Hand Harvesting Ripe Coffee is an Art

by Les Drent

Hand harvesting Kona coffee cherry. photo credit: Les Drent

A ripe coffee bean - plump and red - signals harvest. Each year in Kona, where hand picking is the norm, one by one, the coffee beans come off the tree. Red coffee cherries must be picked without disturbing the unripe coffee beans on the coffee branch. This is a critical step in quality coffee production, according to George Yasuda, agricultural consultant for Tiare Lani Coffee, Inc.

Picking coffee in its most ripened stage is a challenge, as well an art. Yasuda, 44, of Holualoa, says coffee is no different from any other fruit, in that it has its peak, ripened stage. But unlike most other fruit, it has little ripening leeway after it's picked. "The deterioration begins immediately after the cherry's off the tree," he said. "The sugars begin to be converted to starches right away." This naturally occurring process leads to rot, and Yasuda recommends not letting coffee cherry sit for more than 10 hours.

Coffee is best picked when fully red. Yasuda said coffee picking varies from year to year - sometimes there are breaks between rounds, sometimes not. Leaving mostly ripe coffee on the tree is fine if the farmer's harvesting crew has time to go back and pick it before it becomes over ripe. Understanding these dynamics, Yasuda, who oversees Tiare Lani Coffee's 42-acre coffee orchards in Holualoa and Kainaliu, instructs pickers to harvest cherries half red to completely red.

Kona coffee farmer, George Yasuda of Tiare Lani Coffee

The immature beans - green, yellow, orange and those less than half red - are left on the tree for the next picking round. Yasuda said immature coffee beans promote below average taste. Another problem occurs when under ripe beans are pulped. Pulping is the initial step in coffee processing -removing the outer skin. The under ripe beans jam the pulping machine, causing damage to the good beans, which become stuck and knicked. Yasuda said it is critical and an "art" to pick the coffee that's half-red or better, and to get back to the other ripening beans before they turn dark purple to brown in color. "Those beans are over ripe and their sugars are already breaking down," Yasuda explains. Over ripe beans cause pulping damage, as well, and negatively affect taste.

Yasuda encourages farmers to pulp their coffee within about 10 hours of picking. If left to sit for 10 hours, the coffee should be stored in the shade, as moisture and heat hasten the deterioration.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.