Before coffee "beans"* can be processed, they have to be grown and picked. This stage of coffee production is more complex than you might guess, and it has far-reaching implications for the coffee industry at large.
* Coffee "beans" are not actually beans, but fruits. They are also referred to as coffee "cherries" for this reason.
Coffee Bean Ripening
Generally speaking, a coffee plant starts to produce flowers three to four years after it is planted.
As with many fruits, it is the flowers of the plant that produce the fruits. However, the first few years the plant flowers, the fruits are not useable for coffee production; the first useable harvest usually occurs around five years after planting.
Coffee cherries get ripe enough to pick around eight months after they flower. (Unless you are red-green color blind) you can easily see when they are ripe, because they change color from green to red.
Coffee cherries do not ripen all at once, which means that hand picking is the preferred method of harvest.
Coffee is usually harvested by hand. Hand-picking coffee is a labor-intensive process that can be divided into two categories: selective picking and strip picking.
Selective picking is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It involves picking each ripe coffee cherry by hand. Coffee pickers usually rotate from field to field, returning every eight to ten days to pick coffee cherries that have recently reached the peak of ripeness.
Since it is so labor intensive, selective picking is usually only used for Arabica coffee beans.
Strip picking involves harvesting the entire crop at once, even though many of the coffee beans are not ripe. The coffee cherries are stripped from the branches one branch at a time.
In places with large, flat coffee plantations (such as Brazil), strip picking has been mechanized and is performed with large machines.
Most coffee-growing countries have only one major harvest a year. However, in countries with suitable climates (such as Colombia), there are two times a year in which coffee plants flower, resulting in a main harvest and a secondary crop. The main harvest is around April to June and the smaller picking is in November or December.
Picking Green Beans & Red Cherries
Some coffee plantations instruct workers to harvest only the fully ripe, red coffee cherries. Others allow workers to harvest red and greener beans alike. While it produces a higher yield to harvest the red and the green coffee beans, there are major drawbacks to this lack of attention to quality, including an unpleasant, bitter flavor and a sharp aroma. Although harvesting only the ripe cherries is more expensive and labor intensive, it results in coffee with more aromatic oils and lower levels of organic acids (meaning that the coffee is smoother, mellower and more aromatic). For this reason, the quality standards set during coffee picking often set the stage for the quality of the coffee in the cup, and mixes of green and red beans are mainly only used for cheap, mass-produced, consumer brands of coffee (such as instant coffee and pre-ground coffee).
Coffee Pickers' Wages
Coffee pickers are laborers who pick coffee by hand. Like most tea pickers, they are paid by the basketful. An experienced, skilled coffee picker can harvest up to seven baskets of coffee cherries a day. As of 2003, the payment per basket was between $2.00 to $10 US. Most coffee pickers received payment at the lower end of the scale, meaning that even if they one able to harvest seven baskets of coffee beans, he or she would still only earn about $14 US for a full day of strenuous labor. For this reason, Fair Trade coffees, worker-owned co-op coffees and similar, initiative-based coffees have become increasingly popular in recent years.