A coffee lab assistant may also be referred to as a coffee production assistant or coffee roasting assistant. These are professionals who play a key part in the production process of coffee, getting it ready to ship to coffee shops where it’s used to prepare coffee by a barista, to grocery stores and other stores where it is stocked for sale, or directly to consumers. This is one of the most fast-paced and interesting coffee jobs where the production assistant directly reports to and works under the production manager or head roaster. Coffee lab jobs are an ideal opportunity to work in a position where you get to learn every aspect of the coffee industry. In this role, you will have responsibilities throughout the entire process of producing coffee, from inception of the coffee to getting it ready to ship to customers.
Main Roles and Duties
As a coffee lab or production assistant, some of your main roles will involve:
- Preparing coffee packaging materials for shipping
- Correctly labeling boxes and bags
- Fulfilling coffee orders
- Making sure that all orders are correctly filled, packed, and shipped
- Reporting inventory levels to the production manager
- Maintaining and cleaning production equipment on a regular basis
Depending on the company that you work for, there are various levels for coffee lab assistant jobs, form entry-level production assistant roles to more advanced positions, that will often require professionals who have a few years of similar production experience.
The Process of Coffee Production
Coffee is one of the most popular beverages drank around the world, and one of the most appealing things about this drink is the caffeine content that naturally occurs higher compared to other beverages of this type like cocoa and tea. If you are interested in working in coffee production as a coffee lab assistant or in a similar position, getting an understanding of the coffee production process is the most important first step.
Coffee beans are actually seeds. Before they have gone through the process of drying, roasting, and grinding, they are actually quite useless for making coffee. Coffee plants are grown by planting unprocessed coffee seeds. On coffee farms, seeds are typically planted in shaded, large growing beds where seedlings will sprout before being left to grow for a few days. Then, they will be moved into individual pots that are filled will soils that have been carefully formulated to provide optimal growing conditions. The potted seedlings will usually be placed in the shade and then watered regularly until they are strong enough to be moved to their permanent growing area. Most of the time, this is done during the rainy season, since this makes sure that as the roots of the plant are firmly established, the soil will remain as moist as possible.
It will take around three to four years for a newly planted coffee plant to start bearing fruit, depending on the variety of coffee. The fruit is usually known as cherries in the industry and will turn from a green color to a dark or bright red when they are ripe. Cherries tend to get ripe faster when the coffee is grown in higher temperatures and at high altitudes. Many farms employ hand-picking techniques during the harvest, where people go out to pick the beans by hand to ensure that only ripe cherries are picked and that they get the best of the harvest. This is a labor-intensive, often difficult process where people need to go out and inspect the cherries for ripeness, since they will often mature at different stages. Because of this, many farms require around three pickings to fully harvest their crops. On some larger farms, where the land is flat such as in Brazil, the coffee is harvested using a machine. However, one of the main issues with this is that the machine cannot tell if a cherry is ripe or not.
In most coffee growing regions, there will be one major harvest season yearly. Certain countries, however, including Colombia and Kenya, will have both a main and a secondary harvest. The coffee that is harvested at the beginning and end of the season will have a flavor that is not as developed as the coffee picked at the middle of the season, which often tastes much better. This is important to know for coffee lab assistants and production assistants, who may be in charge of buying processes and when to buy. Most good roasters will buy coffee during the middle of the season.
After the cherries are harvested, they should be processed as soon as possible to avoid spoiling. There are two main methods that are commonly used to process coffee cherries depending on the location and the resources that are available. These include:
Dry processing: This is the oldest method of processing coffee cherries and is still the main choice in areas where the water is scarce. It’s also known as natural or unwashed processing and is typically used by smaller-scale coffee farms. To process the cherries, they are spread out on a large, flat surface and left in the sun for around 15-20 days to dry out. Drying beds that are raised from the ground slightly are often used for this purpose, to make sure that there is good air circulation around the berries. To ensure that they dry evenly and to avoid fermentation, the cherries are turned and raked regularly throughout each day and covered at night to prevent them from absorbing extra moisture. When the cherries have dried, the outer layer of fruit will have turned black, brittle, and dry, making it easier to remove the outer skin from the bean.
Wet processing: Another option is wet processing, which is a newer way to remove the fruit from around the coffee cherries. It is named this way because water is used to move the coffee fruit and extract the beans. It involves cleaning the cherries and removing any that are overripe or unripe. Then, the cherries are placed into a pulping machine that can remove the skin without causing damage to the beans, since the beans are quite hard. Any berries that come out with pulp still on are often set aside and used for cheaper coffee since this is a sign that they are not ripe enough. Then, the beans will be put into large tanks that enzymes are added to, for dissolving the mucilage in a process that takes around 24 hours. Then, the beans are repeatedly washed to ensure that there is no stickiness leftover, before being dried in the sun for a couple of days.
The next process before the beans are finally sold to roasters, is coffee milling. This starts with hulling, which is a process where any dried husk including the endocarp, mesocarp and exocarp is removed from the coffee beans. Then, there is an optional process of polishing the beans, which involves removing any silver skin that might have missed the hulling process.
Coffee Tasting and Roasting
While it’s important to know about where the coffee has been and what has happened to it before it arrives, coffee tasting and roasting is often the part of the process where coffee lab assistants and production professionals will begin to get involved.
Tasting: Tasting of coffee is a process that is known as cupping, and is usually carried out by a trained professional, who will roast a small portion of the coffee and taste it to identify the flavor and grade in a process that is quite similar to wine tasting. The cupper is looking for several qualities in the coffee including the acidity, body, and aftertaste and will directly impact whether or not the roaster decides to buy the beans.
Roasting: When coffee is not yet roasted, it has all the flavors locked inside the beans and is known as green coffee. The roasting process will transform green coffee into the aromatic, brown coffee beans that are available to buy or at coffee shops to make drinks. Roasting coffee is carried out at high temperatures while turning the beans continuously to ensure that they do not become burned. The green coffee beans begin this process with drying until they have developed a roasting smell and become yellow in color, at which point they are put into the roaster. How long the beans are roasted for will depend on the level of the roast desired, with lightly roasted beans put through the process for a shorter amount of time than dark roasted beans. Once the beans reach an internal temperature of four hundred degrees Fahrenheit, they will create the first crack, where the beans will begin to turn light brown in color and double in size. Continuing to roast the beans after this point will turn them a medium brown color, and fragrant oils are emitted from the beans.
Working as a coffee lab or production assistant is a very interesting career to consider if you are fascinated by how coffee is produced.