Wake up and smell the coffee – a phrase dating back to June 4, 1927 (Word Histories) – has a very literal meaning for many people every day around the world. As a coffee drinker myself, there’s nothing quite like a nice warm cup of coffee in my favorite mug.
In the last installation of this series, “Coffee – Where Does It Come From?“, you learned what kind of plant the coffee bean comes from, about the two main species of coffee tree, and how coffee was regarded throughout history and came to be an important part of our culture today.
Now, you’ll continue farther along the journey to discover how coffee is harvested and processed and the different methods that are used.
As we learned in the last article, coffee beans are the seeds of a cherry like fruit that grows on trees belonging to the genus coffea. These trees take anywhere from 4-7 years to fully mature and grow the fruit. The fruit is considered fully mature when the cherry turns from a green to a dark red or orange color. There is typically only one harvest time per year that lasts about 2-3 months. The specific time of year to harvest varies by altitude and region. In the Northern Hemisphere, the harvest lasts from September – March (Harvesting of Coffee). In the Southern Hemisphere, the harvest lasts from April – August (Harvesting of Coffee) or April – May (How Stuff Works).
During the harvest season, the cherries are traditionally picked by hand by using one of two methods: strip picking or selective picking.
Strip picking is when every fruit on the tree is harvested at one time. This method is used with Robusta coffee (coming from the species coffea canephora) either by hand or by a machine that shakes the tree until every fruit drops to the ground. (Harvesting of Coffee)
Selective picking is when only the perfectly ripened cherries are picked each time the harvesters visit the tree throughout the harvesting season. This method is labor intensive but allows most every cherry to be used to garner coffee beans from. Because of the labor involved, this is a more expensive way to harvest coffee. Arabic coffee is harvested using selective picking. (Harvesting of Coffee)
Throughout the season, an average of 100-200 pounds of cherries are picked a day on a typical farm. 20% of the total weight is comprised of actual coffee beans and only about 20% of coffee beans are considered high enough quality for store shelves. (Harvesting of Coffee).
When the cherries are picked, the next step is to process them. When processing, one of three methods is used: Washed, Dry, and Honey. The washed and dry methods are most common. (Essense).
Wet (washed) – In the washed/wet method, water is used to cleanly separate the fruit from the bean with the water acting as a cleaning agent (Essense). This is achieved by using a pulping machine wherein water washes the cherries through the machine where the bean is then squeezed from the cherry pulp. Once this is achieved, the beans are then separated by weight, the immature ones are lighter than the mature ones. After being separated this way, they are then sprayed to remove more layers of coating from the beans before being stored in fermentation tanks where over the course of 12-48 hours, natural enzymes further break down the outside coating layers on the fresh seeds/coffee beans. When the washing process is finally complete, the beans are then dried to an 11% moisture content either in the sun or by mechanical dryers (Coffee Processing).
Dry (natural) – In the dry/natural method, the coffee cherries are left to dry in the sun before being separated by hand (Essense). They’re dried by being spread out over a concrete or brick patio where they sit in the direct sunlight and are raked every few days to keep them from fermenting. This process takes 7-10 days for the cherries to have dropped to 11% moisture, which is considered dry. The cherries, dried to a brown shade, are then stored in silos (Coffee Processing).
Honey – In the honey method of separation, techniques from both the wet and dry methods are combined wherein water is used to remove the pulp of the cherry but not the mucilage layers over the seed. The seed is then set out to dry in the sunlight, preserving the sweetness of the cherry itself when the coffee bean is then used to make the drink later on (Essense).
There are several types of honey processing (Taken directly from this source) :
- White Honey process removes 90-100% mucilage from the bean and dries uncovered for a clean and balanced cup.
- Golden Honey process removes 75-80% of the mucilage and dries uncovered that leads to a crisp and citrus-like cup.
- Yellow Honey process removes as much as 50% of the mucilage, dries uncovered and produces a cup with floral and apricot notes.
- Red Honey process removes 20-25% of the mucilage, dries uncovered and results in a sweet and syrupy cup.
- Black Honey process removes none of the mucilage, dries covered which causes some fermentation and produces a coffee that is sweet, full-bodies with fruity depth.
Due to the nuances of the process, the honey process is not as common as the previously mentioned wet or dry processes.
All three processes produce beautiful, bountiful coffee beans that make the delicious drink we know and love.
Thank you for reading! I hope you found these last two articles as informational as I did. In the next article we will look at how coffee beans are roasted and how different methods affect the end-product.
Have a wonderful day and thank you for reading!
- E. Lexi Abbott
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