Picking Coffee Beans

After reading this part of the guide you should know how coffee beans are harvested, the different methods that can be employed and what their pros and cons are. The method of harvesting can impact the final product, so this page will help you understand the impact of different coffee harvesting strategies.

 

There are two ways to harvest coffee:

 

  • Strip picking is when you get all the coffee from the tree in one go.
  • Selective picking is when you only get the ripe, red berries by hand.

Strip Picking

strip picking machine

Coffee plants can be harvested using either a mechanical or manual strip picking method. In both cases, all the fruits on the coffee plant are stripped off at once.

With the mechanical strip picking method, harvesting machines run along the fields, knocking the fruit down with revolving arms.

After this, workers collect the fallen coffee fruit with their hands and place them into crates. Manual strip picking is just as it sounds: Workers pick all the fruits off of each plant one-by-one, depositing them into crates.

Coffee harvested using mechanical strip picking will not be of as high quality as coffee harvested using manual strip picking. However, mechanical harvesting tends to be more cost-effective for large plantations because of its greater efficiency compared with manual harvesting.

The harvesting of coffee berries begins with the gatherers. They follow the coffee trees and pick up the fruits that have fallen to the ground. They then place them in baskets or bags, separating the berries from twigs and other debris.

If workers simply run their hands down the branches, all of the ripe berries will fall off and onto the tarpaulin or into a bag below. In the processing plant, the fruits are sorted by a machine. It picks out the ripe, sound ones from the overripe, underripe, damaged or rotting ones.

Selective Picking

selective coffee picking

The best coffee beans are the ones that are selectively picked. This means that each fruit is chosen when it is at its best. While this harvesting method is hard work, it generally produces better-quality coffee beans.

This method allows workers to look at the fruit to see if it is ripe. They look at its color and how firm it is.

The fruit should be soft, and the seed should be able to be squeezed out by hand. If the fruit is too hard, it is underripe, but if too soft, it is overripe and much of the pulp and mucilage will have broken down.

This reduction of the pericarp layers can lead to damage to the bean during pulping, because there is not enough mucilage present for the fruit to slide through the pulper with ease.

After planting, coffee trees often take three to five years to bear fruit, depending on the variety. Once the tree begins to bear fruit, the cherries will be harvested and processed in one of two ways: wet or dry processing.

Processing the fruits should begin as soon as possible after harvest in order to maintain the freshness of the coffee beans.

The process should be started no later than twenty-four hours after picking the fruit, but most plantations say it's best to not leave the fruit for longer than ten hours.

As coffee fruit ripens, the starches in the fruit turn into sugars. This is what gives coffee its sweet flavor. When the fruits are picked, this process starts to reverse.

The longer the coffee fruit stays on the tree, the more sugar it will convert into starch. Fruits that are picked early will have a higher sugar content than those that are picked late.

The fruit of the coffee tree begins to lose moisture immediately following harvest. This is why it's important for coffee crops to be processed as soon as possible after being harvested. Crops that are left to sit lose weight, which lowers their value.

Did You Know?

It’s good to know that not all coffee beans will develop and ripen at the same time, which makes selective picking a preferred method of harvesting in that it ensure only the red cherries are harvested but unripened fruit is left to complete its development. The process is manual and more labor intensive, but does a better job preserving quality coffee beans.

FAQ

What season is coffee harvested?

Harvesting “season” will depend on the region and altitude of the coffee plants, which can impact the time it takes for the fruit to ripen.

In countries north of the Equator the harvest season is typically from September - March. In those south of the Equator the season tends to run from April to August.

 

When can you pick coffee beans?

Coffee beans are ready to be picked once they have ripened to the point where they have 12% moisture. The signs of this can be seen in the coffee bean’s parchment which will start to look dry and brittle.