From Seed to Brew: Humans of the Coffee World

by Xiaxun Ding

All right. This might sound bizarre, but it took watching-Grace-struggling-to-take-my-order-with-one-hand-as-she-soaked-her-other-(burned)-hand-in-a-bucket-of-ice for me to arrive at a profound realization: the making of coffee involves real human beings. I know. This is such an obvious fact that I was completely stupefied when I suddenly opened my eyes to it—why hadn’t I thought of it before? My oblivion to this simple fact was unforgivable on multiple levels. On one hand, one of my favorite activities at any coffee house (alongside sighing and pulling my hair out over whatever that I might be working on) is barista watching—I ought to have known that coffee was not brought forth by magic. On the other hand, as an incidental hipster, I’ve been aware of fair trade, which is all about people! But as I reflect on it, I do come to see that phrases such as “fair trade” only manage to generate an icon of a tanned farmer on a coffee plantation against the backdrop of a tropical sun. It’s almost as if concrete human beings are forgotten when images of them only serve to illustrate ideas.

At any rate, witnessing a barista accident got me curious about whose hands my cup of coffee may have passed through, and I set out to understand the major roles in the coffee process and how their work contributes to the final mug of black juice. Thesis: If you cannot fly half a world to appreciate coffee farmers’ hard work, at least show your barista some love—but just because I mentioned “barista watching,” please don't stare at them!

Let’s begin at the origin—

Coffee Producer
aka coffee farmer

Verbs: grow, harvest, process (depulp, ferment, dry), sort, mill, and more

Superpowers: superb attention to details, science of coffee trees, expert agricultural knowledge, intensive labor, extreme care, patience, good judgment

Who they are and what they do: Coffee farmers really are the invisible heroes of the coffee world. They are the ones who plant the seeds, nurture them for 3–4 years until the coffee trees start bearing fruits, and harvest the coffee cherries. Once the cherries are picked, the farmers immediately proceed with processing the cherries using one of the following methods: wet processing, dry/natural, honey processing, and pulped natural, each of which results in a distinctive flavor profile. Coffee farmers are the gatekeepers of quality, making sure, for example, that coffee beans are neither under-fermented nor over-fermented (the latter of which results in a sour taste). To complete the process, farmers dry, sort—often by hand—and mill coffee beans to remove their parchment, leaving what’s known as green coffee beans that are ready to be exported.

Where they work: in the “Bean Belt,” the area between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

“While a coffee tree will start to produce fruit at 3 years, most of the farmers we work with really wait until the 5th year before harvesting from the trees. This allows for greater maturation of the trees, improved fruit quality as well as a good volume of fruit.” (Jay Caragay, Spro Coffee)


How it works at Spro: Meet sisters Johanna, Diana and Joyce, who manage their family farms and processing mills in the Tarrazu Valley of Costa Rica. We love their Finca Ortiz 1800, a shade grown, white honey processed blend of catuai and caturra varieties. Learn more about their family farm Beneficio Granites de Alturra del Ortiz here!


Coffee Buyer

Verbs: source, visit, taste, select, communicate, connect, order, and many more

Superpowers: knowledge of the company’s product line, solid understanding of each stage of coffee trading, excellent decision making, “meticulous record keepers” (Mark Inman, SCA News), cupping and evaluating, negotiation, communication, persuasion, “logistical prowess” (AgGrad), foreign language proficiency, hunger for knowledge, risk-taking, adaptability. . .

Who they are and what they do: Traditionally, coffee-buying trips only served practical purposes: the sourcing and the purchasing of the commodity called coffee; roasters then ordered coffee from importers’ inventories. However, in the third (current) wave of coffee, marked by the rise of single-origin coffee, small roasters, as well as an increasing awareness of fair trade and sustainability, coffee buyers travel around the world to do more than just securing a commodity. As Adam Pesce shares, the non-Utilitarian rewards of a coffee buying trip include building connections with producers, learning about their needs and social concerns of the area, and sharing stories with other buyers. The less romantic side of the story is that a competent coffee buyer must be able to do a ton of trade-related tasks, in addition to being able to recognize good coffee.

Where they work: in coffee-producing countries and in transit to these countries

How it works at Spro: While there are numerous criteria for selecting the right coffees for Spro, they essentially boil down to (1) the taste of the coffee, and (2) the level of trust between the coffee buyer and the farmer. The latter is important because problems can and do arise during shipping and between the time of tasting at the farm and the time of unloading green coffee beans at a dock in the U.S. Spro sources coffees directly in the United States (Ka’u, Hawai’i), Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Columbia, Uganda, and the Philippines. Via exporters and importers, we purchase additional coffees as needed from the following countries: Ethiopia, Indonesia, Peru, Brazil, Uganda, Kenya, Honduras and Guatemala. Read more about how we source our coffee at Spro.)

Jay amongst the ripened coffee at Cooperativa Leyva Mancilla, Guerrero, Mexico, 2014.



Verbs: roast, taste, analyze, create

Superpowers: “strong attention to detail, excellent sensory skills and sensory memory” (Equal Exchange), precision, meticulosity, (a touch of) perfectionism

Who they are and what they do: Generally, coffee roasts fall into four categories: light, medium, medium-dark, and dark. Yet an expert roaster—in case you haven’t guessed it already—never settles for roasting her green coffee beans generally only to assign them a label. Roasting brings out and accentuates the natural aromas and flavors inside the green coffee beans. Ideally, the roaster needs to know her beans ultra-well, must be able to envision the end results (“For example, we might try to tame a coffee’s acidity while accentuating its citric flavor,” Equal Exchange), and execute the roasting process with surgical precision. A batch of perfectly roasted coffee can easily become over-roasted in seconds! For these reasons, roasting is acknowledged as a practice of both art and science, and is backed by advanced technology. (Check out this super cool video that literally takes you inside the roasting process!)

Where they work: at various roasters in coffee-consuming countries

How it works at Spro: We like to roast our coffees at medium level because we prefer the round body, structure and robustness of the medium roast! Currently, Grace Stegall (who also excels in her role as a barista) is doing most of our production roasting while learning the different nuances in the roast process.

Our 1970s era Petroncini The Crumb Coffee Roaster.



Verbs: sniff, steep, slurp, aspirate, taste, analyze, spit (if you are tasting 200–300 cups of coffee in a day), and many more

Superpowers: outstanding sensory skills and sensory memory, ability “to create a mental bank of flavors from which to look up information as required” (Barista Institute), eagerness to learn (Coffee Research)

Who they are and what they do: The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) maintains a comprehensive set of cupping protocols to ensure the accurate assessment of coffee quality. If you are like me, which means that you cannot fight creating in your head every scene that you read about and imagining yourself into the scene (plus literally slowing down as you go through segments such as “wait for 3–5 minutes”), it will take you at least half an hour to finish reading the SCA’s cupping protocols—there are simply so many steps and details! Basically, a cupper evaluates the quality of coffee through various sensory activities: he or she inspects a freshly roasted sample of coffee for roast color, assesses the aroma by sniffing, and analyzes the flavor of the coffee by tasting the brew at various temperatures. As in wine tasting and grading, a coffee evaluator slurps the coffee to aspirate it over the entire tongue to access all components of the coffee’s profile. After tasting, the evaluator gives scores to different attributes of the coffee, and completes the cupping form with a Final Score.

Where they work: at training centers and roasters

How it works at Spro: When asked what he thought of the SCA’s recommendation that “Breaking of the crust is done by stirring 3 times, then allowing the foam to run down the back of the spoon while gently sniffing,” Jay clarified that the point is not to follow each single detail at all types of cuppings; rather, what’s crucial is to follow the same practice (regardless of what it encompasses) each and every time for consistency and quality control. He did confirm that adhering to a set of widely recognized standards, aka the SCA Protocols, is helpful and necessary at larger-scale, industry cuppings as it allows “an even discussion of the coffees” after tasting.

Dear friends, Anny-Ruth Pimentel of Loma La Gloria in El Salvador, Jeff Courson of Ally Coffee and Joan Obra of Rusty's Hawaiian Ka'u Coffee in Hawai'i cup and discuss coffees at Bird In Hand, August 2017.



Verbs: cup, grind, brew, steam, serve

Superpowers: passion for and knowledge of coffee, solid knowledge of the coffee shop’s product line and menu, customer service skills, ability to work well under pressure, great attention to details, coffee brewing skills, curiosity, eagerness to learn, ability to multitask, latte art, communication

Who they are and where they work: Baristas interact with customers directly. For many, this translates to customer service being the quintessence of baristas: they greet customers, take their orders, and make drinks to satisfy their taste buds and/or sweet teeth. At third wave coffee shops, however, the barista increasingly finds herself having to serve two monarchs: customers, and coffee. Roaster and barista Zach Tarhini sees the barista as the ambassador of the coffee world and maintains that the barista’s “first [priority] is showcasing the coffee and the second is being an educational resource to the consumer” (Perfect Daily Grind). Therefore, coffee shops regularly send their baristas to coffee trainings so that they can learn about coffee origins, roasting processes, and brewing methods, as well as practice cupping. In the “practitioner-scholar” ideals, a competent barista should not only be able to consistently produce high-quality drinks but also have solid understanding of the beans she is using and—for example—why she is brewing a coffee at a certain temperature, and be ready to return answers when a curious customer inquires. 

Where they work: at coffee shops, of course!

Barista An-Chi Ling with opera singer Amy Shoremount-Obra and her husband, the 2015 United States AeroPress Champion Rusty Obra, March 2018.


Et voila, my friend, you are now holding your cup of delight, which in truth has been held by many hands. (To be fair, we did not cover exporters, importers, and buying groups, who take care of the logistics and without whom none of what’s written here would matter; and forget not those who design and manufacture coffee equipment!) In a sense, specialty coffee is an end in itself, and a knowledge of coffee aromas and flavors enhances the drinker’s sensory experience and enables him or her to appreciate the cup. Yet at the same time, coffee is a creative and collaborative project among farmers, buyers, exporters and importers, roasters, baristas, and many more humans; and the recognition of what kind of work went into the cup evokes the interconnectedness of people and places, and—if you are up for the idea—adds a ritualistic component to the overall experience of coffee drinking.

Haste not. Sip slowly. And cheers to the superheroes of the coffee world!


About Xiaxung Ding
Hailing from the Zhejiang Province in southwestern China, Xiaxun has spent time working Shanghai where she worked to help young bakers learn French techniques to develop their careers, helped to develop sustainable and eco-friendly systems, did research in California on penal narratives and has tutored refugee children here in Baltimore. With a strong belief in ReUrbanism and local businesses, the recently graduated Ms. Ding is looking to develop a career in linguistics and book publishing.

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