6 things you need to know about coffee’s journey – Part 3

By Garry
July 12, 2019

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m sat outside our lovely rural roastery in the sunshine and thinking about my plans for the weekend. I also start thinking how great it is that the weather is so nice for Wimbledon. Then I’m distracted by strawberries and just how many will be consumed over the event! Strawberries are great aren’t they? I have such fond memories of strawberry picking as a child. From a very young age however my dad instilled some VERY important rules for me to follow. No randomly picking just any old strawberry…

  1. Only pick the nice red juicy ones
  2. If they are green, leave them for another day
  3. Leave them if they have been munched on by pests
  4. If they are overripe, they are not at their best
  5. When picking, try not to damage the plant

Looking at these simple yet vital steps, they are all applicable to the harvesting of coffee. Harvesting coffee is the stage in coffee production where the coffee cherries are taken from the plant during the correct season in preparation for processing (which just so happens to be the next blog!)

One of my first insights into just how important it was to pick cherries in their optimum condition was when, as a newly qualified barista trainer I was having a chat with a colleague who had just returned from a trip to Costa Rica. Whilst stood at the highest point on the farm he was visiting in the region of Tarrazu, the farmer picked a nearby cherry and gave it to him. He said;

This is the best the cherry will ever be and that it is up to everyone involved in the processes that follow to be true to it.’

Often we forget that the cup of coffee we drink started as something so simple and perfect.

So how do my childhood strawberry picking rules apply to coffee harvesting?

All workers on the farm are trained to be able to identify the ripest cherries and only pick them when  they are at there best. They often will wear a coloured bracelet to help them select the cherries and achieve the consistency. The farmers can also wear refractometers which will show the sweetness levels that are in the cherry.

These steps in the hand picking stage allow the green cherries ie, the ones that haven’t ripened yet to be left. Whilst the majority of coffee is hand picked, there are a few other methods used throughout the world. Some larger farms that are relatively flat are able to use mechanical machines to harvest their coffee. In essence, this shakes the tree causing all fruit to fall off. This will give you a wide variation of quality in the crop which will mean a lower grade, commodity coffee. The main reason for using this method would be to save time and labour costs. Another harvesting method used in strip picking. Like machine harvesting, this is a quicker and less labour intensive process although quality will once again be severely compromised. Keeping pests away from the cherries can also be tricky. One way to minimise this issue is to clear away any cherries that have naturally fallen from the tree. These are either used for local consumption or added to the lower quality batch.

To help prepare for harvest time additional staff will be required. There are many workers who will migrate across the continents supporting the local workers to make sure that the fruit can be picked at the right time. These additional workers are vital. Those that have taken on additional training in selecting the perfect cherries will be rewarded with a higher rate of pay. This is something that is a reoccurring theme throughout the speciality market. The more work, care and attention to detail that goes into production, the better the product and ultimately commands a higher price …deservedly.

With regards to coffee, seasonality is often a balance of availability and quality. It is perhaps where the biggest difference between commodity and speciality coffee arise. Commodity focuses very heavily on price. With an ever fluctuating market it is not uncommon for coffee to be stored for long periods of time, and not always in the best conditions, until the price recovers. This will undoubtedly have an impact on quality, but will allow coffee traders (the middle men) to maximise their profits.  With speciality and in particular micro lots, having coffee at the peak of its freshness is a must. For us at Horsebox the best way we have found to showcase what’s in season at anytime of year is to offer a good selection of guest coffees. That’s why you will see our guest coffee range frequently change.  

To keep a track on the seasons, the coffee community uses a calendar: 

The green lines represent the countries main harvest time. Generally each country has one harvest a year, with the exception for Kenya and Colombia (second harvest in blue). Honduras is also known to have a smaller, late harvest (highlighted in red).

We need to remember that unlike Strawberries there is no ‘Local’ coffee season, and shipping from origin can take a good couple of months. However luckily the green coffee bean is much more stable than a strawberry and with careful processing and shipping (more on this to come) can retain it’s flavour potential perfectly during this period.

With this in mind we keep our our house coffees consistent to farm or neighbours through out the year but always buy fresh crop as soon as the farmers we work with have new crop available, again to ensure we maintain the best flavour potential possible.

What we hope you take away from this blog is to appreciate how much work goes into ensuring we have delicious coffee all year round.

Why not have a look at our online shop and see what guests we have at the moment or learn a bit more about our house coffees too. All our coffees are very different to one another and of course bursting with character.

By the way, the answer to how many strawberries are consumed during Wimbledon is 27000 kg which is a crazy amount! Having said that in the UK alone around 90 million cups of coffee are consumed each day … every day!

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