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Harvesting Practices Between Coffee and Cacao

Chocolate and coffee both begin their life journey in tropical regions growing on trees. Cacao is a temperamental shady growing tree with fruit growing from the trunk of the tree. Inside of these fruit pods exists something mysterious and tasty. 

Cacao Pods

One of our wholesale partners, Bar & Cocoa, sums up the harvesting process well. “Once cacao trees begin producing fruits, called cacao pods, those fruits must be cut off from the tree at peak ripeness. Although there are heavier seasons, cacao pods ripen year round, meaning that harvesting does too. Harvesting cacao requires a sharp implement to remove the large pods from the tropical trees on which they grow. The most common tool used to harvest cacao pods is a machete, a long sword-like object which allows farmers to cut pods from the base. Since cacao, or cocoa, can grow directly on the trunk of the tree, farmers have to use very sharp tools so as to not damage potential future pods. When a pod is ripe it often changes color, signaling to farmers that it may be ready to be picked. But not all ripe pods will fully change color, so some farmers also knock on pods to check ripeness; if the seeds have just started to loosen, then the pod is ripe enough to harvest. You can also scrape the outside of the husk to check the color of the shell. If it’s green underneath, then it’s still not ripe enough to be harvested. If you remove cocoa before it’s ripe, it won’t continue to develop off the tree, but rather begin to germinate or ferment. During harvest, farmers must be careful not to open the pods, as that exposes them to air and exposes the seeds to potential damage. Typically they’ll use the machete to cut the fruits directly from the tree, collecting them in a nearby basket or bag. From there the pods are brought to a central location to begin processing. The faster they can begin post-harvest processing, the better the cacao will taste.” (barandcacao.com)


Most extraordinary to us is the different flavors that arise based on growing conditions and ferment processes. Below you can see how even the ferment of Haiti is based on the continuous and uniform colors. This could be due to a central fermentory- where all cacao from across the area is brought in. At a central fermentory, the variables within fermenting are kept steady amongst all of the cacao (compared to ferments occurring apart from each other such as is the case with most commodity cacao).

A photo of Cacao Pods

Coffee has to be picked by hand, and usually over the course of several weeks for any given tree. Not all coffee cherries ripen at the same rate. In order to keep the coffee trees in good condition, and to avoid picking unripe cherries that would lower the quality of the harvest, the slower and costlier hand picking is a must. 

A photo of someone hand picking coffee cherries

Post-harvest processing is begun not long after, with coffee cherries being transformed into “green coffee” through several different types of fermentation and removal of the cherry fruit. The 3 primary varieties of processing are:

  • Natural, or dry
  • Wet, or washed
  • Honey, or semi-washed

 

A diagram with three circles that contain information, one says "washed, clean acidity and nuanced flavors" the second circle says "honey, a fruity pop mixed with a nuanced flavor profile" and the third circle says "natural, big body and intense fruity flavors"

In natural process, the coffee cherries are sun-dried and allowed to begin fermenting while still whole and unpulped. This process enables the 2 coffee seeds (or 1 in the case of the unusual peaberry) within to absorb more of the flavor nuances from the fermenting sugars of the fruit. Naturals often have a heavier, richer “body” and notes of strawberry and blueberry are common.


The washed process, possibly the most common worldwide, will typically produce a “cleaner” cup of coffee in terms of a lighter body and more balanced acidity and flavor notes. The cherries are pulped and washed, with fermentation only taking place afterward. A washed coffee might be more approachable in terms of its body and flavors, and can be skillfully processed to express crisp, nuanced notes that are more based on the terroir and varietal origin.


The honey or semi-washed process is a bit of a compromise. The cherry is partly pulped, but is not immediately washed. It is instead allowed to dry—and thus, begin fermenting—with the inner, sticky part of the cherry fruit still adhering to the seeds. This inner layer is called mucilage, and can impart some of those deeper, earthier notes that naturals are known for, but to a lesser extent. Honey coffees can be more balanced and lighter bodied, but it all depends on how much mucilage is allowed to remain on the seeds—there’s a world of difference between white, red, or black honey coffees.

 

Coffee Cherry Plant