Picking of coffee cherries from the tree is a very important part of the process of producing a great cup. Skilled producers know when is best to start picking and often work very long days ensuring that only the best quality cherries are selected, as fast as possible.  Pascale visited farms during the picking season and also tried her hand at it herself.

Coffee picking in Guatemala

It is always exciting to see (and taste!) red ripe coffee cherries. These are ready to be harvested, dried and processed into a nice cup of coffee. If you eat the fresh cherrries out in the field, the best ones are deliciously sweet.

Coffee pickers collect between 100 and 200 pounds (45 and 90 kg.) of coffee cherries per day. Only 20 percent of this weight is the actual bean. All coffee in Guatemala is processed with the wet method, this means that the pulp of the coffee cherry is removed from the beans within few hours of harvesting.  Even after a full day of picking there is still a lot of work to do.

Coffee Picking in Costa Rica

Here, Pascale joined in to see exactly what is involved in a day of picking – which is challenging work.

Coffee picking starts early in the morning, when temperatures are more pleasant. Depending on the size of the harvest and the amount of labourers available (after picking the coffee needs to be processed within a few  hours)  normally a day of harvesting ends between 3 and 4 o’clock. As Union Hand Roasted Coffee buys only the best quality Arabica beans it is important to pick only the red ripe cherries and separate these from the green ones. Beans should be picked selectively, ideally by hand rather than machine, and not stripped from the tree.

In the village of San Jeronimo the pickers are mainly family members – wives, siblings and inlaws and sometimes neighbours too.  Both men and women participate in the coffee harvest.

Picking only the red ripe cherries is easier said than done. I really tried, and was picking the slowest of everyone, but after an hour I only managed about a quarter of a basket. It didn’t help that the basket, which you wear around your body, fell off…so I spent quite some time collecting cherries from the ground. I dont think I’ll be offered a full time job next season.

What is a cajuela?

So how did Pascale do? Looks like she maybe filled a “cajuela”.

The wooden box being filled up with cherries is called a cajuela, the volume measurement used in Costa Rica to measure the amount of red cherries harvested. It is a rather complicated system to explain.

“What is a cajuela?”

“Well, a faneja has 20 cajuelas.”

“So what is a faneja then?”

“A faneja will give around 46 kilograms of coffee.”

A roaster might buy 400 fanejas of  coffee at one time, but because here at Union we handroast in bespoke quantities, we can take much smaller quantities of very special beans.  Some of our microlots may be as few as 10 fanejas, making them rather rare indeed.


1 fanega in coffee cherries equals 250 kgs. gross weight, once it has been pulped and then dry milled this equals 46 Kgs.  Which is 1 quintal of green bean net weight.

So for example Union bought 345Kg of coffee from Finca Genesis, which is 7.5 quintals. To produce this required 10 fanegas (or 2500Kg) of coffee cherries to develop this microlot.




Our first exceptional lot from this up-coming origin finally arrived.  It’s been a labour of love to actually get our hands on this small parcel of great bourbon coffee, with our
journey starting back in August 2010. For those of you who follow our exploits, you may recall my first exploration of Burundi’s coffee production scene was on
Burundi-road-trip-june-2010 and with progress being made during the 2010 – 11 harvest season, the decision was made to apply to the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (A.C.E.) for
Burundi to be considered to host a Cup of Excellence Competition.

Wonderful Burundi print on curtains


Before any country can host the Cup of Excellence programme, countless operational challenges have to be overcome – from establishing the producer and chain of custody for all samples, through to ensuring adequate roasting and cupping facilities are professionally managed.  The most important aspect however, and one of the prime legacy effects of the competition, is the development of a team of national experts from the local industry that are capable of screening samples to the high standards expected by the international quality coffee market.   This National jury is responsible for screening all lots entered by farmers, repeatedly tasting until just around 40 – 50 samples remain for the invited international team and representing the best coffee that the country has to offer.

In common with Rwanda’s own debut into the competition, and before final approval could be given by A.C.E. that Burundi possessed the organisational strength and resources required, a test event entitled the ‘Burundi Prestige Cup’ was held in August 2011 that would replicate and examine all procedure and protocols for competition. Having been so closely associated for around 10 years with the development of quality coffee in neighbouring Rwanda, I was delighted to be invited to participate in this inaugural panel and to
have the opportunity catch up with some of the people I had met a year earlier.

Jeremy cupping action with Steinar Paulsrud (Kaffebrenneriet, Norway) and Head Judge, Paul Songer (Songer Associates, USA)

The National Jury working under A.C.E. Head Judge, Paul Songer, who has also been heavily involved in Rwanda’s successful rise as a quality coffee producer, worked their way through 96  samples eventually passing 46 as being representative of the highest grade of coffee.  Along with 10 other experienced cuppers from the USA, Norway, Australia and Japan we then spent the following week tasting and re-tasting again to eventually pass 22 lots as being representative of a cup of excellence finalist selection.  Significantly, one lot achieved a score of over 90 points, qualifying for what would in a formal competition be a Presidential Award –a great achievement considering that the washing stations and cooperatives here had only had one season experience in producing for the quality market.

Burundi smallholder awards

Looking back over my notes from the previous year’s tour, it was quickly apparent as we got into the real business of cupping that there had in the past year been some real improvements in many areas of Burundi coffee production.  Many of the samples that we cupped showed good characteristics overlaying clean and sweet coffees, and with
consistency over the week as samples passed through each round. (we only know the identity of lot numbers at end of the week and through tracing these back
through the rounds scoresheets).  At the most basic level, the incidence of potato taste, a defect that is prevalent in this region of East Africa was far lower than expected, and lower than I experienced on the previous year’s tour.  Given the scale of many of the washing stations so far constructed in Burundi, I had expected this issue to be more obvious, and it is testament to the process management improvements that this has not been seen to be so.  More exciting however was that for the first time, I started to get some real East Africa/Great Lakes regionality with the Bourbon character coming clearly and cleanly through, and a range of cup styles from light floral sweet citric, through to rich raisin sweet bodied cups.  Diversity arises from soil and microclimate differences but without careful growing and clean processing, these vibrant characters just won’t be found.  Through the week there were interesting comments from different Jury members and clearly there were coffee styles here to suit all the Judges (we are all buyers) personal and national style needs.

Usually when attending Cup of Excellence as a jury member, the results are declared at the end of the week with a big ceremony and awards before the coffees are sold on the internet auction some three months later. One of the perks of being invited to such a test competition however is that the winning lots which have been held back from conventional sale are auctioned between the invited international jury members on the final morning of the week.  With only 10 bidders in the room and without the luxury of hiding behind a screen in another country, we raised arms to bid under the eye of the Burundi Coffee Sector directors and government representatives.  As ever, our Japanese
and Nordic representatives were not shy of high prices and with a few keenly contested lots I kept having a go to see what I could get for our friends back
home.  After a few technical problems with the auctioneers bid recording, and having just been edged out of a lot that I thought I had bought – until the hammer came down – I finally and very happily secured a lot from the Kinyovu Washing station in the northern Kayanza District that had got everyone talking about in round 1, had shone in round 2
before dropping down the rankings due to just one cup on one of the very final tables that didn’t present as well. Very happily, this was one of the stations and areas I had visited the year before and which I knew had good altitude in the surrounding hillsides (around 1880M)and good regional support for the coffee sector. My final score for the coffee was 87, just shy of our own 88 point Microlot selections but a really good effort given we are in year -1 of the competition!

Twa (Pygmy) tribe women at Busekera Village, a crafts village where the women make traditional clay pots and earthenware.


Burundi clay pots

It’s an understatement to say it’s taken a number of months to get the coffee ready to ship due to the fact that it’s a very small parcel and in the height of the season, the mills preparing coffee for export really don’t want to have to look out for just a few bags.  We waited until after the main export season therefore so that we would be able to control the milling quality and ship the coffee along with some additional coffees from the region.

Having seen this coffee from the beginning of the competition through to roasting here in East London we are delighted that the quality has held up so well. I hope that you will enjoy drinking it as much as we are– the cup shows many of the aspects I love about this region; silky body and mouthfeel, great delicate milk chocolate praline undercurrent and a wonderful sweet delicate acidity, less aggressive than other East African coffees.

This parcel only represents a tiny amount – about 3 sacks of coffee that will not last long. Seek it on our online shop. If the quality improvements seen this last year continue, then Burundi may become as important an origin for us in the next ten years as the wonderful Rwanda had been over the last.

One of the most important aspects of coffee cultivation, in addition to being vigiliant about disease, is ensuring correct inputs for nutrition takes place. Pascale saw some of the different methods in use on the farms in Guatemala when she looked at coffee planting.

How coffee gets good nutrition?

Coffee trees need to  receive essentional nutrients. In Guatemala producers usually clear the area surrounding the coffee plant first, and then throw three neat handfuls of compost fertilizer  and NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorous & Potassium)  around the base. Coffee plants are fertilized up to three times a year. The frequency mainly depends on the cash that producers have available to buy the products. Fertilizing is one of the most expensive activities for these producers.

In La Libertad and Todos Santos in Guatemala, coffee is grown in shade of other crops. The leaves that fall off the canopy trees also serve as an organic material to enrich the soil. Organic material is important because of the nutritients  and mineral material that it returns to the earth.

If you understand Spanish then you can probably guess what is inside this structure, hidden away under a canopy from the sign on the top.

It is full of worms! Some producers in Todos Santos produce their own organic fertilizer. It is a cheap and convenient way of producing organic material. The biggest risk is not covering the infrastructure and giving the birds a nice dinner!

One of the frequently used components of this compost fertilizer is discarded cherry skins, which are removed during post-harvest processing of the beans.

Coffee plants, if properly tended, can continue to produce viable coffee cherries for up to thirty years. However, given that they can also take between three and four seasons to start producing fruits, it’s a case of investing now for reward later when starting out. An outbreak of disease can be devastating for producers, especially if the more mature trees which produce the bulk of the crop, are affected.

Commonly found diseases in coffee

Pascale found out more about some of the most common diseases that can affect coffee in Guatemala when she visited farms with ANACAFE.

Ojo De Gallo

Coffee is susceptible to disease such as Ojo de Gallo or Rooster’s Eye. In Huica, where we visited some parcels which are old in coffee terms (30-40 years) and therefore even more susceptible. We found many cases of Ojo de Gallo. This is a fungus, Mycena citricolor,  that can severely harm the plant, but develops slowly. First, the leaves develop  a marking pattern called “rooster eyes”, then the leaves will fall off and beans will be affected too and finally the cherries will rot on the tree.  Severe crop loss may occur and less coffee means less income.

Ojo de Gallo can be prevented by proper management, since too much moisture & humidity promotes the development of the fungus. High rainfall and too high shade density preventing good air circulation are all contributing factors. Good fertilization and composting to ensure healthy plants also helps with prevention. If coffee parcels are old, the plants can also be removed or pruned to prevent further spread of the disease. Chemical anti fingus applications also can eliminate Ojo de Gallo, but prevention is preferred. 

Mancha del Sol

Cultivating coffee is not easy. Although Ojo de Gallo is prevented by providing enough shade, too little can result in Mancha del Sol. They are also easily confused, although Mancha del Sol is characterized by the yellow circle around the black spot. Fortunately, producers in Guatemala do not have to combat diseases such as Roya de café (Hemileia Vastrix) which is one of the biggest problems in cultivating coffee in countries like Colombia – an outbreak can destroy up to 70% of a parcel.

We visited a group of producers in San Miguel Ixcahuacan and went with them to another co-operative at La Libertad. They visited parcels and then also worked with the cuppers from Esquipulas. These type of interactions are important, as producers are more likely to adapt cultivation practices recommended by visiting agronomists when they can see with their own eyes that these practices improve the conditions of the parcels. If you hear you will forget, if you see you will remember…

Producers share knowledge with the help of organisations such as ANACAFE and we at Union also run seminars and workshops for them. We believe it’s really important and we’ll be discussing the role of the co-operative in more detail next time!

We’ve talked about  what a coffee bean is – so now we take a look at whats happening in the field?  We may undertake around twelve ‘origin’ trips a year on average, to visit the farmer partners and producers we source our coffee from and to learn more about changes during the season on the farms. Pascale, a development economist reseacher who’s been working with us, has also been visiting producers’ co-operatives in Guatemala. She had the opportunity to observe more about planting coffee and also what other crops are important to the farmers to diversify their income.

How is coffee grown?

Young coffee plants are grown in nurseries, shown here which is in Guatemala. 

Here coffee producers grow new young coffee plants in a special format so they can be transplanted into the land parcels within the first year. The plants are either grown in plastic plant pot-bags as in the picture or directly into the ground. The plants are placed neatly in rows because one needs to have room around the plants to fertilize and to weed the surrounding area (to avoid disease transmission).

Why is crop diversity important?

The farmers often grow other crops too, for a variety of reasons; to give shade to coffee plants, to provide for their own food needs, and to have other sources of cash crops to contribute to their  income outside of the coffee season. Here’s a great project in Huica that Pascale visited:

The women of Huica have a mushroom project, which not only provides an alternative income source but also diversifies their diet. They grow the mushrooms in an old barn that has the correct moisture and light levels.

There are different ways to cultivate mushrooms. These women use maize stalks as the growth medium, which are abundant because tortillas which are made of maize dough feature in every meal here. Mushroom growing does not require a great investment, only the seeds and plastic bags need to be bought every time.

After approximately 45 – 60 days the mushrooms are ready to harvest. The crop can be susceptible to disease, but if taken care of properly a substantial harvest can be managed in relatively little space. The harvest takes place every two months and the sales at local markets and to friends and neighbours provides regular cash flow. During the coffee season, women often stop mushroom cultivation, as coffee requires all of their time.  And they need to use the barn to dry and store their parchment coffee.

Coffee ready to be picked:

Still green and immature coffee beans are shown here together with new coffee flowers not yet opened. The flowering of the coffee plant is dependent on several factors, most importantly rainfall. 

With the first rains during the wet season the coffee plant starts to flower with coffee blossom.  This is not only a magnificent sight, like these plants in Tuiboch, Todos Santos, but also brings with it a delicious aroma of jasmine.

One can often find banana or plantain trees in the coffee fields, planting both cash and food crops in the same area is an optimal way of using space.

Next time I want to discuss some of the problems and issues that can affect coffee plants during the growing season – and how farmers overcome them.


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