How Coffee Beans Are Harvested

Before coffee beans become the delicious beverage we all love, the ripe coffee cherries containing the beans need to be harvested from coffee trees. Harvesting occurs once a year (some regions experience two harvests, a main and a second smaller one) when the cherries have gone from green to bright red and glossy.

Traditionally coffee cherries are harvested by one of two main methods: selective picking and strip picking.

No method is better than the other as the decision process will vary in each region. Which method is used comes down to the farmers’ budget, coffee quality, and layout of the land.

Selective Picking

Selective picking is a time-consuming method that requires a large workforce of laborers. The process involves manually selecting only the ripe coffee cherries from each branch by hand, leaving the others behind for another coffee picker to check on them in the coming 8 to 10 days.

Selective picking allows for coffee trees to be planted on terrains that are uneven or difficult to get to using a machine, allowing farmers to better utilize their farmland. Whereas other methods require flat-level terrain to transport and efficiently use the equipment. Selective picking enables trees to be planted anywhere a single coffee picker can reach.

Farmers who opt to use selective picking as their method of harvesting face two common problems.

  1. It’s a much slower process than strip picking.
  2. Labor availability, a farmer can’t get enough coffee pickers, slowing the process even further.

A few benefits a farmer who uses selective picking does have is the ability to better utilize their farmland and terrain. Enabling them to plant more trees leads to harvests with a greater volume of coffee beans. Another is that this method allows for a better final quality product because each coffee cherry is picked when ripe and unneeded to be separated in future processes.

Strip Picking

Strip picking is done by stripping every coffee cherry, ripe or unripe, off the branch in one motion, either by hand or using a machine.

Strip picking can be done in one of three ways:

Manual Stripping

Cherry pickers will first place a canvas sheet on the ground before grabbing each brand of the coffee tree and pulling it away from the tree base. This effectively stips all the cherries, ripe or unripe, onto the canvas sheet. Once the pickers have finished, they wrap up the fallen cherries with the canvas sheet and carry them away to be weighed.

Mechanical Stripping

Mechanical stripping still involves manual work, but cherry pickers are given a tool known as a derricadeiras stripping tool to assist with knocking the cherries onto the ground.

Mechanical Harvester

This method requires far less labor than previous methods, utilizing a mechanical harvester equipped with rotating mallets to knock coffee cherries off the trees and into collection bays. As technology has advanced, new machinery now can adjust the speed, force, and vibration of the mallets to help minimize the stripping of unripe coffee cherries. However, mechanical harvesting does require a flat terrain to allow the machinery to travel safely around the farmland.

Overall, strip picking is a faster process, although it does result in far more wastage than selective picking. Every coffee cherry is stripped off the tree, with unripe ones thrown out.

What Happens After A Coffee Bean Is Harvested?

After the coffee cherries have been harvested, they need to be processed. Processing coffee cherries is done in two ways, either by the natural process or the washed.

I’ve previously written an article about natural vs. washed processing methods. If you want to read about each process in further detail, you should go there, but I’ll provide a summary here.

The natural process is widely used in areas that are limited in resources. The process involves laying out the coffee cherries in the sun to dry out. Where and what the coffee cherries are placed on to dry is the farmers’ decision, but ultimately it impacts the taste of the final coffee. As cherries dried on the soil will have a vastly different flavor to those dried on bricks or concrete.

After the coffee cherries have completely dried, the beans from within are hulled out as they go onto the next step.

The washed process is commonly used in East Africa and South America and is rarely used in areas that lack desired resources. The washed process involves the cherries passing through a de-pulping machine, forcing the coffee beans out of the cherries. While they are no longer within the fruit, they still have a slimy layer around them, known as mucilage.

The coffee beans are placed into a fermentation tank, where they remain for a set period, depending on different factors. This fermentation time will alter the coffee beans’ flavor profile because coffee beans that ferment for longer can absorb more sugars from the mucilage.

Once removed from the tanks, coffee beans are washed in a water tank or in the local river channel. After they are washed, the beans are needed to be dried before being shipped out.

Summary

How coffee beans are harvested is a decision the farmer or commercial grower has to make long before planting any coffee trees. It’s a decision that has to factor in available labor, costs, terrain, and the desired quality of the coffee beans.

Some farmers can choose between the two, while others are forced to only use one method due to a lack of resources. Either way, no method is better than the other as the circumstances of the farmer and farm are needed to be taken into consideration.