Understanding Good Coffee: Harvesting

I'm fond of saying that there is no way to make a bad coffee better, only to mess it up at any step between growing and brewing.  Coffee harvesting is no exception. 


When we describe the coffees we order, we try to cover a few major points; varietal, source, altitude, processing and tasting notes.  Typically we don't discuss picking, because properly picking a coffee is so fundamentally necessary to good office coffee that, on our menu, proper picking is implicit.  Nevertheless, it is important for any coffee nerd to understand the effort and labor that goes into this crucial but often overlooked part of the coffee production process.

Broadly speaking, coffee is harvested in one of three ways.  The goal of coffee harvesting is to efficiently select only the ripest beans.  Unripe beans (typically greenish in color and firm in feel), will introduce bitter notes into a coffee, much as biting into an under ripe peach offers an unpleasant experience.  There are three major ways to pick coffee:

Ripe coffee cherry
Ripe coffee cherry

1.  Selective hand picking-  Hand picking (as the name pretty clearly describes) consists of having people manually pluck individual or clustered beans off of a tree, leaving under-ripened fruit on the branch for harvesting at a later date.  This process is the most time consuming and labor intensive, but produces the highest amount of the highest quality coffees.  Coffee is often picked by row (think of a topographic map) and sometimes separated into day lots.  These lots will be independently tasted, and often, only specific lots will make it into a third-wave level coffee, which we in turn offer as amazing office coffee.  Lots from the same trees, picked at different times will end up in different lots and can have significantly different characteristics.  Coffees which do not make the cut into the highest level will be sold either as specialty coffee, or, for the lowest grade, as C-market coffee.

2. Stripping - With this method people manually strip all of the cherry off of the branches, regardless of ripeness.  Later, green beans are sorted out, either by floating them in water (different ripeness float differently) or by manually sorting out under ripe cherry.  This approach preserves some of the benefits of hand picking, with significant labor savings.  However, since there is still underripe cherry being mixed in with the good stuff, there is room for error and the occasional off bean will find its way through.

3. Mechanical Stripping- Mechanical processing is either done by vibrating or bushing the trees.  This process is accomplished using 15 foot tall harvesting tractors with massive brushes that sort of resemble a moving car wash (click here for a nifty video of the process).  This method can clear a hectare of land in two hours.  The obvious downside to this type of automation is the introduction of green beans in with the ripe ones.  As much as 5% of coffee harvested in this way can be under-ripe.  Since most coffee is grown on steep graded, high-altitude terrain, mechanical picking is only really used in Brazil, which grows coffee on comparatively level terrain.

Part of the reason the most Brazilian coffees are considered somewhat lackluster is this picking method.  However, many of the better farms, such as the Pedra Redonda by Toby's Estate (new to the menu), are shying away from this method and refocusing on hand picking, due to the superior coffees it yields.  We're happy that we can offer these well-tended coffees to New York Offices.

Written by Joyride Co-Founder, Adam Belanich