From Coffee Bush to Ripe Coffee Cherries

Coffee is a wonderful beverage. One that we often take for granted. But how does it get from the coffee bush to the roaster?

Whether we buy pre-ground coffee or freshly roasted coffee beans, we shouldn’t neglect the journey that those little brown seeds have taken or the processes that have occurred before we grind’em and brew our coffee.

Even before we discuss roasting, transportation, storage, drying, and processing, we should have some idea how a coffee bush grows, what it looks like, and how the fruit transforms from flower to harvest.

Climate and elevation determine the rate at which coffee bushes grow and how many times per year they’re harvested. Even though coffee plants can’t tolerate freezing temperatures, they grow in a wide variety of environments and micro-climates.

In the article, Is a Coffee Plant a Tree or a Bush? We determined that most if not all cultivated varieties of coffee plants are shrubs or bushes. That article doesn’t discuss what a coffee bush looks like up close, or how the coffee plant produces fruit.

Herein, we’ll take a closer look at coffee bushes and the fruit that contains the seeds that we call coffee beans.

The Coffee Bush

Cultivated coffee bushes take on several shapes depending on the elevation, topography, and preference of the grower.

They can be scraggly scattered understory bushes that look like wild forest growth.

coffee plants as undergrowth

Or they can be well shaped and pruned bushes arranged in neat rows and grown in full sun similar to orchards.

coffee plants in plantation

Either way, coffee bush leaves are oval or lance-shaped with a thin profile but are tough and stiff to the touch. They range between three to six inches in length, have a very dark green upper surface and much lighter underneath. The margin of the leaf is wavy.

coffee leaves

The coffee bush is an evergreen plant and never completely sheds its leaves.

Coffee Species

The genus Coffea has over 100 species, but very few of them are grown to produce coffee beans for consumption. Coffea arabica is the most common species used for coffee production, especially speciality coffee. Coffea robusta is sometimes grown for mass coffee producers because the robusta coffee bush grows at lower elevations, is hardier than arabica, and more disease resistance.

For this post, and probably for most of the website we will be concentrating on Coffea arabica.

Maturity, Flowers, and Fruit

Coffee plants (Coffea Arabica) bears fruit after 3- to 5-years. Coffee bushes will continue to grow and yield useable fruit for 40- or 50-years, although many coffee growers rotate plants well before that time.

Left to themselves coffee bushes can live over 100-years.

Farmers favor younger coffee bushes because they have larger yields, and newer varieties are more disease resistance than the older varieties.

There is a movement by some growers to plant and raise heirloom coffee varieties, and are sold a much higher price regardless of their taste.

Coffee Flowers

Coffee plants would make an excellent landscape plant in my opinion. Flowers cover much of the plant; they’re striking and very fragrant similar to Jasmine, and the ripe fruit is a bright red color.

Beehives set in coffee plantations will make coffee honey.

Below are some images of coffee plants in bloom and a close up of the flowers.

coffee plant in bloom
coffee plant branch in bloom
coffee flower closeup

Coffee Fruit or Cherries

Coffee fruits are called cherries.

Although they don’t hang pendulously like cherries, they do resemble cherry tree fruit.

An average coffee bush potentially yields enough fruit to produce between 1 and 1 1/2 pounds of roasted coffee beans.

coffee cherry green
coffee cherry semi-ripe
coffee-cherry-ripe

Coffee Pickers

The issues coffee growers have is that coffee cherries don’t always ripen at the same time.

Each plant needs to be harvested two to four times a season to reach full production. This is called selective harvest.

Picking coffee bushes more than once is time-consuming, more expensive, and causes logistic problems for the growers and the pickers as each additional harvest yields less fruit.

Coffee pickers earn their pay by the number of pounds they pick. For quality control, the cherries go through a sorting process to remove unripe and overripe cherries. Pickers must take care in the field to pick only the ripe cherries to maximize their time and pay.

Some of the big growers harvest each coffee bush only once, choosing a time when the majority of cherries on the bushes are at peak ripeness. They accept more wasted fruit due to yield rates, as it comes down to economics for the larger producers. Obviously, the final product suffers due to this practice.

Luckily for us, most of the speciality coffee comes from smaller farms that rely on selective harvesting and produce a better product worth more money over volume.

Coffee pickers use their fingers to pick each cherry as stripping the branch will either include unripe fruit or damage the ripe cherry and cause spoilage before processing.

Hard Work

Coffee workers put in long hard days during the harvest. The terrain is generally steep, the plants are hard to harvest correctly, the coffee cherries are heavy, and the pay by our standards is low.

coffee-picker

The Process Gets More Complicated

Harvesting coffee cherries is only the start. The fruit has a long journey involving many processes before it reaches the roasters.

There are several different methods to remove the fleshy part of the fruit from the seeds that we know as coffee beans. The soft fleshy part of the fruit is called mucilage.

The technique used to remove the mucilage and the processes used to dry the seeds into coffee beans have a lot to do with the flavor profiles in the coffee bean before it’s even roasted.

A discussion of the methods used to process coffee cherries will be in an upcoming post.

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The Coffee Pragmatist

No-nonsense advice on artisan and speciality coffee. From bean to cup, though I prefer mugs. Get how-to advice, reviews, recommendations, interviews and discounts on coffee beans from roasters around the country. 

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