Harvest time at the Beneficio (Processing Station) is a never-ending dance of buckets and bags and tanks and patios. After a long day of picking, dozens of different microlots start arriving at the Beneficio starting at 6pm, landing in six different receiving tanks to keep everything separated. Already a careful eye must be paid to keeping everything moving, while ensuring that each picking is properly separated, and each picker properly compensated.
Hacienda La Esmeralda practices Washed, Honey, and Natural style processing, and the paths that the cherries take vary wildly based on the style, but they all start at the receiving tank. Once a lot is received, water is pumped into the tank which pushes the cherries down a funnel, pushing ripe beans onwards, while “floaters”—unripe beans that float on the surface—are discarded.
Here is where the processes radically diverge: for Natural-processed coffee, the cherries are put out on the drying patios as soon as they arrive, even if it is in the middle of the night. This begins a 16hr to 72hr drying process on the patios, after which the cherry is sent to the Guardiola (drier).
Both Washed and Honey-processed coffees on the other hand have additional steps applied before drying. After passing through the receiving tank and having floaters removed, the cherries then go to the mechanical depulper, a perpetual-screw mechanism that separates the coffee beans from the surrounding cherry skin and pulp.
The skin and pulp is collected to be used as fertilizer for the farms and pastures, and the coffee is now comprised of the bean, surrounded by a layer of parchment (or Pergamino), and covered in a sticky mucilage. Honey-processed coffees go from this step straight to drying, while Washed coffees go through a mechanical demucilager that scrubs the mucilage from the beans.
By this point in the processing, accounting for all the different microlots that must pass through each stage, it may be as late as 2am. The coffee sits wet inside its pergamino in another set of holding tanks, ready to be put out to dry in the morning.
Water is used heavily throughout the processing stages, and careful attention must be used to recycling the water whenever possible, and managing any run-off and byproducts of processing.
Every step of coffee processing, from picking all the way to shipment is important, but particular care must be paid to the drying stage. Wet coffee is a notoriously finicky beast, apt to quickly develop sour, fermented flavors if not quickly and uniformly dried. At Hacienda La Esmeralda, this task is accomplished with a combination of traditional patio drying, electric Guardiola driers, and African-style raised beds. Which technique gets used depends on the specific coffee being dried, how much space is available on patios and in driers, and what the weather is like during drying.
Patio drying is the preferred method for most lots because the sun reflecting off the patio evenly dries the beans from above and below, provided they are spread in thin enough layers, and rotated regularly. To easily achieve this goal, beans to be patio dried are pumped to the highest part of the mill and then into special wheelbarrows that allow workers to spread the beans out evenly.
After being laid out on the patio, the beans will dry for anywhere from 3-5 days depending on sunlight and other conditions. Starting at 7am, the beans are turned over by workers to ensure even drying. The goal is 11% humidity, which the mill manager is able to target to an impressive degree of accuracy using a “bite test” of the drying beans, though more precise measurements are used occasionally for calibration and special lots.
African-style raised beds are used to dry some of the smallest microlots, as well as in Honey-processing and some other experimental approaches. These raised beds allow air to circulate under the beans, giving a different drying profile and preventing sticking.
After the beans have been sufficiently dried, they are separated from the pergamino coating and placed into nylon grain bags, where they rest for a minimum of 30-45 days. This “Reposo” helps stabilize the bean and improves the cup quality. From there, samples get air-mailed, and lots go out by shipping container to their winning bidders.