How To Make Coffee From Scratch

As soon as I discovered the coffee trees growing in my yard, I was determined to turn those beans into coffee of my very own. And then I forgot about it for a while. But as my time in Ethiopia is drawing to a close, I finally pulled it together and got it done.

Processing coffee is a lengthy, multi-step process. I used these instructions for what is known as the “wet method,” where you remove the beans from the cherries before drying. The traditional Ethiopian way is the “dry method,” which dries the beans still in the cherries in big sheets in the sun. This works best when you’ve learned at your daddy’s knee how to tell when the beans are ready. For the rest of us, the wet method provides more easily observable benchmarks.

These are the beans on my coffee tree, or one of them anyway. Yields per tree are pretty low and with variable sunlight and rain in different parts of the yard all my trees have their own unique growing schedules, so I only got a handful of beans. Make sure to wash the cherries really well!

My instructions told me to squeeze the berries by hand or tamp them with a piece of wood in a bucket. After an hour or so of painstaking squeezing I hit on a (much preferable) third method: squish the cherries gently with a bench scraper or the flat of a chef’s knife. The beans pop right out, and you can do 4 or 5 at a time. Keep the cherries, as you can use them for a special bonus drink.

Next you ferment the beans by leaving them in a bowl of water for 24 hours. You’ll know they’re ready when you wash a few and the beans feel gritty, not slippery. Once that’s done it’s time to dry the beans. I did mine on a wire drying rack lined with cheesecloth in my dining room, which gets lots of sunlight. The beans are sufficiently dry when the outer hull is a pale straw color and feels brittle, and the bean inside is grey/blue and hard, not chewy, between your teeth. I was kind of paranoid about this, so I dried mine for three weeks, stirring occasionally. After that you need to rest the beans in a can or jar for another two weeks to let the remaining moisture resettle.

Your beans still have a tough parchment layer on the outside that needs to be removed; this can be done by hand, kind of like shelling very small pistachios, or if you have a food processor with a plastic blade (to avoid cutting the beans) you can give them a gentle spin. At this stage you finally have green coffee.

Those coffee nerds with their own fancy roasting and grinding equipment can take it from here. I don’t have that stuff, so I roasted my beans the Ethiopian way, in a dry pan. Keep the beans moving for a more even roast. They’ll start popping and smoking when they’re getting close to done, so keep a window open. Once you have reached your desired roasting level, cool the beans by swirling them around in a fine metal strainer. This also helps remove the very last layer, a papery skin. Rubbing the beans in a clean dishtowel finishes the job.

Run the beans through a grinder (or in my case, a mortar and pestle) and you’re ready to brew your coffee in whatever manner seems best to you. I made mine in an Italian-style Moka pot. And it was good! Smooth and mellow, with some hazelnut undertones. Success!!

Special Bonus Drinks: Cascara Tea and Coffee Leaf Tea

Cascara tea is made from dried coffee cherries, often mixed with cardamom and other spices. It’s popular in coffee-producing areas where the beans are all sold off, but the cherries are available for free as a byproduct. Just dry the cherries at the same time as you’re drying the beans, grind the dried fruit, and add spices as desired. Pop it in a tea strainer with some boiling water, and you’re done! Add sugar or honey to taste. When I tried it without anything added I got a mild beverage with a light melon flavor (and some unpleasant terroir – I guess my quick rinse wasn’t quite enough.)

Coffee leaf tea is exactly what you think it is: coffee leaves dried, crushed, and brewed in boiling water. I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s on my list. It’s apparently full of antioxidants and whatnot.