It can take a coffee plant three years before it’s mature enough to bear fruit and most trees have one harvest per year. There are some trees that have two harvests a year but the quantity is smaller and quality is lower. It's a large investment to plant coffee trees and farmers have to decide whether it's worth it to carry the cost of production for at least four years, hoping the trees will produce enough cherries to make up the investment of time and money.
Established coffee farms will have nurseries where they plant new coffee in rich soil to germinate. When the bean is lifted from the ground by the developing shoot, it is known as “soldier” and soon the bean will shoot off to reveal the plants first leaf. After getting a good 6-12 month head start, they move from the nursery to the farm where it takes three years to grow into a tree and start producing its first set of cherries.
After prolonged periods of rainfall the trees will bloom producing lots of white flowers giving off a jasmine scent. Bees will help the tree pollinate but Arabica trees are self pollinating. After nine months the flowers will turn into cherries. Most arabica varietals will turn red when ripened but some varietals like bourbon will also turn orange or yellow when ripened. But no matter the variety all arabica cherries do not ripen at the same time.
Depending on the typography of the land and resources available to the farmer there are two ways of harvesting the crop. If the land is relatively flat like it is in Brazil then the farmer might consider mechanical harvesting. The benefit of this is cutting cost but because the berries don’t ripen all at once, mechanical harvesting collects a lot of unripe cherries and has to be sorted out after harvest, which creates an extra step and lessens yield. This is more common in flat regions and on high production farms in places like Brazil but for farms that grow on more elevated terrains or smallholder farmers this is often not seen as worth it and choose to harvest by hand instead.
Hand harvesting is the ideal way to ensure high quality coffee as ideally pickers are only picking the ripest cherries while leaving unripe cherries on the tree. However the downside to hand picking cherries is the cost and motivation of the pickers. Because pickers are paid by weight it is common to take shortcuts like strip picking to pick more in less time. By grabbing the branch and pulling off the cherries instead of picking only the ripe ones, this causes a lot of unripe cherries to be picked as well as branches and twigs, compromising the quality in the same way mechanical harvesting would. SInce picking is a hard job most pickers are transient and come from the poorer parts of the continent traveling around when the farms need them. Quality conscious farmers have to work closely with their pickers to ensure they are only picking the ripest cherries.
After the coffee is picked it needs to get sorted. In parts of the world where labour cost is low and little money is around for investing, sorting is done by hand while on the wealthier farms, sorting is done by adding the cherries to a tank of water. When the ripe cherries sink and the unripe cherries float, it's easy to scoop off the top and drain the water to retrieve the good stuff.
The harvested cherries then get moved to a wet mill which can be a small production area on the farm or a much larger production facility located off site. The term wet mill is misleading because most wet mills usually use little to no water depending on what the farmer has decided to do with the crop. Since coffee cherries are made up of layers of skin and pulp need to be separated from the bean and protective parchment layer and dried to 11-12% hydration to last longer in storage. The parchment layer provides a protective layer and the bean itself doesn’t start to deteriorate until this is removed during the last stage of hauling and grading. Once the coffee has been deplup, it can go on to be processed.
When it comes to processing there's a variety of options to choose from. The most common two being washed and natural. Natural coffee is one of the oldest ways of processing coffee. The coffee is spread out on beds or brick patios and is turned often to prevent mold, fermentation or rotting. Natural coffees have the potential for nice flavours but if not maintained can add some off putting notes instead. This process can be very labour intensive but is a great option for places with little access to water.
Another common choice is the washed process. The goal for this process is to remove all of the sticky flesh from the coffee seed before it dries which lowers the chances of any off flavours found in natural coffees. The cherry is stripped of its outer skin and most of the fruit and moved to a tank where the remainder of the flesh is removed with fermentation. The fruit in the cherries contain a lot of pectin which can be used to test how far along the process is by putting a stick into the tank to see if it stands up in the thickened water. Others will test by rubbing the coffee to see if it squeaks. Once this is done, the beans are dried just like natural coffees until they reach a moisture content of 11%. Washed coffees have a much cleaner taste which is an important term used in coffee since it refers to the absence of negative flavours or unusually harshness.
There are also less common processes such as the pulped natural method where the coffee is depulped stripping most of the skin and fruit flesh from the bean. Then it goes straight to the beds or patios to dry. As a kind of compromise between natural and washed, less flesh surrounding the beans means there is a decreased chance of defects but still enough sugar in the leftover fruit for an increased sweetness and flavour in the final cup.
There's also the honey process, which is very similar to the pulped natural process but with even more flesh left on the bean creating a sweeter cup. This type of process has a higher chance of defects, but out of all the methods is my personal favorite. I find the cup sweeter and brighter in flavor.
Finally there’s the option of the semi washed method. With this method, the coffee is depulped and briefly dried to 30-35% moisture where it is then hulled. The bean is dried again so it can be stored with the risk of spoilage. The end result with this method is a swamp green coloured bean and the final cup of coffee with lower acidity and more body. It also creates some unique flavors like tobacco, spice and leather, but of course there’s disagreements if those flavors are actually desirable or not.
Once processing is done, it's time to start hulling. When coffee beans leave the wet mill they are stored for thirty to sixty days which helps prevent them from tasting green and unpleasant. At this point the coffee is sold and hauled. The coffee goes to a dry mill where the parchment is stripped off. Once hulled the coffee goes through a machine that examines the colour and rejects any obvious defects and put through a shaking sieve which sorts the beans according to size. It then gets graded by hand which adds significant cost to the end price of coffee as it takes a long time to complete.
Finally, the coffee is bagged. The bag is usually lined with a protective layer such as polyethylene to manage moisture content or the coffee can be vacuumed, sealed and shipped in boxes. Once the coffee is sold and distributed it can be roasted and sold to the consumer.
We just took only a very brief overview of coffee production but already we can identify some manager expenses the producer has to make in order to bring the coffee to market. Next week we are going to talk about what a C-price is and why that’s hurting rather than helping producers. Thank you for listening if you enjoyed this podcast please go to 12mileespressobar.com and get yourself a bag of coffee. We are working with Pirates of Coffee and We The Origin to deliver you a better cup of coffee while staying transparent and supporting farmers with better wages.