2EA9N1JLO01

Ever wondered where your morning brew comes from? Image: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Omri Wallach
Writer, Visual Capitalist
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  • More than 150 million people drink coffee on a daily basis in the U.S. alone.
  • This is the journey of how you get your coffee, from growth to consumption.

What does the coffee supply chain look like?

Retail, Consumer Goods and Lifestyle Supply Chain and Transport Agriculture, Food and Beverage
The journey of a cup of coffee. Image: Visual Capitalist

View a more detailed version of the above graphic by clicking here

There’s a good chance your day started with a cappuccino, or a cold brew, and you aren’t alone. In fact, coffee is one of the most consumed drinks on the planet, and it’s also one of the most traded commodities.

According to the National Coffee Association, more than 150 million people drink coffee on a daily basis in the U.S. alone. Globally, consumption is estimated at over 2.25 billion cups per day.

Have you read?

But before it gets to your morning cup, coffee beans travel through a complex global supply chain. Today’s illustration from Dan Zettwoch breaks down this journey into 10 distinct steps.

Coffee from plant to factory

There are two types of tropical plants that produce coffee, both preferring high altitudes and with production primarily based in South America, Asia, and Africa.

  • Coffea arabica is the more plentiful bean, with a more complex flavor and less caffeine. It’s used in most specialty and “high quality” drinks as Arabica coffee.
  • Coffea canephora, meanwhile, has stronger and more bitter flavors. It’s also easier to grow, and is most frequently used in espressos and instant blends as Robusta coffee.

However, both types of beans undergo the same journey:

1. Growing
Plants take anywhere from 4-7 years to produce their first harvest, and grow fruit for around 25 years.

2. Picking
The fruit of the coffea plant is the coffee berry, containing two beans within. Ripened berries are harvested either by hand or machine.

3. Processing
Coffee berries are then processed either in a traditional “dry” method using the sun or “wet” method using water and machinery. This removes the outer fruit encasing the sought-after green beans.

4. Milling
The green coffee beans are hulled, cleaned, sorted, and (optionally) graded.

From factory to transport

Once the coffee berry is stripped down to green beans, it’s shipped from producing countries through a global supply network.

Green coffee beans are exported and shipped around the world. In 2018 alone, 7.2 million tonnes of green coffee beans were exported, valued at $19.2 billion.

Arriving primarily in the U.S. and Europe, the beans are now prepared for consumption:

5. Roasting
Green beans are industrially roasted, becoming darker, oilier, and tasty. Different temperatures and heat duration impact the final color and flavor, with some preferring light roasts to dark roasts.

6. Packaging
Any imperfect or somehow ruined beans are discarded, and the remaining roasted beans are packaged together by type.

7. Shipping
Roasted beans are shipped both domestically and internationally. Bulk shipments go to retailers, coffee shops, and in some cases, direct to consumer.

Straight to your cup

Roasted coffee beans are almost ready for consumption, and by this stage the remaining steps can happen anywhere.

For example, many factories don’t ship roasted beans until they grind it themselves. Meanwhile, cafes will grind their own beans on-site before preparing drinks. The rapid growth of coffee chains made Starbucks the second-highest-earning U.S. fast food venue.

Regardless of where it happens, the final steps bring coffee straight to your cup:

8. Grinding
Roasted beans are ground up in order to better extract their flavors, either by machine or by hand. The preferred fineness depends on the darkness of the roast and the brewing method.

9. Brewing
Water is added to the coffee grounds in a variety of methods. Some involve water being passed or pressured through the grounds (espresso, drip) while others mix the water and grounds (French press, Turkish coffee).

10. Drinking
Liquid coffee is ready to be enjoyed! One average cup takes 70 roasted beans to make.

The world’s choice of caffeine pick-me-up is made possible by this structured and complex supply chain. Coffee isn’t just a drink, after all, it’s a business.

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