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Picking Coffee

Kona Snow Coffee cherries Ripe cherries

The coffee growing season starts in the spring.  After a soaking spring rain, the coffee trees blossom with a flush of white flowers, sometimes referred to as Kona Snow.  The flowers are very aromatic, creating a scent like jasmine and orange.  They last for about a week, filling the fields with the buzzing of busy bees.  Each bloom of flowers produces another batch of coffee cherries that ripens later in the year.  This means coffee doesn't all ripen at once, it requires several different pickings in order to pick each cherry at it's peak ripeness.  The picking season can last for months.  Many of our trees have new flowers, immature green beans and ripe cherries all at once.

Gary Valerie Lots of trees

Picking is no easy task.  The fastest of the pickers can pick about 400 pounds a day.  Most people would be lucky to get 100 pounds in a day.  Of course, the professional pickers will work all day, sun up to sun down, rain or shine, while us amateurs often wear out within a couple hours.  With concentration and determination, I can pick a single row of 50 trees in about an hour and a half.  With nearly 4000 trees, it would take me several weeks to pick all of them by myself.  I'd finish just in time to start all over again with the next batch of newly ripened coffee.  Even if Valerie picked while I attended to all the other farm chores, we still couldn't keep up.  Hiring a crew of pickers is the only reasonable option.  During the height of the season, a crew of a half dozen pickers can pick nearly two thousand pounds of coffee cherry in a single day.

pulping Once picked, we pulp the coffee cherries right away in order to ensure peak flavor.  Beneath the red outer skin (exocarp) is a fleshy pulp (mesocarp).  If you squeeze a ripe cherry, the bean will pop right out of the pulp.  Instead of trying to squeeze each and every bean by hand, we use a machine that works kind of like a large cheese grater.  The ripe cherries go in the top, the beans come out the side and the pulp is discarded through the bottom.  For every 100 pounds of cherry picked, we're left with 80 pounds of pulp and only 20 pounds of beans.

Below the pulp is a thin slippery layer (parenchyma) referred to as the mucilage.  The mucilage needs to be removed before the beans can be dried properly.  Letting the beans ferment for 12 to 48 hours allows natural enzymes to break down the mucilage layer so it can be washed off.  There are fancy (and expensive) machines that can do this but we currently do it all by hand.

Drying After the mucilage is removed, the beans are set out to dry.  Again, fancy (and expensive) dryers can be used for this process.  The simpler and more traditional method is to spread the beans out in the sun.  Some of the old coffee farm houses had sliding roofs over their hoshidona (coffee drying patio).  The roofs could be opened up when it was sunny and closed when it rained.  Some day we'll have a barn with a drying deck. Until then all we have is a greenhouse and several drying racks.  While drying, the beans need to be stirred occasionally.  We have a very fancy, very expensive machine named Sarah that does the stirring.  She also knows how to measure the moisture of the beans so she knows when they're done drying.  It can take several weeks for the beans to dry completely.  Once dried, the beans (called parchment at this stage) can be stored.  A few months of storage in a cool, dry place actually helps age the coffee, just like wine.  

Parchment Inside the parchment (endocarp) layer is two beans which are covered with one final "silver skin" (spermoderm) layer.  Once you get to the actual coffee bean, it can then be graded, certified, roasted, ground and brewed.  Coffee shops and wholesalers often buy "green" coffee which is coffee with all the outer layers removed but before it has been roasted.

Roasted beans can have a long shelf life but once ground, coffee will only stay fresh for a week or so.  For the freshest coffee, you'll need to buy your own coffee grinder.  I inherited an antique grinder from my grandmother.  She used to use it every day.  That was before anybody had ever heard of a place called Starbuck's.

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