Depending on the variety, it will take approximately 3 to 4 years for the newly planted coffee trees to bear fruit. In most coffee tree varieties, the fruit, called the coffee cherry, turns a bright, deep red when it is ripe and ready to be harvested.
There is typically one major harvest a year. In countries like Colombia, where there are two flowerings annually, there is a main and secondary crop.
In most countries, the crop is picked by hand in a labor-intensive and difficult process, though in places like Brazil where the landscape is relatively flat and the coffee fields immense, the process has been mechanized. Whether by hand or by machine, all coffee is harvested in one of two ways:
All of the cherries are stripped off of the branch at one time, either by machine or by hand.
Only the ripe cherries are harvested, and they are picked individually by hand. Pickers rotate among the trees every eight to 10 days, choosing only the cherries at the peak of ripeness. Because this kind of harvest is labor intensive and more costly, it is used primarily to harvest the finer Arabica beans.
A good picker averages approximately 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day, which will produce 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans. Each worker's daily haul is carefully weighed, and each picker is paid on the merit of his or her work. The day's harvest is then transported to the processing plant.
Processing the Cherries
The ripe coffee cherry post-harvest must be specially processed to extract the seed or bean from the cherry. The processing is comprised of two steps; the removal of the cherry skin and the mucilage of the cherry from the seed, and the drying of the seed. Types of coffee processing include:
- Dry or natural
- Pulped natural
- Washed processing
Dry or Natural Processing
Cherries picked from the coffee tree are laid out immediately on a cement patio, clay patio, or on a raised bed to begin drying. The bean has not yet been removed from the cherry at this point. This allows complex and fruity flavors to develop. Drying usually takes one to three weeks. When natural process coffees have achieved the desired level of dryness, they are milled and prepared for export or storage.
Natural coffees tend to have a heavy body and lower acidity with an earthy quality.
Semi‐washed, Pulped Natural, and Honey Processing
Semi-Washed, Pulped Natural, and Honey Processed coffees are very similar forms of processing. All three involve the removal of the skin and mucilage of the cherry before the drying process, with the difference being how much of the cherry is removed.
Semi-Washed and Pulped Natural processing remove a higher percentage of the mucilage from the seed before drying, while Honeyed Processing involves leaving a greater portion on the bean.
After the respective amount of cherry is removed, the coffee starts fermentation. Fermentation allows the sugars from the leftover coffee mucilage to breakdown and contribute to the overall flavor and sweetness in the bean. This is typically performed in a large concrete tank or container for 8-48 hours and can be done with or without water. For more consistency and flavor clarity unlike like dry or natural processing, there is less of the cherry involved in fermentation. The drying process then follows a similar method to Natural Processing, drying for two to three weeks.
Semi-washed/Pulped Natural/Honey Processed are generally Medium to Full body in flavor with refined sweetness and medium acidity.
In the washed process all of the skin and the mucilage of the coffee cherry are removed before drying. This process includes the extra step of water fermentation by soaking the seeds in a tank filled with water. Once the mucilage has sufficiently fermented and loosened, the seeds are then washed in one of several ways: “washing channels”, agitation by hand or mechanical agitation. These extra steps require additional support and facilities at the farm, but often yield greater coffee quality.
Washed processed coffee is known for producing beans with dynamic flavor complexity, high acidity, and superior clarity.
In both Washed and Semi-Washed coffees, the skin and mucilage are removed by means of mechanical depulpers. These machines force the cherry between a moving disk or cylinder and a perforated or textured plane, separating the skin and some mucilage from the seed. The amount of mucilage left on the seed can be altered by adjusting the distance between the plate and the cylinder.
Once processed, coffee must be dried completely prior to sorting, bagging and storage. It’s important for coffee to achieve a very low moisture content level so it can safely be stored for roasting and brewing at a later date.
Coffee is typically dried on a patio or flat surface. This area can vary in size based on the farm or processing facility, and it can be constructed of concrete, clay or many other materials. With varying ambient weather conditions the coffee is typically raked to allow a more stable and consistent drying environment.
Coffee can also be dried on raised beds, usually made of mesh. The surface structures allow airflow and ambient temperature to surround the coffee. Some larger farms or processing facilities have access to mechanical drying equipment. These massive drums rotate and heat the coffee like a giant low temperature roaster.
Drying time varies depending on the method chosen, farmer resources and weather conditions. It can range from 1 to 14 days.
After drying, coffee goes through a meticulous sorting process. Typically sorting is done by hand and anything that looks too dark, light or damaged is removed. Signs of pests or diseases can also be identified during sorting. Once sorted, it is organized into lots. Select lot samples are sent to coffee importers and roasters where they are sample roasted and "cupped" - or taste tested for evaluation and potential purchase.