The goal of the Merit 101 series is to help educate all levels of coffee enthusiasts who want to learn more about who we are at Merit, as well as the many aspects of coffee. This entry is written by our green coffee buyer, Jamie Isetts.
Harvest Cycles A coffee farm in Huila, Colombia. Colombia is famous for having two harvest cycles per year.
Coffee is a plant, and the bean that is roasted to make your final drink begins its life as a fruit. Unlike a peach picked in the evening and sold at the farmer’s market the next morning, it takes at least 4-6 months from picking the coffee cherry off the tree to service in our cafes. This means that coffee has specific growing seasons based on the time of year for that fruit to be at the perfect point to pick. Once the coffee is picked, it must be processed, dried, milled, sorted, shipped, and roasted before becoming the final drinkable coffee you enjoy. Just like any fruit, if coffee sits around in its ripe form for too long it begins to fade and lose the complexity that provides it with the wonderful flavors we enjoy.
The reason it can take so long from ripe cherry to coffee cup comes from the logistics of moving it from across the world, but other steps in the process – processing (5-2 days), drying (1-3 weeks), rest (1-3 months), and hulling—are absolutely necessary and should not be rushed.
At Merit, we also have a 1-4 week R&D period for each coffee once it arrives. During this time, we develop a unique roast and brew profile before we launch it for our customers.
Just like any fruit, green coffee can become old or “faded”. But what exactly does that mean? It means that it loses its complexity, acidity, and distinct flavor. If coffees are old enough, they lose their personality completely and begin to taste lightly papery. This usually becomes noticeable around six months from the time the coffee lands in the US. It’s not going to make anyone sick, but it won’t taste very good.
Even so, this timing varies wildly. Bad farming/processing practices will shorten the coffee’s shelf life. Drying, specifically, is a very important step. Coffee can taste “aged” when it first arrives to us if the drying process was rushed, or the coffee was exposed to moisture at certain point in its journey.
On the flip side, green coffee made with good practices can last longer! An excellent example from our stable is the Beneficio San Vicente group from Santa Barbara, Honduras. With a strong focus on effective drying, the farmers in this group have extended the high point of their coffee much farther.
Of course this means that coffee seasonality is even more important so that coffee doesn’t sit around too long before being served to you. This brings us back to the importance of coffee seasonality. Coffee plants generally have one major harvest per year. The timing varies across the world based on climate, but it can still be radically different from one side of a mountain to another! So how can we wrap our heads around this concept?
A broad way to think of harvest cycles is in two segments, or “semesters,” based on the hemisphere where the coffee grows.
First Semester: Northern Hemisphere
Second Semester: Southern Hemisphere
Notice how harvest happens about six months before we serve it. This means that while the baristas are serving one semester, the green buyer is focusing on the next!
Farmers also have more and better coffee to sell at the height of the harvest cycle. If we as roasters are aware of the seasonality of their farm, we can plan to buy more when the farmers have the most to offer. This awareness builds a sustainable relationship.
On the Fly: Exceptions to the rule
Some coffee origins completely ignore the tidy once-a-year system. These places have what’s known as a fly crop—a second, usually smaller harvest outside of the main one. The most famous example of a fly crop is Colombia’s mitaca, which is so large that it rivals the volume of the main crop. This pattern means that we can offer coffee seasonally from Colombia all year long, and buy from the same farmers twice per year.
To understand why, we must explore the life cycle of a coffee seed (or bean). After a period of heavy rain, the buds on a coffee tree will bloom into fragrant, jasmine-like flowers. At this point, the flowers begin the process that makes coffee cherries, with two seeds inside each one. If you know when it’s going to rain, you know when the plants will flower—and when the fruit they produce will be ready to pick.
In the past, most coffee regions had a very precise schedule of heavy rain followed by complete dryness, which allowed farmers to predict a tight schedule for the harvest period. In Colombia, more scattered precipitation throughout the year allows for a second, large harvest.
Flowers and Cherries Seeing a ripe cherries, flowers, and buds on the same branch indicates a long harvest period. Climate change is creating less distinct harvest cycles in many parts of the world.
As climate change completely topples our understanding of weather patterns, farmers are now adapting to intermittent rainfall and spread out harvest cycles. Being able to harvest coffee throughout the year isn’t a good thing if you’re not prepared for it. The plant is less stressed if it’s just focusing on one thing at a time, and stressed out plants require a lot more fertilizer and care to produce good coffee. In addition, farmers save money by only employing a full staff during a smaller picking period. Now more than ever, we strive to understand the complexity of seasonality to bring you coffees at their very best.