Serious Eats

Coffee Tree to Cup in Brazil: Part 2, The Harvest

Author's note: In early June, I attended the coffee harvest in Pedregulho, Brazil, with leading specialty coffee producer Octavio CafĂ© and Dallis Coffee, the New York coffee roaster that Octavio recently acquired. Down at Octavio's Nossa Senhora Aparecida farm, I leaned how coffee goes from the plant to your French press—as millions of coffee trees are picked, sifted, seeded, dried, roasted, and brewed into the coffee that wakes you up every morning. Here's Phase 2: all about the harvest. —CJ

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Missed Part 1? Check it out here »

If this online media thing doesn't work out, I'm moving to Brazil as a coffee harvester.

At least, that's what went through my head after a morning stripping cherries from the coffee trees of the Nossa Senhora Aparecida farm outside Pedregulho, Brazil.

It's hard labor, if not back-breaking; an hour in the fields certainly left this reasonably fit author in a sweat. But the elegance with which expert pickers fill sacks of Skittle-rainbowed coffee beans makes their work seem at least as much art as chore. (The verdant postcard views and piercing 70-degree winter sun wouldn't hurt, either.)

All About The Beans

20100609brazil-chapter1-8.jpgCoffee in this part of Brazil is harvested, depending on the conditions, between May and August. Many climactic factors impact the year's crop, but rainfall is one of the most critical. By November, Brazil's rainy summer season sets in—and without sufficient rain between November and March, the trees could produce up to 40-50% less coffee. It's a theme echoed across nearly every type of farming: shifting climate conditions dramatically impact the crop. In this case, a drought can slash a farm's output by half.

When we visited in early June, the prized Bourbon cultivar had just been harvested. Just 1% of Brazilian production, Bourbon constitutes more than one-third of coffees recognized by the Cup of Excellence program—and more than 50% of the program's most highly-ranked coffees. Other cultivars on the farm include the Catuai, a cherry unique to Brazil, and the Mundo Novo, a cross between Bourbon and Typica developed in the 1930s.

Why such variety? Different cultivars, of course, result in very different brewed coffee—even before the added variables of processing and roasting. But these cultivars also tend to mature at different rates, so that the harvest is spread out over a longer period of time, keeping the peak labor demand down.

This year, Nossa Senhora Aparecida found many of their coffees ready for harvest at once, and during our visit, more than 300 workers were working to haul in the crop as quickly as possible. In an ideal scenario, the crop would mature at a more gradual pace. That said, the farm has the advantage of a year-round workforce and a nearby town from which they can draw short-term, seasonal labor.

In many parts of Central and South America, coffee pickers are migrant laborers—moving from one farm to another as coffee regions approach the harvest. If farms in this model mature too quickly or all at once, they may find that much of their expected workforce is tied up on another farm (or in another nation) leaving them with cherries ripe for picking and no one to do so.

Hand-Picking

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More than 40% of Octavio's harvest is hand-picked—workers pulling fruit from tree in a method essentially unchanged over the centuries. Machine-picking is more efficient, requires less labor, and, as we'll see later, has other significant advantages over manual harvest. But for the younger trees (which can't stand the strain of heavy machinery) or the very oldest (which aren't planted in rows widely enough to accommodate it), hand-picking is the way to go.

Wearing thick gloves and long sleeves, workers strip each branch cleanly and rhythmically, laying half a tree bare of cherries in under a minute, leaving branches behind. Unripe cherries aren't spared the harvest. Octavio's processing is sophisticated enough to sort green cherries from the premium-ready yellow, red, and black. The hard green fruit are later sorted and sold for what Dallis VP John Moore delicately calls "bus station coffee." (Forget the taste test: seeing the sad fruit that ends up in lower-grade brew will get you off the cheap stuff for good.)

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Tarps under the trees collect what's been stripped. But with hands moving this quickly, twigs and leaves inevitably end up in the mix.

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So workers pile their harvest into wide round screens...

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... and, in what is surely the most joyous and rewarding act of the entire coffee harvest, start tossing it all up into the air.

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The hard, spherical cherries launch up and fall straight down; the leaves and twigs, lighter and with a greater surface area, are carried away by the breeze.

20100611coffee.jpgIt's astounding to watch seasoned pickers grab a screen and, with just a few quick tosses, cleanly divide the fruit from the debris, feeling the wind angle and using it to their advantage. (Especially once you're handed your own, and suddenly understand the strength and musculature the task entails.)

I got the hang of it eventually and tossed my way through a bag, with a five-year-old's delight at throwing pretty colored fruit in the air. (Whether or not I ended up catching them on the way down.) But there's nothing playful or inexact about the experts in the field. Twenty seconds and their piles are clean.

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The result? Nothing but cherries.

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This isn't to romanticize what is certainly hard physical labor. But as with any job well done, there's a certain beauty to watching experts in the field. And skill is compensated: the most productive of Octavio's field workers can opt to receive training in machine-picking, vehicle maintenance, and other fields notches up the ladder. More than fifty families live on the farm itself, in squat houses with gardens in the back; during harvest season, hundreds more come in from Pedregulho. Even seasonal workers receive health benefits, and the company is active in the town—sponsoring roving medical clinics, connecting residents with government health services, augmenting the limited public education with after-school programs. By all accounts, Octavio is an insistently pro-social place.

"It's good business," said Marcelo Crescente, the young CEO of Octavio. "The health of the town is the health of our workforce."

Machine Picking

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More than 60% of Octavio's crop is machine-harvested. In this age of small-scale farming and anti-agribusiness sentiment, one's first assumption might be that hand-picking is always preferable to machine picking—but the latter method has its own advantages. Of course, it's far more efficient, plowing through a row of trees more quickly than a team of farmers could hope to accomplish. But more importantly, machine-picking gets the fruit from tree to processing even more quickly, in as little as an hour and a half. Hand-picked cherries might take as much as six hours to end up in the processing facility—still a shorter time lapse than other facilities would allow, but nothing compared to machine-picking.

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Enormous vehicles move through the fields, a set of wheels in each of two rows, straddling a single line of coffee trees. Rapidly moving metal bars shake the trees enough to knock off the cherries, along with leaves and twigs; debris is shot out through the back, while the cherries are funneled into the bed of a tractor that drives alongside.

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And off the cherries go, soon to be stripped of their Technicolor shells.

The Post-Script: No Cherry Left Behind

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A team of hand-pickers follows the machines, making sure that major clusters haven't clung to the trees. But cherries inevitably fall from the tree (whether before or after the harvest), disappearing into the blanket of dirt and leaves that line the rows.

Retrieving this fruit from the debris may not seem worth the effort—after all, those dirt-buried cherries will never make their way into Octavio's premium coffee. But any fruit left behind attracts the pest Broca, or the coffee bear borer, a ruthless destroyer of coffee crops—which has wiped out as much as 10% of Colombia's harvest in recent years. The solution? A natural method of pest control. Eliminate Broca through eliminating its food supply, the coffee cherries—by going to extreme lengths to remove every last fruit from the farm.

Just as we saw with the hand-picking process, workers pile debris into screens and toss out the leaves and dirt, leaving only the dried, shriveled fruit behind. Even Dallis VP John Moore was stunned by the hundreds and hundreds of coffee cherries that emerged from what looked like a pile of dirt. And that fruit, too, is sold—to the same lower-end roasters that buy up the immature green guys.

If that's not enough to get you off gas station coffee, I don't know what is.

How are those bags of Skittles—er, cherries—transformed into coffee beans? Check back tomorrow for Part III, the processing.

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