Coffee trees are usually harvested by one of two methods, either strip picking or selective picking.
Machine Harvesting Coffee
Using equipment to harvest coffee can be difficult due to the conditions that coffee are grown in - typically, on a hillside in rural areas. In countries like Brazil where the land allows it (relatively flat) and trees have been planted in rows, equipment can be driven down the rows and harvest large quantities of coffee at once.
Typically these machines work by shaking the trees, causing the coffee cherries to fall from the tree, whether they're ripe or not. This process is highly efficient in terms of speed and quantity, but results in lower quality coffee because not all the harvested fruit will be ripe and fully developed. This can be sorted at a later point, or simply sold as a lower quality crop.
Trees that are machine harvested need to be pruned to keep height and width in check and uniform with the rest of the trees. Pruning has another beneficial effect - it focuses the nutrients on the existing branches and coffee cherries, increasing the density and flavor, and can potentially increase yields overall.
Strip Picking Coffee
Strip picking involves taking hold of a branch of the coffee tree and using a single motion to pull off all of the coffee cherry (fruit) on the branch at once. Strip picking is often used on dry processed coffees and on plants whose coffee cherry ripen all at the same time. Additional sorting is still required afterwards since 100% of the coffees don't ripen at the same time.
Strip picking and selective picking also requires that trees are pruned so that the coffee cherries remain within easy reach during harvest season, but the requirements are a little more lax than machine harvesting.
Selective Coffee Picking (Hand Picking)
Selective picking involves hand-picking only ripe coffee cherry, and returning numerous times to each coffee tree to again pick just the ripe berries. This results in less costs sorting the coffees afterward, as well as higher prices because of consistency with the harvested coffees. It also results in a higher yield of coffee beans, since fewer harvested coffees need to be discarded.
Coffees will naturally fall to the ground when ripe, and sometimes while still unripe due to wind and other movement. These coffees are still picked, separately from the tree harvested coffees, and sold as lower-quality crops, at lower prices. The risk with these is that they've fermented and will taste different from the coffees that come right off the tree, but is a good way to increase the overall yield of the farm, as well as reduce the risk of attracting pests.
Coffee Plant Yields
Coffee trees typically yield about two to three pounds (.9 to 1.3 kilograms) of marketable green coffee beans each year, though an average annual yield may be only about one pound (.45 kg) depending on soil, climate and geographical location.
The Coffee Harvest Season
Coffee harvesting typically begins in the spring and continues for several months. For example, in the Kona region on the Big Island of Hawaii, harvesting of the coffee trees begins in April and then continues through the fall and winter months.
From January to May the small, fragrant white blossoms known as Kona Snow appear, soon giving way to green coffee beans.
The Ripening of the Coffee Cherry
When these fruits (called cherry) begin to ripen around the end of August in Hawaii, then the meticulous hand-picking begins.
Only the cherry at peak maturity - ripe red coffee cherry - are harvested as the Kona coffee farmers return again and again to the fields to pick only the newly ripened cherry. The harvest season continues for several months, perhaps until February. The coffee beans are removed through processing and the coffee cherries are either disposed of as waste or if sufficient facilities exist, can be made into coffee flour or Cascara.
In Hawaii, The coffee harvest season is a great time to take a Kona coffee farm tour and to attend the annual Kona Coffee Cultural Festival which is held throughout the Kona region every November.
Espresso and Coffee Brewing Tips
For tips on brewing the perfect cup of coffee see the Espresso Coffee Guide's section on Coffee Brewing. For detailed definitions of coffee terminology see the Coffee Terms. You can also read detailed specialty coffee flavor profiles see gourmet coffee and Espresso Drink Recipes.