The coffee cherry, something so pretty and unknown, and yet so fundamental for so many of us in our daily lives. How many people actually know what a coffee cherry looks like and ever thinks of it as the reason we have what we drink daily in our lattes or americanos?! Aside from those working in the coffee world, probably not many I'd guess!
The coffee bean is known as a coffee cherry when growing as that is what it is - a cherry. A large seed surrounded by fruit and skin. Simple! It grows on different varieties of coffee tree (see my previous post What is Coffee? for more about this) and is harvested seasonally. It has way less flesh and a much bigger central stone than our cherries. This "stone" is our coffee bean.
This image sums it up well...
Image from https://www.craftcoffeeguru.com/coffee-bean-anatomy/
The layers of fruit, pulp and parchment will most likely be removed or treated after harvest during processing and drying, leaving behind green coffee beans - more to come on the processing part which is so vital to our coffee. They turn brown once roasted but come to us as green beans that smell grassy and almost herbal in some cases.
Most coffee cherries contain two seeds/beans with one becoming flattened along one side as the two halves develop. A peaberry is one single bean and is much rarer making up a tiny proportion of the annual global coffee crop. They do not have the flattened side and are rounded and are most often sold as a separate crop being more desirable. They involve a different level of skill when roasting as a result.
The cherry grows to roughly the size of a small grape and is most commonly red, although yellow and orange varieties are also grown. They all start out green and change colour as they mature and ripen. Red fruits are the most popular with farmers as they are the easiest to monitor for ripeness - the fruit will start green, ripen to yellow and then when at its best and is ready to harvest, it will be a gorgeous glossy red colour. So much easier to harvest when being picked by hand!
Coffee cherries growing in Peru
The ripeness of the fruit is vitally important for ensuring sweetness and quality which then translates to the bean once picked, processed and roasted. Ideally, the more sugar in the fruit, the better. The skill of the farmer comes into its own during harvest. They want the perfect cherry - too ripe and they can develop an unpleasant flavour, under ripe and you have the same issues. It has to be just perfect - the reason many farmers pick by hand so that perfection in the harvest is obtained. (they get paid a better price for this quality)
The coffee harvest with pickers at El Cipres, El Salvador
The flesh of the cherry once ripe has been described as lovely - a pleasing honeydew melon sweetness with a little refreshing acidity says James Hoffman in his Encyclopedia of Coffee. Sometimes the fruit is squeezed to make a juice but this takes a lot of effort as they aren't particularly juicy.
The fruit and skin of the cherry can be dried, but not roasted, and is then called cascara. Once the cherries have been washed, this by product is saved (rather than being used as a fertiliser as would normally happen) and sun dried to create a product that looks much like tea leaves. Indeed, it can be used like tea to brew a drink. It isn't widely available in the UK and is a bit of an acquired taste. It is very much like a herbal tea and can be quite sweet. It is popular in African and Middle eastern countries.
And there you have it, the coffee cherry! It is a pretty berry that so many are unaware of and so many couldn't function without - be that in your daily cup or as a product that makes you a living. Life would be much the poorer without it in our opinion!