How Coffee Is Harvested & Processed

December 14, 2022

In today's world, coffee is nearly everywhere, coming as freshly brewed drinks, processed products, and more. From bottles of cold brew to large sacks of roasted beans, consumers can enjoy the wonders of coffee without giving much thought to where it comes from. However, coffee is not native to North America and must travel long distances across the globe before arriving at our local grocery store. But this isn't new for coffee beans — a treasured product with a long history of trekking the world to its very loyal consumers.

Originally from the Ethiopian plateau, it's believed coffee's properties weren't discovered until the 9th century before spreading into the Arab world and later Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The so-called coffee plant is an evergreen shrub that is part of the Rubiaceae family. These fruit-bearing plants can reach anywhere between 6 and 12 meters in height but are typically trimmed on coffee plantations at around 2 meters.

Now growing in varying conditions worldwide, the coffee plant exists as a diverse species that provides diverse flavored coffee cherries. Once these fruits are picked, the harvesting process is one step closer to the roasted beans we pick up at this store. But first, let's dive into the possible paths coffee cherries can take before winding up in our cup as a morning brew.

Picking the Ripest Cherry

The coffee plant's fruits can be called a handful of names, including berries, cherries, and drupes. These firm, red cherries are typically grown in the shade provided by other trees to prevent overexposure to sunlight that diminishes their quality. After about nine months, the cherries are fully ripened and ready for picking.

The coffee harvest happens only once a year and can last a few months to ensure that all fruits have the opportunity to ripen fully. However, the preferred method for harvesting can vary from farmer to farmer.

One by One — Manual Picking

Manual picking requires harvesting the coffee cherries one at a time by hand. Workers inspect each cherry to check for ripeness, making the process significantly longer and more tedious than other methods. Nevertheless, the specialized attention given to each drupe ensures high-quality coffee with great flavor profiles post-roasting.

A Mix — Strip Picking

As the name may imply, strip picking consists of "stripping" entire branches of its coffee cherries, often collecting a mixed batch of ripened and unripened drupes. Although this provides a quicker harvesting method than manual picking, workers must do additional sorting afterward to identify the fruits that require more time to ripen.

The Automated Approach — Machine Harvesting

Machines make every tedious process far more time-efficient, including coffee harvesting. Before opting for machine harvesting, farmers need to ensure that their cherries are ripening at the same rate. These tall machines harvest the fruits by shaking the shrubs until all the coffee cherries have fallen off. Quality assurance and even ripening are complex to gauge when using machine harvesting, meaning this efficient method often produces lower-quality roasts.

Processing — The Next Step

After being sorted, harvested coffee fruits require immediate processing to get the highest-quality product possible. And similar to harvesting, coffee processing can also be conducted in several ways, each one with its respective pros and cons.

Dry Processing

Dry processing uses zero moisture when separating the fruit from the cherry's pit (aka the "bean.”) Coffee cherries are laid out in the sun on concrete surfaces for up to three weeks until their flesh significantly softens. Machines then separate the fruit from the bean.

Wet Processing

Unlike dry processing, wet processing uses moisture to process coffee and removes the fruit layer before drying. A machine strips the picked cherries' fruit layer, leaving behind the drupes' pulp layer covering the bean. The following 'depulping' step in this method consists of placing coffee fruits in a water tank, which initiates fermentation. As time passes, the remaining pulp gently sheds off the bean. Due to this method's slow and gentle approach, the produced coffee beans typically come with few defects. As a result, these beans often yield higher quality roasts at a higher price.

Well-Hulled Processing

Considered a hybrid of the previous two processes, the wet-hulled method strips the beans of their fruit layer before the pulp-covered beans undergo their first drying stage. Afterward, the dried pulp is washed off, and the beans undergo a second drying phase.

Honey Processing

This newer method mechanically strips the coffee cherries' skin to reveal the fruit's mucilage. These fruits are then sun-dried whole, causing the fruit layer's natural sugar content to seep into the beans' flavor. Once the dried fruit is removed, these beans produce a wonderfully sweet roast when done correctly.

Interested in savoring the wonderfully sweet and nuanced flavors of honey processed beans? Sample two of our Costa Rican roasts, including our bold Catuai Honey Coffee with delicious notes of clementines, cranberries and pomegranate, or the Tipica Honey Coffee for a balanced cup with lingering notes of red apple, citrus, and pear.

Fermentation Is In Trend

The specialty coffee market has introduced all sorts of new methods in coffee processing, each once claiming to preserve the coffee fruit's full spectrum of flavor. But one common denominator in these processes is the power of fermentation.

Anaerobic fermentation

Coffee fruits are stripped of their fruit layer, and the remaining seeds are placed in airtight fermentation tanks with the previously stripped fruit. The tank's oxygen is then removed to increase internal pressure as CO2 is released from the fermentation process. This method typically only takes 24 hours and requires careful monitoring to avoid alcohol production. When done correctly, anaerobic fermentation yields excellent results full of floral, acidic flavors and a smooth finish. Our Catuai Anaerobic coffee utilizes these latest innovations to preserve the coffee cherries’ full-bodied fruit flavors, offering lush notes of black currant, passion fruit, cherries, and the earthiness of cacao.

Lactic processing

Lactic processing is anaerobic fermentation with lactic acid bacteria cultures mixed in to help break down the fruit's natural sugar content. After fermentation, the beans are washed and sundried.

Carbonic maceration

Also involving anaerobic fermentation, this method is similar to winemaking. Whole ripened coffee cherries are placed in airtight fermentation tanks, allowing natural tannins from the fruit to infuse the coffee beans. Afterward, the fermented beans can undergo either dry or wet processing.