How is Coffee Harvested?

Note: To see how coffee is grown, check out our previous post in this series.

Coffee Tree Lifecycle

Newly planted coffee trees take 4 to 7 years to bear fruit. During those years, coffee farmers must regularly prune the trees and watch out for pests.

After this growth phase, a coffee tree enters its productivity phase, which lasts anywhere from 15 to 25 years. (The final phase is one in which the tree breaks down and declines until its death.) This productivity phase is what we're interested in today.

How do farmers know that a tree has entered its productivity phase? 

Many years after planting, the tree will produce strikingly beautiful jasmine-scented flowers blossom on the branches, signaling that it has started its productive phase. The flowers last only a few days and then fall off. In their place, green cherries begin to grow in clusters along the branches.

Over the next 7 to 11 months, the green cherries ripen, gradually changing to pink and then red. Fully ripe cherries are a deep glossy red fruit about the size of a large grape. They are soft and have a little bit of give if you squeeze them between your thumb and finger. It is not uncommon to see all stages of cherry development taking place on a single tree at the same time.

Harvesting Methods

High-quality coffee is largely a result of picking the cherry at its peak ripeness. Therefore, the best coffee comes from selecting only the ripe cherries and allowing others on the branch to reach maturity at their own pace. This selection process, as well as the irregular terrain common in coffee-growing regions, limits the ability to use machinery during harvest. The very the best coffee (including Cadena's) is picked by hand in a labor-intensive way.

However, in some places where the landscape is relatively flat and the coffee fields immense, the process has been mechanized. Whether by hand or by machine, there are two ways to harvest coffee:

  1. Selective picking: Only the ripe cherries are harvested, and they are picked individually by hand. Pickers make multiple passes among the trees every 8 to 10 days, choosing only the cherries which are at the peak of ripeness. This goes on throughout the harvest, which typically lasts about 4 months. Because this kind of harvest is labor intensive and more costly, it is used primarily to harvest the finer Arabica beans, like those we produce at Cadena.

  2. Strip picking: One sweep of a branch removes all cherries, ripe and unripe alike. In some growing areas, machines shake rather than strip the branches, forcing the cherries to fall to the ground. Typically, only Robusta coffee is strip-picked.

A good picker averages approximately 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day, which will produce 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans. Each worker's daily haul is carefully weighed, and each picker is paid on the merit of his or her work. The day's harvest is then transported to the processing plant.

There is typically one major harvest a year. In countries north of the Equator, harvest occurs from September to March. South of the Equator, harvest is from April to August. In some countries where there is are not clearly defined wet and dry seasons, such as Kenya and Colombia, there may be two flowerings and harvests per year. These countries have a main crop and a secondary or "fly" crop, which is generally much smaller than the main crop.

Each healthy tree yields about 2,000 coffee cherries a year, or about 4,000 coffee beans (a coffee cherry typically contains two coffee beans). This translates to about 2-3 pounds of roasted coffee per year for each healthy tree.

Stay tuned as we take you further into the world of coffee production and let you know how these coffee cherries are processed! And if you're thirsty from all of this reading, order some of our freshly-roasted beans here.