What sounds like a futuristic battle for the existence of mankind is a question that is asked on every coffee plantation: should you rely on manpower or is it best to collect the ripe coffee cherries from the branch using a machine?
When the coffee cherry changes from green to orange and finally to red – which can happen during the summer or even at Christmas – it is time for the harvest. The time of year depends on the country, when the wet season is and the type of plantation. But regardless of whether the there are one, two or even three harvests a year, all the cherries have to be picked. And this can be done by hand or using a machine. But which method is better?
Picking: only the best make it into the bag
With the picking method, the coffee cherries are picked individually by hand. The picker is a bit like a bouncer outside a club: they decide which cherries make it to the processing stage and which don’t. This “cherry-picking” guarantees that only the ripe cherries are harvested. This has a major impact on the quality – only the ripe beans release their full flavour during roasting. This is why it is mainly single origins that have the privilege of being picked by hand.
But is there not a “but” missing? Unfortunately, yes. Because only the red cherries find their way into the bag, harvesting has to take place over several weeks. That also makes this method very time-consuming and labour-intensive.
Stripping: harvesting in one go
While close attention is paid to the degree of ripeness during the picking method, the stripping method is a little less labour-intensive. As soon as most cherries have turned a reddish colour, they are stripped off the branch in one go. This is done by hand or with a tool such as a rake. The cherries don’t just fall on the ground, but are collected on cloths that are laid out on the ground.
Of course some unripe green cherries and overripe dark-red cherries end up being harvested using this method. The former cause a bitter taste when included in the roast, and the latter can even spoil a large part of the harvest when they start to ferment. This makes the careful sorting of the harvest absolutely essential.
Mechanical harvesters: 150 pickers in one machine
For garden- and shade-grown coffee at higher altitudes, both picking and stripping methods make perfect sense. However, for huge, flat plantations such as those in Brazil, the harvest would be a gargantuan task using these methods. This is why mechanical harvesters are often used for sun-grown coffee. Mechanical harvesters are large machines that use a vibrating brush to gather all the fruits from the tree in one go.
Although this method is very quick and cost-effective due to the fact that one mechanical harvester does the work of around 150 pickers, it is also very rough on the plants. This method also has the disadvantage that cherries of all ripeness degrees are harvested at the same time. Coffee of high quality can be harvested using this method, but only if the cherries are very carefully sorted and processed after being harvested.
And how does the story end?
It doesn’t – at least the battle between man and machine doesn’t end. The winner is the one that produces the best cherries. And although hand-picking should be the clear winner in this respect, careful selection after mechanical harvesting can produce exemplary cherries, just as improper processing can result in the best hand-picked cherries being spoilt.
Either way, to produce a perfect end product, a trained eye is needed at every stage of the process. And this is something that only humans can provide.