Coffee, sugar and cocoa beans are all examples of “soft” commodities.
Many soft commodities are subject to spoilage.
A coffee bean is a seed of the coffee plant, and is the source for coffee. It is the pit inside the red or purple fruit often referred to as a cherry. Even though they are seeds, they are incorrectly referred to as ‘beans’ because of their resemblance to true beans. The fruits – coffee cherries or coffee berries – most commonly contain two stones with their flat sides together. A small percentage of cherries contain a single seed, instead of the usual two. This is called a peaberry. Like Brazil nuts (a seed) and white rice, coffee seeds consist mostly of endosperm.
The two most economically important varieties of coffee plant are the Arabica and the Robusta; 75-80% of the coffee produced worldwide is Arabica and 20% is Robusta. Arabica seeds consist of 0.8-1.4% caffeine and Robusta seeds consist of 1.7-4% caffeine.
When the fruit is ripe, it is almost always handpicked, using either “selective picking”, where only the ripe fruit is removed this also gives the growers reason to give their blend of origin a certain Spec called OCR (operation Cherry red) or “strip-picking”, where all of the fruit is removed from a branch all at once. In rare circumstances, the Asian Palm Civet will eat a coffee berry and excrete the beans. These beans are called Kopi Luwak, and can be processed further into a rare and expensive coffee.
There are two methods of processing the coffee berries. The first method is “wet processing”, which is usually carried out in Central America and areas of Africa. The flesh of the berries is separated from the seeds and then the seeds are fermented – soaked in water for about two days. This dissolves any pulp or sticky residue that may still be attached to the seeds.
The “dry processing” method is cheaper and simpler, used for lower quality seeds in Brazil and much of Africa. Twigs and other foreign objects are separated from the berries and the fruit is then spread out in the sun on concrete or brick for 2–3 weeks, turned regularly for even drying.
Sugar is the generalized name for sweet, short-chain, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. They are carbohydrates, composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. There are various types of sugar derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose and galactose. The table or granulated sugar most customarily used as food is sucrose, a disaccharide. (In the body, sucrose hydrolyses into fructose and glucose.) Other disaccharides include maltose and lactose. Longer chains of sugars are called oligosaccharides. Chemically-different substances may also have a sweet taste, but are not classified as sugars. Some are used as lower-calorie food substitutes for sugar described as artificial sweeteners.
Sugars are found in the tissues of most plants, but are only present in sufficient concentrations for efficient extraction in sugarcane and sugar beet. Sugarcane is a giant grass and has been cultivated in tropical climates in the Far East since ancient times. A great expansion in its production took place in the 18th century with the layout of sugar plantations in the West Indies and Americas. This was the first time that sugar became available to the common people who previously had to rely on honey to sweeten foods. Sugar beet is a root crop, is cultivated in cooler climates, and became a major source of sugar in the 19th century when methods for extracting the sugar became available. Sugar production and trade have changed the course of human history in many ways. The world produced about 168 million tonnes of sugar in 2011.
A pack of sugar made of sugar beet.
Sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) is a biennial plant in the Family Amaranthaceae, the tuberous root of which containing a high proportion of sucrose. It is cultivated in temperate regions with adequate rainfall and requires a fertile soil. The crop is harvested mechanically in the autumn and the crown of leaves and excess soil removed. The roots do not deteriorate rapidly and may be left in a clamp in the field for some weeks before being transported to the processing plant. Here the crop is washed and sliced and the sugar extracted by diffusion. Milk of lime is added to the raw juice and carbonatated in a number of stages in order to purify it. Water is evaporated by boiling the syrup under a vacuum. The syrup is then cooled and seeded with sugar crystals. The white sugar that crystallizes out can be separated in a centrifuge and dried. It requires no further refining.
Sugarcane (Saccharum spp.) is a perennial grass in the family Poaceae. It is cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical regions for the sucrose that is found in its stems. It requires a frost-free climate with sufficient rainfall during the growing season to make full use of the plant’s great growth potential. The crop is harvested mechanically or by hand, chopped into lengths and conveyed rapidly to the processing plant. Here, it is either milled and the juice extracted with water or extracted by diffusion. The juice is then clarified with lime and heated to kill enzymes. The resulting thin syrup is concentrated in a series of evaporators, after which further water is removed by evaporation in vacuum containers. The resulting supersaturated solution is seeded with sugar crystals and the sugar crystallizes out, is separated from the fluid and dried. Molasses is a by-product of the process and the fiber from the stems, known as bagasse, is burned to provide energy for the sugar extraction process. The crystals of raw sugar have a sticky brown coating and either can be used as they are or can be bleached by sulphur dioxide or can be treated in a carbonatation process to produce a whiter product.
Cane sugar requires further processing to provide the free-flowing white table sugar required by the consumer. The sugar may be transported in bulk to the country where it will be used and the refining process often takes place there. The first stage is known as affination and involves immersing the sugar crystals in a concentrated syrup that softens and removes the sticky brown coating without dissolving them. The crystals are then separated from the liquor and dissolved in water. The resulting syrup is treated either by a carbonatation or by a phosphatation process. Both involve the precipitation of a fine solid in the syrup and when this is filtered out, a lot of the impurities are removed at the same time. Removal of colour is achieved by using either a granular activated carbon or an ion-exchange resin. The sugar syrup is concentrated by boiling and then cooled and seeded with sugar crystals causing the sugar to crystallize out. The liquor is spun in a centrifuge and the white crystals are dried in hot air and ready to be packaged or used. The surplus liquor is made into refiners’ molasses. The International Commission for Uniform Methods of Sugar Analysis sets standards for the measurement of the purity of refined sugar, known as ICUMSA numbers; lower numbers indicate a higher level of purity in the refined sugar
Cacao bean (also Anglicized as cocoa bean, often simply cocoa /ˈkoʊ.koʊ/ and cacao /kəˈkaʊ/; Mayan: kakaw; Nahuatl: cacahuatl [kaˈkawat͡ɬ]) is the dried and fully fermented fatty bean of Theobroma cacao, from which cocoa solids and cocoa butter are extracted. They are the basis of chocolate, as well as many Mesoamerican foods such as mole sauce and tejate.
A cocoa pod (fruit) has a rough and leathery rind about 3 cm (1.2 in) thick (this varies with the origin and variety of pod). It is filled with sweet, mucilaginous pulp (called ‘baba de cacao’ in South America) enclosing 30 to 50 large seeds that are fairly soft and white to a pale lavender color. While seeds are usually white, they become violet or reddish brown during the drying process. The exception is rare varieties of white cacao, in which the seeds remain white. Historically, white cacao was cultivated by the Rama people of Nicaragua.
Cocoa trees grow in hot, rainy tropical areas within 20° of latitude from the equator. Cocoa harvest is not restricted to one period per year. Usually it occurs over several months and in many countries cocoa can be harvested at any time of the year. Pesticides are often applied to the trees to combat capsid bugs and fungicides to fight black pod disease.
Immature cocoa pods have a variety of colors but most often are green, red, or purple, and as they mature their color tends towards yellow or orange, particularly in their creases. Unlike most fruiting trees, the cacao pod grows directly from the trunk or large branch of a tree rather than from the end of a branch. This makes harvesting by hand easier as most of the pods will not be up in the higher branches. The pods on a tree do not ripen together; harvesting needs to be done periodically through the year. Harvesting occurs between 3–4 times to weekly during the harvest season. The ripe and near-ripe pods, as judged by their color, are harvested from the trunk and branches of the cocoa tree with a curved knife on a long pole. Care must be used when cutting the stem of the pod to avoid injuring the junction of the stem with the tree, as this is where future flowers and pods will emerge. It is estimated one person can harvest 650 pods per day.
The harvested pods are opened —typically with a machete— to expose the beans. The pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded. The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on grates for several days. During this time, the seeds and pulp undergo “sweating”, where the thick pulp liquefies as it ferments. The fermented pulp trickles away, leaving cocoa seeds behind to be collected. Sweating is important for the quality of the beans, which originally have a strong bitter taste. If sweating is interrupted, the resulting cocoa may be ruined; if underdone, the cocoa seed maintains a flavor similar to raw potatoes and becomes susceptible to mildew. Some cocoa producing countries distill alcoholic spirits using the liquefied pulp.
A typical pod contains 20 to 50 beans and about 400 dried beans are required to make one pound (880 per kilogram) of chocolate. Cocoa pods weigh an average of 400 grams (0.88 lb) and each one yields 35 to 40 grams (1.2 to 1.4 oz) dried beans (this yield is 40–44% of the total weight in the pod). It is estimated one person can separate the beans from 2000 pods per day.
The wet beans are transported then to a facility so they can be fermented and dried. They are fermented for four to seven days and must be mixed every two days. They are dried for five to fourteen days, depending on the climate conditions. The fermented beans are dried by spreading them out over a large surface and constantly raking them. In large plantations, this is done on huge trays under the sun or by using artificial heat. Small plantations may dry their harvest on little trays or on cowhides. Finally, the beans are trodden and shuffled about (often using bare human feet) and sometimes, during this process, red clay mixed with water is sprinkled over the beans to obtain a finer color, polish, and protection against molds during shipment to factories in the United States, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and other countries. Drying in the sun is preferable to drying by artificial means, as no extraneous flavors such as smoke or oil are introduced which might otherwise taint the flavor.
The beans should be dry for shipment (usually by sea). Traditionally exported in jute bags, over the last decade the beans are increasingly shipped in ‘Mega-Bulk’ bulk parcels of several thousand tonnes at a time on ships, or in smaller lots of around 25 tonnes in 20 foot containers. Shipping in bulk significantly reduces handling costs; shipment in bags, however, either in a ship’s hold or in containers, is still commonly found.
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