Coffee is harvested in two ways. It can be strip-picked, which removes all of the coffee cherries from the branch at the same time. Or, it can be selectively picked, which removes only the ripe coffee cherries. Strip picking can be done by hand or by machine, while selective picking can only be done by hand.
Coffee Harvesting- the First Step from Tree to Cup
Unlike money, coffee grows on trees. In fact, coffee is a fruit! The beans we roast and grind are really the seeds of the coffee cherry. It looks like this:
So, how does coffee go from being a bright red fruit on a tree to being a dark brown bean? And how are coffee beans harvested? As you can probably tell, the journey from tree to cup is a long one, with many steps. In this article, we’ll keep the focus on harvesting.
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How are Coffee Beans Harvested?
Coffee can be harvested mechanically or by hand, in two different processes: strip picking and selective picking. We’ll explore each of these in detail below.
Anyone familiar with modern agriculture probably assumes that virtually all coffee is now harvested by machine. After all, that’s how most crops are harvested in the modern world.
However, that isn’t true for coffee. In most places, the coffee is still harvested by hand for the very good reason that the ground is not flat in most places where coffee is grown.
You can harvest a field of wheat or corn with a machine because those crops are typically grown in wide-open, flat places. But most coffee-growing regions are in the mountains, on rough terrain. In addition, most coffee is also grown on relatively small estates in remote areas.
Getting the machines to the estate to harvest the coffee would be quite a challenge on its own. Actually, using the machines to harvest the coffee would be difficult enough that it probably wouldn’t actually make the harvesting much easier or faster.
The one big exception to this is Brazil. Brazil is actually the world’s largest producer of arabica coffee, which means its coffee fields are huge. Brazil is not a mountainous area, so its huge coffee fields are also flat.
That makes Brazil an ideal place to harvest coffee mechanically, so it’s one of the only places in the world where most of the coffee grown is harvested that way.
This has the added benefit of making Brazilian coffee somewhat more affordable, even for the highest quality beans, than coffee of similar quality from other regions.
Harvesting by Hand
Harvesting by hand is far and away the most common way to harvest coffee. It’s a simple process: the workers go into the field and pick the fruit off the tree.
Skilled pickers can harvest 100-200 pounds of coffee cherries every day, which yields
20-40 pounds of coffee beans. At the end of the work day each worker’s daily haul is weighed, and they’re paid based on the amount of coffee they were able to harvest that day.
A wild coffee tree can grow to over 30 feet tall, but most coffee trees on farms are pruned so they don’t grow higher than 5-7 feet. That makes the harvesting process a bit easier since most workers won’t need a ladder to harvest the cherries.
In most places this is not regular work, as there is only one coffee harvest per year. There are some exceptions, though. Kenya and Sumatra have two coffee harvests per year, and in Colombia coffee can be harvested year-round.
Almost all coffee in the world is harvested via strip harvesting. This process lends itself well to mechanical harvesting but it’s also how most hand-harvested coffee is picked.
The reason is simple: it’s the fastest and most efficient way to get the fruit off the trees, whether you’re doing it by hand or with a machine. Strip harvesting simply removes all the fruit off the tree at once.
The downside, of course, is that you’ll inevitably harvest some unripe fruit and overripe fruit along with the ripe fruit, which may negatively affect the quality of the finished product. Unripe fruit will yield sour coffee, while overripe fruit may ferment and ruin the quality of the coffee.
Most producers minimize that problem by timing their harvest so that most of the fruit on the tree is ripe, and the under- or over-ripe coffee cherries are minimal and won’t have a noticeable effect on the finished coffee.
In addition, there are quality control practices that can separate the under or overripe cherries after they’ve been harvested. One of the most efficient is using a water tank to separate the ripe and under-ripe cherries.
Some producers also harvest the tree’s top branches first and then the lower branches later since the fruit at the top of the tree ripens more quickly.
Selective harvesting is a much more intensive process. In selective harvesting, pickers only harvest the ripe cherries, leaving the unripe fruit on the tree until it’s ready to be picked. They rotate among the trees every 8-10 days, picking the fruit at its peak.
The end result is a much higher quality coffee because no unripe or overripe beans are harvested. It is a much more labor-intensive and expensive way to harvest the beans, which is why it’s generally only used by growers who are producing higher-quality arabica beans.
This method has the added advantage of ensuring that the coffee growers are more aware of the health of their trees. Since the pickers are constantly rotating through the trees, they will have a good sense of which trees are unhealthy, which fruits have pests, etc.
Strip Harvesting vs. Selective Harvesting vs. Mechanical Harvesting
|Aspect||Strip Harvesting||Selective Harvesting||Mechanical Harvesting|
|Basic Process||All cherries are removed from the branch at one time, regardless of ripeness.||Only ripe cherries are hand-picked, leaving unripe ones for future harvests.||Machines shake or beat the branches, causing cherries to fall.|
|Duration||Fastest method, can cover large areas quickly.||Time-consuming; requires multiple passes throughout the season.||Speed varies, but generally faster than selective harvesting.|
|Quality Outcome||Mixed quality due to harvesting both ripe and unripe cherries together.||Highest quality since only ripe cherries are picked.||Quality can vary; machines may gather unripe or overripe cherries.|
|Labor Requirement||Requires fewer workers compared to selective harvesting.||Labor-intensive; demands skilled pickers.||Limited labor; mostly for machine operation and maintenance.|
|Cost||Lower labor costs but potential loss in selling price due to mixed quality.||Higher labor costs, but often achieves better market prices due to quality.||High initial investment in machines but lower ongoing labor costs.|
|Environmental Impact||Can cause more wastage and may harm branches if not done carefully.||Low impact as it’s manual and specific.||Potential soil compaction. Noise and carbon emissions from machinery.|
|Best Suited Regions||Regions where labor is scarce or expensive, and immediate processing is available.||Regions emphasize high-quality beans, artisanal, or specialty coffee.||Flat terrains that allow for machinery movement. Regions with larger commercial farms.|
Which is Better? Mechanized Harvesting or Harvesting by Hand?
It may seem that selective harvesting by hand is the only way to get high-quality coffee reliably, but that isn’t quite true.
We’ve already described some quality control procedures that can be used in strip harvesting to remove unripe fruit.
But productivity and efficiency are related to quality, too. If you take too long to harvest your coffee, you’ll end up with lots of overripe fruit which is unusable.
The speed and efficiency of mechanized strip harvesting, when done well, can ensure a very high-quality product in the end.
Selective picking, while very popular with specialty coffee growers, has its own problems. Labor shortages can wreck a harvest, for instance.
Without enough pickers to bring the harvest in quickly, the fruits will overripe and the crop will be ruined.
So, one is not necessarily better than the other. It just depends on what works best for that particular farm.
A large estate will benefit from mechanized strip harvesting, while smaller farms are better off using selective hand-picking to make sure their coffee is of the highest possible quality and that they minimize the loss of unripe fruit.
Since coffee is a fruit, you ideally want to only harvest ripe coffee. There are two ways to tell if a coffee cherry is ripe. One is to just look at the color of the fruit.
Most coffee varieties turn bright red when they’re ripe, although there are some that turn yellow. This is, of course, the more traditional method of determining ripeness.
The other method is to measure the fruit’s brix level. Brix is a measurement of the sugar content. More sugar means the fruit is ripe, and that will yield a more flavorful coffee.
That’s because more sugar will mean more microbial activity when the fruits are fermented, and that’s what develops the flavor of the coffee.
The processing method that will be used is also a factor that has to be considered. For example, honey-processed coffees require the fruit to be right on the verge of becoming overripe in order to be processed correctly. Now that you have the scoop on harvesting, take a look at how coffee beans are roasted here.
How coffee beans are harvested can vary from one place to another, but the method of harvesting the fruit is less important to the quality of the finished product than other factors like quality control, post-harvest processing, and even the timing of the harvest itself.
Most coffee is strip harvested, with only farms marketing their product to the specialty coffee market using the much more intense and time-consuming selective picking method.
National Coffee Association. NCA. (n.d.). https://www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/10-steps-from-seed-to-cup
Brazil – south america – green coffee – sweet Maria’s. (n.d.). https://www.sweetmarias.com/green-coffee/south-america/brazil.htmlMichalkwasniewski.com. (2021, November 25).
A complete guide to coffee harvests. MTPak Coffee. https://mtpak.coffee/2021/11/complete-guide-coffee-harvests/
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