To obtain an exceptional specialty coffee, it is of the utmost importance to select only the ripe fruits during harvest and processing. In fact, a few poor quality or defective beans can reduce the potential quality of an excellent lot. Everybody should know how to Improve the Quality of Your Coffee by Selecting the Harvest.
Ben Weiner, CEO of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers, invests heavily in selecting the best cherries at the end of each harvest, and he agreed to talk to me about this process. These practices are implemented on his farm, Finca Idealista in Nicaragua, and also on farms associated with Gold Mountain, something that, according to him, benefits both the firm and its clients. Finally, this process ensures producers the possibility of improving their cup scores and therefore selling the coffee at better prices.
I should quickly mention that your advice applies more to washed process coffees. For natural process and honey coffees, some stages will have to be skipped and this means that the workers will have to pick the cherries as diligently as possible. However, even with the limitations of alternative processing methods, following this guide as much as possible can help ensure that only the best beans make it into your lot.
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STEP 1: COLLECTION
Cherry-picking can be a long and arduous task: Ben told me that on his farm, this task starts very early at 6:00 am and ends at 2:00 pm, then they move on to other control tasks quality.
Before picking begins, Ben recommends that the crop be inspected first to make sure the cherries are sufficiently ripe. For this, you can use a refractometer that measures Brix or sugar content. He also explained that, although there is no perfect Brix or sugar content, this information provides a good reference point. He noted that there is no magic number, but prefers a range of acceptable levels.
A cheaper way to measure the ripeness of cherries is to check the color. At Finca Idealista, this method is used together with the measurement of Brix degrees. In fact, they have created the “bracelets of ripeness” that are the same color as a ripe red cherry.
Be warned though: Ben warned that it’s harder to determine ripeness from color alone, especially when it comes to yellow cherries. He explained that it usually takes time for experienced pickers to know when these are soft enough and have the perfect deep, golden hue.
During harvest, you will also find cherries that are overripe or show signs of insect damage. It is just as important to remove those cherries from the pick as it is to avoid picking the cherries that are still green. By tying a bag to the basket, which is known in Nicaragua as a salve, the pickers can remove any cherries that are too ripe and deposit them in it. Ben recommends that the salve also be weighed, at the end of the collection, to ensure that the pickers also receive payment for the collection of defective cherries and stay motivated.
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STEP 2: CLASSIFICATION
Once the harvest is complete, Ben recommends putting all the cherries down on a tarp and doing a general inspection to make sure there are no unripe or unripe cherries lying around. He told me that at Finca Idealista, 40 people are in charge of doing this process every day. After all, one cherry is enough to cause an astringent taste in an otherwise delicious, high-scoring cup of coffee.
STEP 3: FLOATER REMOVAL
Before starting the fermentation process, an exhaustive check is made by depositing the cherries in water tanks, in order to discard any defective grain in sight. When a cherry floats to the top of the tank it has a low density or has unhealthy and defective kernels. Remove them immediately. Ben also advises recycling water to be more environmentally friendly.
After this stage, the cherries are finally ready for the pulping and fermentation process (assuming. So, you’re going to wet process them).
STEP 4: FLUSHING CHANNELS
After fermentation, you can use a washing channel to remove defective or low-quality beans. The washing channels have small weirs or wooden bars through which the water and the green coffee beans run off. Often a worker uses a broom or wooden implement to stir the flow.
Good quality, dense grains settle to the bottom of the channel and are caught by the wooden grates; those of low quality and low-density float at the top, where they can be captured and discarded or, alternatively, sold in the local market. They are often called Segundas in Latin American countries.
STEP 5: CLASSIFICATION OF THE DRYING BEDS
Once processed and classified, the coffee is ready for drying. However, even at this stage, there are still some control measures to be carried out. Ben recommended that while the coffee dries on the African beds, or on the patios, workers do a thorough visual inspection. They should look for and remove kernels that are cracked, pitted, or machine damaged; insect-damaged; bleached, or very green when still wet.
Since all the coffee must be moved regularly as it dries, visual inspections can be done simultaneously. Similarly, if the coffee needs to be relocated after it has dried out a bit. Ben moves it to another.
STEP 6: QATAR
Once the coffee has reached the ideal moisture content. Ben recommends cupping it to make sure there are no blemishes or imperfections. If you notice any, the coffee is selected again, as in the previous stage.
STEP 7: CLEANING MACHINE
There is a wide variety of machines. In the final stages of coffee production and processing can classify the beans. Ben commented that he uses a machine to remove any foreign material: like leaves, branches, stones, etc.
STEP 8: DENSITY CLASSIFIER
Finally, after the coffee has been left to rest for two months, it is time for the last stages. A density classifier or gravity separator can be used to separate high-density grains from low-density grains. However, if you have kernels of various sizes, Ben advises grouping them by size before passing them through the density classifier. This can also be done with a machine.
STEP 9: COLOR SORTING & CONVEYOR BELTS
The last step is to remove the bleached beans. Ben explained that this can be done through a machine; however, he contends that it is even more effective to hire 60 to 80 workers to remove defective beans as they run down a conveyor belt.
While having many workers can be costly and time-consuming. Ben emphasized the importance of the added value of having clean. High-quality beans are free of defects that spoil a good lot. The result of a good selection process is visible in the cup score.
In theory, better cupping scores raise the prices at which roasters buy coffee. This increase in sales can help pay for the high labor costs of all these workers. They sort the grains and add to greater investment in the local community. High-quality coffee can also be financially and socially sustainable.
Ben told me that his goal is perfection.
There are no small steps that can be overlooked when it comes to producing and processing coffee. While these quality control steps represent an investment of time, effort, and money, they can also help ensure a better cup of coffee every time.
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