The Life Cycle of a Cup of Coffee: The Journey from Coffee Bean, to Coffee Cup

Do you think you would rec­og­nize a cof­fee plant if you came across one in the wild? Not that it’s like­ly out­side the so-called “cof­fee belt,” the region of the world most rich in soil, shade, mild tem­per­a­tures, and copi­ous rain­fall. Farmed cof­fee plants “are pruned short to con­serve their ener­gy,” the Nation­al Cof­fee Asso­ci­a­tion notes, but they “can grow to more than 30 feet (9 meters) high. Each tree is cov­ered with green, waxy leaves grow­ing oppo­site each oth­er in pairs. Cof­fee cher­ries grow along the branch­es. Because it grows in a con­tin­u­ous cycle, it’s not unusu­al to see [white] flow­ers, green fruit and ripe [red] fruit simul­ta­ne­ous­ly on a sin­gle tree.”

That’s a fes­tive image to call to mind when you brew—or a barista brews—your cof­fee bev­er­age of choice. After watch­ing the TED-Ed video above, you’ll also have a sense of the “globe-span­ning process” between the cof­fee plant and that first cup of the morn­ing. “How many peo­ple does it take to make a cup of cof­fee?” the les­son asks. Far more than the one it takes to push the brew but­ton…. The jour­ney begins in Colom­bia: forests are clear-cut for neat rows of shrub-like cof­fee trees. These were first domes­ti­cat­ed in Ethiopia and are still grown across sub-Saha­ran Africa as well as South Amer­i­ca and South­east Asia, where low-wage work­ers har­vest the cof­fee cher­ries by hand.

The cher­ries are then processed by machine, sort­ed, and fer­ment­ed. The result­ing cof­fee beans require more human labor, at least in the exam­ple above, to ful­ly dry them over a peri­od of three weeks. Fur­ther machine sort­ing and pro­cess­ing takes place before the beans reach a pan­el of experts who deter­mine their qual­i­ty and give them a grade. More hands load the cof­fee beans onto con­tain­er ships, unload them, trans­port them around the coun­try (the U.S. imports more cof­fee than any oth­er nation in the world), and so on and so forth. “All in all, it takes hun­dreds of peo­ple to get cof­fee to its intend­ed des­ti­na­tion, and that’s not count­ing the peo­ple main­tain­ing the infra­struc­ture that makes the jour­ney pos­si­ble.”

Many of the peo­ple in that vast sup­ply chain are paid very lit­tle, the video points out. Some are paid noth­ing at all. The his­to­ry of cof­fee, like the his­to­ries of oth­er addic­tive com­modi­ties like sug­ar and tobac­co, is filled with sto­ries of exploita­tion and social and polit­i­cal upheaval. And like the sup­ply chains of every oth­er con­tem­po­rary sta­ple, the sto­ry of how cof­fee gets to us, from plant to cup, involves the sto­ries of hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple con­nect­ed by a glob­al chain of com­merce, and by our con­stant need for more caf­feine.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Black Cof­fee: Doc­u­men­tary Cov­ers the His­to­ry, Pol­i­tics & Eco­nom­ics of the “Most Wide­ly Tak­en Legal Drug”

How to Make the World’s Small­est Cup of Cof­fee, from Just One Cof­fee Bean

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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