Coffee trees take between 4 to 7 years to mature. The fruit is borne on branches in clusters called cherries. They are at first green but with time ripen to red and this is when harvesting can take place. Under the red skin known as exocarp is a pulpy substance called mesocarp and a thin, parchment-like layer directly covering the beans called an endocarp. Within the coffee, cherries are two beans with their flat surfaces resting against each other.
The time for harvesting coffee varies according to altitude and location. North of the Equator, harvest usually occurs between September and March. As for the South of the Equator, this is between April and August. Usually, harvest lasts 2 to 3 months and is done once a year. In countries like Kenya where there is no well-defined rainy and dry season, there are two flowerings every year. One harvest produces the main crop and the other the “fly” crop which is much smaller than the former.
Coffee has been traditionally handpicked using two methods:
- Strip picking: Here, trees are stripped completely of their beans. The ripe and unripe cherries are not identified. It is usually only used for picking Robusta coffee. With modern mechanics, equipment is used to shake the coffee trees to get all the cherries off at once.
- Selective Picking: This takes several harvesting visits to a tree with only the ripe cherries being picked. Over the course of many weeks during harvest, the left-over cherries ripen and are then picked. It is a more expensive harvesting method for coffee since it is labor-intensive. This is why it is normally only applied with Arabica species.
The average quantity of coffee cherries picked each day on proper farms ranges between 100 to 200 pounds. From this, only about 20% is the actual coffee beans that get to your morning cup.