From Bean to Cup Pt. 3: Harvesting the Coffee

In previous posts we have looked at the coffee plant and the differences between arabica and robusta coffee. In this blog we walk you through the process of how to harvest the coffee cherries from the plant (it is inside these ripe cherries that the coffee bean is found).

How do we know when it's time to harvest? Well, by now the coffee plants would have flowered, been pollinated and formed their fruit, which we refer to as coffee 'cherries'. As these cherries ripen, they change colour from green to bright red, then eventually a deep richer red, which means that they are ready to harvest!

Harvest methods

The harvesting process can be done by machine or by hand:

  • The mechanical harvesting methods are commonly used in countries like Brazil, where the open fields and scarcity of other plants allow tracked vehicles to move around with ease.
  • Throughout the rest of the coffee growing world, good old hand power is the order of the day! Steep hills and dense forestation, which provides shade for the coffee plants below, makes this the only viable picking method in these areas.

Picking methods

There are two approaches to picking the cherries, 'strip picking' and 'selective picking'. For mechanical methods workers can only use the 'strip picking' approach, unlike hand harvesting where they have a choice between the two, here's why:
  • In 'strip picking' the machine or person will take every cherry from the branch all in one go resulting in ripe cherries, nearly ripe cherries and unripe cherries all ending up in the same basket. Obviously this is not an ideal situation and can result in unripe cherries being discarded.
  • When cherries are being harvested using 'selective picking', only the very ripest cherries will be picked by skilled plantation workers. Once they have harvested a plant they will leave it for a further 8-12 days and revisit it, this could happen three or four times before the crop is finished. This method results in a high yield of high quality coffee beans, but that comes at a cost of high wages from this labour intensive work.

To produce high quality wholesale coffee beans like the ones we purchase to roast, selective picking is a must.

Once the cherries are picked they must be transported as quickly as possible to the nearest processing plant which is often on the coffee farm itself and start processing them from the cherries into the green beans. That is what I will be talking about next time.
buckets of ripe coffee cherries

An example of coffee cherries harvested using the 'selective picking' technique where only the ripest cherries are picked.

coffee cherries after picking harvested

When coffee cherries are harvested using the 'strip picking' method unripe cherries and unwanted foliage is also collected.

By Simon Bower

< Previous 'From Bean to Cup Pt.2: Arabica v Robusta'  ----------------  'From Bean to Cup Pt.4: Coming soon' Next>

'From Bean to Cup’ is a series of blogs by Pollards that guides you through the processes behind the daily cup of coffee we all enjoy. The blogs will cover the processing, the roasting and the grading of coffee beans, while documenting its journey from the plantation to your favourite mug.