Most of the world's coffee is grown by small farmers on five to seven acres of land. The farmers and their families harvest it by hand into large baskets or sacks when the cherries are ripe. In some coffee farming communities, the coffee harvest is a rotating project where the entire community shares in the activity and moves from farm to farm as the crop ripens. The saying goes, "today for me, tomorrow for you." In countries like Brazil, where the land is flat and larger farms dominate the landscape, mechanical harvesters are commonly used to pick the crop. All Equal Exchange coffees are harvested by hand. This is a tremendous amount of work! Coffee cherries ripen at different times depending on the farm, the tree and the climate. It may require three to seven pickings to complete the harvest.
Coffee ripens throughout the harvest season, but is divided into the beginning, middle and end of the harvest. Generally, the lower the altitude, the warmer the climate and the sooner the crop will ripen. In other words, coffee at 1,800 feet will ripen faster then coffee grown at 3,000 feet. The beginning of the harvest yields a smaller amount of coffee and the flavor is oftentimes thought to be astringent, vegetal, and undeveloped in flavor. The middle of the harvest brings in the bulk of the crop, with a more developed and mature flavor. The end of the harvest is usually seen as the leftovers from the season. At Equal Exchange, we buy our coffee in the middle of the harvest when the coffee is more refined and mature in flavor and there is more coffee to choose from to match our specific flavor profiles.