Coffee seeds take weeks to germinate, months to grow into seedlings that can withstand transplanting, and years to bear fruit. Each season, a fleeting flowering of the coffee plants releases an intoxicating fragrance and starts a nine-month countdown to the harvest, which transpires slowly over a period of several months. But when the ripe cherry is pried from its stem by a gentle twist of the picker’s hand, the patient process of coffee production enters a final phase that is, by comparison, frenzied. This phase, disproportionately important in determining a coffee’s quality and durability, consists of a series of successive processes through which coffee is transformed from a ripe fruit to a shelf-stable seed in a matter of weeks. During this time the coffee undergoes many biological and chemical changes that are endlessly complex, only just beginning to be fully understood, and filled with both opportunities and pitfalls for growers.
Most of our coffee is harvested the old-fashioned way: by hand. Why? There are two key reasons. The first is a practical one; most of the world’s finest coffees are grown on remote highland farms in rugged terrain where mechanization isn’t an option.
The second has everything to do with quality. Much like wine grapes, the ripeness of the coffee cherry is essential to quality. But unlike wine grapes, all the coffee cherries in a given cluster do not mature at the same time. That’s why we ask our Direct Trade partners to harvest cherries only at peak ripeness -- a task that requires a discerning eye, sensitive touch and skill that only well-practiced farmers or workers possess.
The labor-intensive process of manual harvesting involves millions of workers who fan out on steep hillsides across the coffeelands of Africa, Asia and the Americas for weeks and months on end. . They gently twist each cherry from its stem, but only those that have reached their peak maturity. The rest they leave to ripen. They repeat this selective process as many as six times over the course of a single harvest season, until the trees are bare.
The length of the harvest can vary from one country to the next and one crop year to the next, but it is generally divided into three phases: early harvest, peak harvest and late harvest.
When picking thousands of cherries a day, even the most discriminating and experienced farm workers will miss the mark on occasion. Since the last part of the coffee cherry to ripen is the area around the cherry’s stem, which faces the shrub’s trunk and is not visible to the picker, even cherries that appear ready from one side can still be underripe. That’s why even the most meticulous manual harvesting is sometimes complemented with manual sorting by color before further processing. This includes cherry separation, the removal of overripe and underripe cherries, as well as the removal of leaves and twigs inadvertently collected during harvesting.
Many farms also put their selected cherries into flotation tanks, which allows them to eliminate cherries with defects not visible to the naked eye. Cherries that have developed properly will sink to the bottom of the tanks, while those with malformed or damaged seeds have lower density and will float to the top, where they can be skimmed and set aside for separate processing.
During the immediate post-harvest milling process, ripe red coffee cherry is transformed to the green coffee seed that we eventually roast and brew. Coffee can travel different paths after picking, and the choices made during milling impact flavor in powerful ways, leading to distinct outcomes. The product of each process has a different name. The wet process produces washed coffee, the dry process produces natural coffee, and the semi-washed process yields coffees that go by the name honey or pulped-natural.