Coffee Harvesting - The Bean of Choice

When’s a bean not a bean, a bush not a well do you know that bean you love? Do you know what it goes through just to please you?

Your humble little coffee bean goes through a lot on its way to bring you a soothing cup. Most fruits and veggies just get picked and shipped, but not the coffee fruit. The harvest is a grueling process for the beans, separating the wheat from the chaff.  Only the best ones survive the test.

/files/u3/Coffee-Harvesting.jpg" title="Coffee Harvesting" align="right" height="300" width="400" vspace="10" hspace="10" alt="Coffee Harvesting" />This month, northern hemisphere coffee farmers will begin harvesting coffee beans. Now, all the work of planting and cultivating comes to fruition. If you’ve ever wondered how your favorite beans got to your cup, it’s time for a brief harvest-time tour!

Coffee plants are actually evergreen trees related to the gardenia, producing similar fragrant white flowers. Not only are the bushes not bushes, but ………. the beans are not really beans! Coffee plants produce berries - called cherries, probably because they turn red when ripe. Beneath the cherries' red skin is a fleshy pulp, a slimy layer, and a parchment-like membrane which covers two seeds What we call the bean is actually the seed of a coffee cherry, not a bean.

That red color is the sign it’s time to pick because it is when the essential oils are at the highest level, acid content is lower, and delicious and fragrant aromas during roasting are offered.

The vast majority of coffee is harvested by hand by strip picking or selective picking. In the faster strip picking, the entire crop is picked in one pass. The sorting is more involved and unripe cherries have to be discarded.

Selective picking involves making several passes among the coffee trees every eight to ten days so that only the fully ripe berries are taken. The more expensive method, it’s only used for Arabica beans.

In Brazil, because of its flat landscape full of coffee fields, machine harvesting is possible. In some countries, such as India, the fruit is allowed to ripen on the trees until it falls naturally or through shaking. Sifting removes dust, leaves and twigs.

Some producers wait until coffee is over-ripe. The pulpy husk hardens and dries out, turning dark brown or black. But this late stage "natural" coffee carries risks – if end-of-harvest rains knock the dried, fragile fruit to the ground, it can take on an earthy taste and spoil.

Whichever method is chosen, the picking is the most important part of the coffee harvesting process, as it determines the quality of the final product in the coffee roast.

Processing occurs in one of two ways. In the wet method, used for better quality coffee, a pulping machine removes the outer material surrounding the actual seed and the pulp is rinsed away, often recycled into organic compost. After pulping, the husk-covered bean is run through various water treatments in which the less than ripe beans float and are removed leaving the ripe ones which sink. The beans go through fermentation to remove the slimy layer over the husk and then are rinsed in preparation for drying.

The simpler, older "dry" method, used where water is scarce, requires less expensive machinery. The fresh cherries are spread in thin layers on drying surfaces and are raked and turned frequently so that they will dry evenly in the sun without spoiling. Once they’re dry, special hullers remove all seed-covering layers and the coffee is sorted and graded.

Sorting is by density and size through a large machine which can remove rocks and other debris that mixes in during the drying process. It blows the beans into the air, blowing away chaff and skins, and the denser beans are selected.

The beans are also sorted by color, this time by hand, and defective beans are removed. The more difficult portion of the sorting process, it’s potentially the most important in determining the quality of the coffee. Coffee beans are also graded based on size, altitude at which grown, how harvested, taste, and brew quality.

Finally the green beans that make the cut are packed into 60-kilogram bags for shipping to roasters around the world and through to your cup. The end of their arduous journey is the beginning of your enjoyment.

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