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104. “Post-production”

Since its creation nearly a year ago, this has been a humble blog with modest aims.  But today, I am making a radical proposal: do away once-and-for-all with the term “post-harvest” in discussions of the coffee chain, and replace it with a new term.  A term that borrows from the lexicon of radio, TV and film.  A term that is altogether more precise and more instructive than “post-harvest.”  “Post-production.”  Out with the old and in with the all-new-and-improved.

In recent posts, I have addressed the issue of where quality comes from, including perspectives of cuppers who don’t see farming practices as a very important determinant of quality and scientists who do.  Cuppers and scientists agree, however, on the importance to cup quality of the “harvest point” — picking only ripe red cherries.  But if harvest-point is among the leading determinants of coffee quality, then we should all be very clear where it belongs on the coffee chain.

I have been spending lots of time thinking about this issue lately because I have been involved in developing a proposal for a new project at origin that looks at the entire coffee chain.  I had a bit of a debate with some of my colleagues about whether quality was best assigned to the “production” link of the coffee chain or the “post-harvest” link.  The answer to that question, of course, depends on where quality comes from. I have my own ideas about this, but I raised the issue in conversations with cuppers and reviewed old quality studies in my files to get other perspectives.  In the end, I concluded that part of the problem is the language we use to divide production activities from post-harvest processes.

It is clear that the term “post-harvest processing” just doesn’t do.  In fact, I wonder how it has come to enjoy such broad acceptance.  The concept of “post-harvest processing” is defined in contraposition to the harvest, so can’t possibly include harvest.

And while there may not be a compelling cognitive case against including harvest under “production,” the act of picking coffee seems sufficiently dissimilar to all the actions required to bring it coffee to maturity as to preclude it from being classified as a “productive” activity.  Production processes, by definition, are about fostering growth and maturation.  The harvest actually ends these processes by removing the bean from its nutrient source.  From a cultural perspective, harvest is also distinctively different from other production activities.  It brings into the coffee process lots of folks whose engagement with coffee is temporary and seasonal and whose activities, however critical, are redundant and unidimensional.

In sum, harvest point doesn’t seem like a comfortable fit for either of these categories.  It should probably be represented as its own link on the coffee chain given its seminal importance to cup quality and the cultural dissimilarity of the harvest process from everything that comes before — “production” — and everything that comes after — “post-production.”

In coffee — as in the radio, TV and film contexts in which the term is more commonly used — post-production refers to the innovation and painstaking attention to detail that preserves and reveals the underlying quality of raw material. In the all-new-and-improved coffee chain, harvest marks the transition point between production and post-harvest, ahem, post-production activities.

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N.B. I wondered for a moment before posting this — just a moment — whether this minor semantic wrinkle deserved its own post or whether it was much ado about little more than nothing.  Then, of course, I remembered that this is an industry that thrives on precision in the arcana of every other variable that contributes to the cup quality — in roast curves and v60 brewing techniques and cupping temperatures and dialing in and refractometer use and on and on.  And I decided it was worthy of posting.  MS

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