DR Diaries: Harvest time on Finca La Paz, Part II: The Ripening

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his second dispatch from a recent trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, where it is harvest time again.

Rain clouds rolling in on Finca La Paz. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

After spending a few days on the farm, I left to do some of my usual networking and running errands. I think this is one of the most productive trips for me in a few ways: I was really prepared for all the odds and ends that come up during harvest and pruning, I was able to apply some of the biological controls that I’ve been after for the last 3 years for the terrible bean borer (broca), and I think I finally have a concrete plan to see me through the next 5 years.

It was exciting to see the coffee cherries turn from yellow to red over the few days that I was on the farm. What’s interesting is the maturation wasn’t exactly how I wanted it to happen. Everyone in Los Frios was complaining because they lost their first crop of pinto and black beans (short-cycle bush bean crops) because there was not enough rain at the right times. Now they were into the second-cycle bush bean crop and again there was still not enough rain. Per how that affects, coffee I wasn’t worried because I prefer a light rainy season during the harvest because it slows and controls the maturation of the cherries from green to red. Here is the real crux: not all red cherries are truly ripe (in my opinion).

A coffee plant both fruiting and flowering. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

When I arrived at the farm on Monday, there were some scattered red cherries around the farm and a fair number of yellow cherries and lots of green. Every day in Los Frios after I arrived it rained hard in the afternoon. On Wednesday the yellow cherries were already red. As usual, I like to taste the red cherries and see if I can correlate the environment and variety with the flavor, yes I am a super nerd. Some of the cherries were really sweet and showed a fair amount of mucilage (clear fleshy coffee fruit). Some of the cherries were only vegetal and kind of flat without much sweetness or mucilage. They showed a zucchini or bell pepper flavor. Why? Coffee cherries that are allowed to ripen slowly turn from green to yellow to red over the period of a couple weeks, furthermore they can show both green and red on the same cherry (pinta’o or pinton in Dominican Spanish). A lot of cherries went straight from yellow to red in about half the time that I expected.

Trees are water pumps. They bring in water through their roots and expel it through their the underside of their leaves in openings called stoma. Coffee doesn’t respond well to water during the harvest because it does a few things to the cherries: 1) it causes them to ripen without developing the sugars, 2) it causes the ripe and unripe cherries to fall off the tree to the ground, and 3) it can even cause the cherries to “explode” (the cherry skin actually splits open). I found a lot of the first had happened to the yellow cherries. I haven’t done any cupping of these false red cherries to see if it really affects cup quality but I’m sure it does have some effect. To counteract that, we are going to wait a few more days before we start the picking to allow the cherries to get actually ripe.

The first picking will be the smallest so I’m not worried about the overall cup quality of this year’s coming harvest. I just hope the rain behaves for the drying of the coffee.

More to come, including a visit to the neighbors…