Specialty coffee is a multicultural, transoceanic, culinary work-in-progress. By the time coffee is consumed, it has been subject to at least seven momentous processes carried out by seven potentially unrelated parties resident in anywhere from two to four parts of the world. Unlike fine wines, which are often bottled by the same people who grow the grapes and produce the wine, coffee is not bottled and is not just purchased, opened, and enjoyed by the consumer.
The process of bringing coffee from the crop to the cup is kicked off by someone who grows and picks the coffee fruit. A second party (usually) buys the fruit and removes the soft, fruity parts from the seeds, then dries the seeds (now called beans), two steps together known as processing and both crucial to the ultimate quality and character of the coffee.
The processor usually sells the dried beans to a third party, the exporter. The exporter may blend beans from different processing mills before bagging and shipping them.
A fourth party imports the coffee into the consuming country, though in most cases he spares it any further manipulation, confining himself to passing judgment on it and selling it to a roaster.
At this point the coffee is subjected to perhaps the single most influential act of all: roasting. The roaster also may blend beans from a variety of crops and regions. The retailer performs a simple but very significant service: handling the coffee sensibly and selling it before it gets stale.
Finally, the consumer buys the coffee, grinds it (usually), and finally produces an actual beverage. But we’re not even finished here. The consumer, before enjoying this meticulously grown, processed, roasted, blended, and brewed coffee, may any number of dairy products, sweeteners, or flavorings, all with differing effects on the final beverage.