As we said last week, coffee fruit is much like a cherry and grows on a plant/bush. So how do we turn a coffee cherry into a drink?
First the (coffee) cherry must be picked. There are machines that can do this, however there are two problems with using a machine – firstly coffee needs to be picked when it is ripe and bright red in colour and a machine can not distinguish between ripe and unripe fruit so this affects the quality of the cup. Secondly the best coffee is grown at high altitude, usually clinging to the side of a steep hill – machines don’t work in these conditions! Because of this, the best way to pick coffee is by hand. This is much slower and requires pickers to have the skill of picking only the ripe fruit and thus is more expensive, but it’s worth it.
After the fruit has been picked it is sorted to make sure no unripe fruit has been picked, then the coffee must be dried and the fruit must be removed from the seed (the bean). At this stage the coffee beans will be ready to be shipped to coffee roasters.
There are two main ‘processes’ for drying the coffee and removing fruit which are called the natural process and the washed process.
Firstly we will look at natural process. This is the ‘low tech’ method of processing. Coffee fruit is laid in a thin layer on brick or concrete patios and left to dry; sometimes raised drying tables are used to allow better air circulation. The coffee must be carefully and regularly turned so that it can dry evenly. This is done either by hand or using special rakes. After the coffee has dried, the fruit is mechanically removed, leaving the ‘green’ coffee ready to be shipped to a roaster.
The natural process adds an innate fruity flavour to coffees that is quite controversial: some enjoy the often blueberry or tropical fruit flavour, while others see the process as a taint on the true flavour of the coffee.
The washed process is a bit more complicated and we’ll look at that next time…