Pedro picking ripe coffee cherries
The coffee plants start to produce flowers two to three years after they have been planted and from these flowers come the coffee cherries. Sometimes it might take up to five years from the first bloom for these cherries to mature into a high quality coffee. Each year the cherries take about six to eight months on the tree to ripen. Red berries contain higher levels of aromatic oil and lower levels of organic acid making them more fragrant, smooth and mellow. Where as green or unripe berries are characterized by bitter/astringent flavor and a sharp odor.
The coffee cherries are processed the day after they are picked ready for fermentation. Any delay and the juices in the berries can over-ferment. There are several methods of processing coffee, such as ‘pulp, ‘pulp natural’, and ‘honey’, however almost all coffee in Central America, including the coffee from our farms, goes through the ‘wet process’, sometimes referred to as ‘fully washed’. In the ‘wet process’, cherries are first sorted by being immersed in water, where the ripe cherries sink while any remaining unripe cherries float and are skimmed from the top.
Coffee being turned over in the patio
The fermentation process must be carefully monitored for the mucilage to be completely removed, while ensuring that the coffee does not acquire undesirable flavors. Jose, the wet mill manager at Finca El Hato, who has refined this process for the past thirty years, knows exactly when to cease fermentation just by the feel of the beans. Many Central American wet mills have such characters who rely, on instinct and experience over scientific measurement and without whom the coffee would not taste the same. For institutions like Jose, machinery will never replace good old-fashioned intuition.