Processing at origin starts with the physical picking/harvesting of the cherries. This is incredibly hard labour mostly due to the lay of the land in most producing countries. At high altitudes the terrain is often steep and very difficult to tread – much of the harvesting is therefore done by hand. The way that this is carried out will determine the eventual grade achieved by that coffee whether that be specialty or non-specialty (commercial) as it is thought that a coffee’s potential is at its highest at the point of harvest – after this stage, the aim is to preserve and maintain the quality as much as possible.
Most specialty coffees will have been hand-picked by either a team of pickers (on an estate) or by the farmers themselves (smallholder/cooperatives). For the coffee to be complex in the cup, it is essential that the cherries have reached maturity when they are picked – pickers using this method should therefore only be selecting the ripe cherries, leaving any immature fruit on the tree to be harvested during another pass of the farm. Depending on the farm size, there can be up to ten passes to ensure the cherries are picked at the right time. Most pickers are paid by the weight of cherry that they deliver so most farmers have a hard time incentivizing their pickers to selectively harvest the crop, many will pay a premium for good quality ripe cherry.
A large percentage of the world’s coffee is harvested using this method as it is quick and does not require the use of machines. Strip picking means the picker will literally strip the entire branch rather than selecting the fruit which has reached full maturity. Whilst this method is certainly efficient, unfortunately it results in a mixture of ripe and unripe cherry which can be detrimental to cup quality unless it is sorted in the processing. A farmer or picker will almost certainly receive a greater price for their coffee if they deliver only good ripe cherries to the wet mill.
The only Arabica producing country to use this method of harvesting is Brazil and that is due to the relatively flat lay of the land which allows a machine to navigate the perfectly formed rows of coffee quite easily. This method is extremely efficient and whilst the equipment is expensive, the overall labour cost of the farm is much cheaper as it only requires one person to operate the machine. This is part of the reason why Brazilian coffee can be cheaper as the costs involved in production are lower due to this reduced overhead.
A machine picker employs a similar method to strip picking whereby the entire branch is almost swallowed by the machine to absorb all of the cherries growing on it. This has a detrimental effect on quality for two reasons: one being the resulting mixture of unripe and ripe cherries which will impact cup quality, the other being the numerous twigs and foreign objects that can end up in the same lot. This method is also rather unkind to the trees, though some farms have started to use gentler equipment similar to that which is used on olive plantations.