When coffee cherries are ripe, they must be picked and sorted, before being processed. Known as “harvesting”, it is a crucial part of every farmers’ year and represents the first leg of a coffee’s long journey to the consumer.
Due to a variety of factors, harvests take place during different months of the year in each coffee-growing region. For example, harvesting in Brazil usually takes place between May and September, while Vietnam’s main harvest is between October and April.
To ensure roasters buy fresh “seasonal” green coffee, it’s important they understand not only when harvests occur, but also how they can replace coffees when they fall out of season, particularly when they are a component of blends.
To find out more, I spoke with quality control manager at Condesa Co.Lab, Oliver Brown.
How is coffee harvested around the world?
In general, there are two main approaches to harvesting coffee: strip picking and selective picking.
Strip picking involves removing all cherries from a branch irrespective of maturity level, which can be done either mechanically or by hand, while selective picking is hand-picking the ripest cherries only.
If machinery is used, it is usually either with a handheld machine that has vibrating “hands” to shake the cherries loose, or with tractors that straddle the trees and knock the cherries from the branches.
The preferred approach for each farm depends on a number of factors, including the coffee’s quality, available equipment, and the number of pickers on hand.
“In Brazil, selective picking only happens for very bespoke micro or nano lots,” Oliver says. “Whereas in Costa Rica, they’re very focused on the specialty market, so a lot of the coffee is often handpicked by the producers themselves.”
In Ethiopia, harvesting is based on the way in which the coffee is produced, such as whether it is fully wild (hand-picked) or plantation (mechanical).
When harvesting cherries, producers or pickers often look at colour or “brix level” as an indicator for cherry ripeness. Depending on the varietal, ripe cherries’ colour can range from bright red to dark red and yellow.
Brix is a measurement of the amount of sugar present in the fruit, and a high level of Brix is usually preferred.
When is coffee harvested and what impacts its quality?
There are a range of variables that influence the time of year at which coffee cherries are harvested, including altitude, average rainfall, soil quality, and proximity to the equator. High temperatures and heavy rainfall, for example, accelerate cherry maturation.
Consequently, each origin (and sometimes even different regions within the same origin) has its own harvest period.
Most origins have just one harvest season per year, with the process typically lasting around three months. The exceptions are Kenya and Sumatra in Indonesia, which typically produce two harvests annually, and Colombia, which has year-round harvests.
“Colombia is unique in that you can always have fresh coffee if you need it,” Oliver tells me. “I’ve been to Cauca (a coffee-growing region of Colombia) where I saw one part of the valley flowering and the other part of the valley being harvested – there are completely different cycles in a relatively small area.”
The processing method, such as whether the cherries will be wet or dry processed, can also play a role in determining the best time for harvesting. For example, Oliver explains that honey processed coffees require a relatively high level of mucilage, which means waiting until the cherries are “nicely ripe and purple” before harvesting.
The quality of harvests also varies between regions, largely due to the same factors.
“If you have a healthy tree, then you’d have healthy cherries,” Oliver explains. “Getting the right kind of soil environment, soil health, and fertilisation input is important. If the tree is not healthy, it puts its energy into fighting pests and diseases, and not into the cherries.”
It takes a certain level of skill and experience to ensure that the trees are not only looked after as the cherries mature, but also that their yield is picked at the right moment, as this can have a significant bearing on the post-harvest process.
Generally, cherries with high sugar – or Brix – levels allow greater microbes activity in the fermentation tank, which contributes to improved flavour development.
Why coffee harvests matter to roasters
For most specialty roasters, buying green coffee at its peak is of the utmost importance.
Studies show that when green coffee is stored for a prolonged period of time, it tends to become flat, lose its viability, and develop unwanted flavours.
Even if the roaster chooses the perfect roast profile, this lack of freshness can still show through in the cup and may put off potential repeat customers.
Oliver tells me that sourcing beans based on harvests is an effective way of preserving the quality of the coffee, while opening up opportunities for a varied and interesting menu determined by what’s in season.
Offering coffee that is always fresh from harvest is an effective way for roasters to gain a competitive edge in the market. Seasonal menus create excitement around your brand – encouraging repeat customers and at the same time, expanding your customer base.
“I think still not enough is done for consumers to understand what quality is – but seasonality plays a huge part in engaging them,” he says. “Seasonality is fundamental in conversations about quality.”
He also says that keeping an eye on harvest cycles also allows roasters to plan well ahead and prepare for any issues in the supply chain.
“Traditionally, roasters have always managed with the just-in-time style of business,” Oliver explains. “But that has changed with Covid-19. Right now, the just-in-time is six months ahead – you have to be six months ahead on everything.”
Being informed of harvest cycles helps you with forward planning, where you can schedule early conversations with producers or import partners to discuss your expectations of the product and the logistics of getting the green beans to your roastery.
So how can roasters keep up with harvest cycles? Fortunately, there are a number of free resources available for keeping up with seasonal coffee, which take into account shipping and time spent in storage.
For example, Counter Culture offers a coffee seasonality map, which serves as a general harvest calendar for each country based on previous years of purchasing.
For roasters, understanding coffee harvests and when they occur at each origin around the world is key to buying fresh, seasonal coffee. Not only will it encourage customers to come back for more, it will also help you build trust and showcase your commitment to the specialty market.
However, while buying seasonal green coffee is important, it’s also essential to preserve the coffee’s freshness once it’s been roasted – which requires high-barrier coffee packaging.
At MTPak Coffee, we can help you find the perfect coffee packaging with our range of sustainable materials and additional components. We use multilayer bags that can be fitted with degassing valves and resealable zippers to ensure the distinct characteristics of your coffee are preserved all the way to the consumer.