The harvest in Ethiopia usually starts around mid October time and continues into late January of the following year. The coffee then goes through many journeys, processes and stages to get into your cup, we will now look at the first stage!
Coffee in Ethiopia is almost always hand-picked which can be very labour intensive, as well as that, not all the coffee on a singular tree will be ripe at the same time and the pickers will often have to return to each tree a number of times throughout the season. They look for the ideal mid red coloured cherries and pick them from the trees, the over ripe cherries are a sort of dark red/ purple and can bring a sour taste to the end product whereas the under ripe green cherries, also known as Quakers, can give a grassy vegetative flavour. The cherries are loaded into bags which are then taken to the local washing station or coffee market, by Horse in higher altitudes and donkeys in lower, to be weighed and sold accordingly. Some washing stations will pay premiums to farmers who arrive with bags of only ripe cherries. It is also important that the cherries must arrive for processing within 24 Hrs of being picked.
Once at the washing station, the cherries are sorted by hand as well as in water (floatation) tanks where the unripe cherries will float and are removed. An estimated 75% of coffee in Ethiopia is dry processed (Natural). Where after sorting, the cherries will be laid out on concrete drying patios or African drying beds (usually tables with a metal or plastic gauze/ shade netting raised about 1m from the ground) to dry for up to 4 weeks. whilst drying the coffee will be turned every few hours to stop mould and help ventilation.
Washed (Wet) coffee requires a lot more water availability than the dry process and is therefore less common in some more remote or higher altitude areas. Once the coffee has been sorted it is put through a de-pulping machine, also known as a wet mill, which strips the majority of the fruit from the cherry leaving only a small amount of mucilage on what is called the parchment – a strong paper like protective layer of film around the bean. The wet mill grades the coffee on its density and it is then sent to the appropriate water tanks for fermentation. The parchment can be left in the tanks for up to 72 Hrs after which microbial action through the fermentation process makes the mucilage fall off. The water is then drained from the tank and the coffee is then washed and at the same time graded again on density, to relieve it of the remaining fruit and mucilage. After the washing process, the graded parchment is spread out onto the drying beds and dried for up to two weeks.
Honey Process coffee is sort of a mix of both of the above. The cherry is put through the de-pulping machine but then the sticky, mucilage covered parchment is put out to dry rather than fermented. As with the natural process both washed and honey coffees must be often turned to ventilate and covered when too cold or hot when put on the drying tables.