As I have a bee suit, I decided I would pick this coffee myself and use it as a learning experience. Wow, I learned more in an hour of coffee picking than I have in 6 years of seeing the coffee being picked.
The bees turned out to be a complete non-issue. Even though I was picking away right over the hives they ignored me completely. This is as expected, it is the rainy season here. They do not have much honey, not much to protect, they are concentrating on survival - stinging me right now would have been a waste of resources.
The coffee picking was extremely interesting. I conclude there is no way on this planet that you can ensure the very ripest best cherries using migrant labor and paying them by volume. YES. THAT IS RIGHT, this process is fundamentally flawed.
However, therein lies a tremendous opportunity. If you can crack this difficult problem, the quality of your coffee should leapfrog almost any other factor and make an enormous difference to your cup.
Today, the buyers and top roasters certainly do understand that ripeness is an incredibly important factor. I would put it to you all though, that what is touted today as the ripest most perfect set of red cherries is very far short of what could be achieved with a different process.
Yes there are many important contributors to taste: Altitude, varietal, processing and roasting. That said, the ripeness of the cherry seems to me the one with the single biggest untapped opportunity for improvement.
The best process in place today to guarantee the highest quality ripeness of cherries in Boquete is the one we are using. Most people do not use it because it is more expensive and there is no point if you sell to a beneficio: We pay pickers a bit more (sometimes quite a bit more for a lata) and get them doing the rounds every 8 days.
Here is what I found from one hour of picking coffee myself, with every intention to pick only the very best purple/red cherries and to go out there every couple of days until the job is done between now and around New Year (Harvest is going to be early this year)
- It is actually really difficult to only pick the ripest red/purple cherries, the ones that are so ripe they almost fall off the branches. These most desirable cherries are easy to loose in the undergrowth as they come off the little stalk they grow from rather too easily. Finding them on the ground is time consuming and does not happen.
- Even with cherries that have formed from the same whorl of flowers, there are lots of different reds and greens. It is not really possible to expect someone who is paid by volume not to just put their fist around the lot and get them all dropping into the bucket.
I was finding cherries today that would be perfect in a bout 4 days. Right now, these get put into the basket. That is the quality the beneficio accepts and it is quick pickings.
-Unless you use a very inefficient almost tweezer like movement with two fingers, then you are going to get other things in the bucket. Even with my strenous efforts, I got a few green cherries, some less ripe ones, a few old dried out ones that had been missed last time around etc. It is also very easy to rub off and destroy green cherries in the process of grabbing the branches to get them into reach.
Conclusion: We need to look into different ways of picking super ripe cherries if we are going to move from the beneficio market and win on quality.
Normally, to get a very high quality in a process like this one, you would want your own staff, build a pride in the job, have strict enforced standards and pay by the hour with some kind of profit sharing.
How to do this in the coffee world is the million dollar question. Work is seasonal, labor is motivated by volume and the profits are non-existent most years. Still, a problem worth pondering. As a very small farm, it is something I should probably be able to achieve much more easily than my bigger competitors. This could be turned into a strategic advantage.
Ideas welcome, I will be sharing some of my own in future posts.