| Lynsey Harley
Drinking coffee is one of life’s great pleasures. Whether we’re brewing up a delicious filter in our kitchen or watching the barista’s every move to work out, what the beans is he up to? We’ll get to that, but first we’re going to go back further in the journey, way back, right to the farm. In this article we’ll discover what happens to coffee when it’s harvested…
Having looked at what speciality coffee is and where in the world it’s grown, we know that coffee beans actually come from cherries that grow on plants. So as you might expect, the harvesting process all begins with getting those ripe cherries off of those trees.
When to Pick the Cherries
For most coffee producing countries picking cherries is extremely labour intensive and done by hand. The reason for this is usually based on the farm’s geographical location and economics. When you think about it, we already know that the best beans are grown high up hills and mountains, in the middle of a rain-forest or in a steep valley, so the infrastructure for moving industrial equipment in and out just isn’t there for most farmers.
Picking coffee cherries also requires skill, especially for speciality coffees. It requires knowledge and visual cues to know which ones are ripe and which ones are still maturing. With that said, some commodity coffees and robustas are shaken out of the tree with machinery. As you might expect, this method doesn’t decide which cherries stay and which ones go, they all go!
So how do farm-workers know that the cherries are ready? Most coffees go through three main colour changes before they are picked. Green cherries are very young and under ripe, they then move into yellow or orange as they develop, before turning red - the red cherries are picked.
In reality, it’s not actually that simple, some varietals are ripe when they are yellow or orange, which emphasises how important it is for farm-workers to know exactly what they’re looking for. They may also need to visit the same tree several times as cherries don’t necessarily mature in uniform fashion.
Post Pick Processing
You may have read on packet labelling or heard your barista talk about how the coffee was processed. What this refers to is how the cherries were treated after they were picked. Coffee processing methods can be subjective from farm to farm but there are two main methods that most farmers stick to.
Dry Processing is often referred to as natural coffee. This method usually delivers coffees that are very earthy and bold in flavour characteristics and mouth-feel. The cherries are cleaned, which is done by hand or in a bath to get rid of any dirt. They are then scattered across a large patio (sometimes a table or mesh) and left to dry out in the hot sun for weeks. As well as removing a lot of unwanted moisture, this helps develop the flavour of the beans inside the cherries. Most coffee is processed using this method - around 90% of Arabica and more so for robusta.
Wet processing is also known as ‘washing’ the cherries and is a little more complex, but the result is usually a really smooth, clean and sometimes delicate cup of coffee. First the cherries are immersed in water baths, only the cherries that sink make it to the next stage as floating fruits are unripe. The flesh and pulp around the bean is removed by machine or by fermentation after which it needs to be washed again before it is dried - farms that have this level of equipment might also use machinery to dry the beans to cut down the time required.
Once dried, processed coffee beans contain around 12%-13% moisture. There are also hybrid models that combine the wet and dry methods.
After processing, you’re left with the bean and its final layers of skin and maybe some remnants of fruit. These beans are taken to milling stations on the farm or to one nearby that other farms also use. The skin is removed by machines that rattle or knock the skin off and stations will also polish the beans although it’s not that common or important to flavour.
Sorting and Grading
Next, the green beans are cleaned and sorted, sometimes by machines but often by hand - especially for speciality coffee beans. Sorters will also separate beans by size and colour to remove unwanted or defective beans that could spoil a brew, you will also find the odd stone or corn kernel to have made it all the way to this stage too! Beans are then graded by size, colour, weight, where it’s from, who picked it and of course taste, and we now know that coffees with a score of 80 or above are the ones we love most!
Sale and Export
Once the beans have been graded packed and stored into lots or containers they can be sold at auction or sold directly to roasteries and importers. Most of the coffees are exported to Europe by ship as this is the most economical option, however some coffees are delivered by air freight.
Once they arrive at the roastery they’re stored before they’re weighed out to be roasted.
And that, is where we’ll pick up from in our next article on the journey of coffee. So far you can see that there is an incredible amount of effort and labour that goes into harvesting alone, and also that what happens on the farm and at the milling stations does have a massive effect on the flavour of your brew.
Written by - Alex Rogers
Psst… Did you like my article? Perhaps you’d like to know more about what happens to coffee when it’s harvested? If you have any questions or feedback please feel free to contact me directly, or you can also just hit the like button. Thanks!