The month of May is arriving and so it is finally time to harvest our coffee. Growing up on a coffee farm I always loved harvesting time. We woke up very early to find a field full of red berries. We would start with laying down tapeline to reduce spillages and prevent dirt from mixing with the coffee. Then we started selecting the beans. My parents taught me how important it was to selectively pick the ripe — and thus red — berries only. Even a small number of unripe berries (black or green) will affect the taste of the eventual cup of coffee. The quality of the coffee is the highest when farmers manually select the ripe beans.
In the western parts of Uganda and the northern part of Rwanda, mechanised harvesting is not possible given the hilly terrain of the area. Those areas are perfect for Arabica coffee, which grows in areas above 800 meters above sea level and is the world’s most popular coffee type.
Arabica coffee beans must grow in cool, subtropical climates and need a lot of moisture and rich soil. Fragile as they are, they can be vulnerable to various pests and can be damaged by cold temperatures or poor handling. You might start to wonder why people would grow the Arabica plant instead of its sturdier brother Robusta.
Well, coffee connoisseurs do agree on the fact that Arabica is simply the better choice. While Robusta coffee is notoriously bitter and is used primarily for instant coffee and as a filler in certain blends of ground coffee, Arabicas have an extensive taste range depending on its varietal.
The harvesting is thus done by manual labour. Most of the farms are owned by families and harvesting is thus a family endeavour. Usually, a team of 5 to 10 people is busy harvesting cherries. It is always done in the early morning before insects become too active. Dropping those selected coffee beans down on to the covered ground was always my favourite moment, to finally see all that hard work paying off.
After harvesting, we pour water into a big container and put the cherries in there. The ones that come floating are revealing their rottenness and are removed. All the ones that stay down are of good quality. Then the flesh of the coffee cherry that encloses the bean needs to be removed. We call this depulping. There are different methods to do that, like dry, wet and semi-dry processing. For Arabica coffee we generally use wet processing methods. If it is well implemented, it is the best way to maintain the inherent quality of the green coffee beans.
In our region, in contrast to other regions with bigger farms, depulping is done by hand. When we say hand, what we really mean is that the depulper is powered by hand rather than by electricity, water, or some other method. Manual depulpers are the most time-consuming and labour-intensive, but of course also the most eco-friendly.
After depulping, the green beans are soaked in water for about an hour. Then the slippery element is washed off before we can start the drying process. We use raised racks for drying, this keeps the coffee beans clean. For the first 3 to 4 days, the beans are kept in the shade. Very hot sunlight can crack the beans, and this can affect the coffee quality.
Climate has a very large effect on the coffee production and the consequences from climate change are hitting us hard. Rain fall is more and more irregular and intense and when they come, they are destructive. We lose a lot of flowers, which makes production go down. For the last two years, yield has been decreasing and we manage to harvest only once a year instead of twice. We are constantly trying to find new solutions to deal with the climatic changes, like intercropping coffee trees with fruit trees. However, the future remains insecure …
When I was young, I couldn’t grasp the importance of harvesting season yet. I would watch my parents perform arduous work, and I just wanted to play. Now my life is fully immersed into coffee farming and everything I do is directed to producing that best quality cup. A lot of people in the west do not realise how much work is put in producing a cup of coffee. Whenever you’re drinking your next cup of joe I hope you will think about the families in Uganda and Rwanda meticulously picking red cherries …
Photos by Mari Goossen