From the Finca to your Cup

Trip Start Nov 05, 2007
Trip End Nov 29, 2007

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Flag of Guatemala  ,
Monday, November 19, 2007

Here, as promised, is a description of the coffee production process, from start to finish!

1-1.5: There are many different varieties of coffee trees, each with different strengths. (The same is true of macadamia trees, which several of these pictures show.) One is called a gringo, since it grows tall and strong. However, it doesn't produce as much fruit (or as many nuts) as another variety. When the trees are young, therefore, the farmers make a cut in the gringo and insert a branch from a higher-producing tree. They then seal it with wax and wrap it with plastic, like a bandage. Picture #1 shows an adult tree with the scar from this insertion. In #1.5, you can see how different leaves grow out of the bottom and the top of the tree.

2-5: The fruit of the coffee tree is called "cherries" in English (and translates into "grapes" in Spanish). I understood why after not long of picking the small, red fruit! The workers tie a basket around their waist so they can keep both hands free. They also bring a large bag with them to refill with the cherries whenever the basket gets full.

6-7: The next step is to select out the green cherries that accidentally got picked with the ripe ones. As you can see in #6, our group of gringos needed a little help to do this well! The green cherries aren't wasted - rather, they get combined into one large bag, where they ripen over the course of eight days. 

8-10: The coffee then gets weighed, and the weight is recorded in a book. Farmers can choose to get paid either by the day or by the amount of coffee they harvest. They receive 30 quetzals (about $4) for a day's work; this usually runs from 6:00 am until 2:00 pm, with half an hour each for breakfast and lunch. Some opt to work more hours, or women and children may work less. In this case, they receive 40 quetzals (about $2) for every quintal of coffee they pick - that's 100 pounds! They can get a little more on Sundays, as a motivation to work on their day off (50 quetzals, or $2.50, per quintal). Our group proudly weighed in at 110 pounds, or a little more than one quintal. Since there were eight of us picking coffee for about two hours, that means that we each would have earned about 37 cents an hour! 

11-17: We carried our 110-pound bag of cherries to the beneficio, or coffee processing plant. (Luckily I wasn't the one to do this - I couldn't budge it!) Once inside, the cherries were first poured into a hole filled with water (#15). The better cherries sink to the bottom, while the third-grade cherries (the lowest quality) float to the top and run off into a nearby tank (#16). The higher-quality cherries are pushed into a tube (#17) and shuttled to the depulper.

18-19: There are two depulpers to take off the outside shell of the coffee: the first for large and medium-sized cherries, the second for smaller cherries. The cherries which are too small to be depulped in the first machine get carried up by a conveyer belt to the second depulper (#19). 

20: A coffee cherry actually has four layers which need to be removed before the bean is roasted. The first is the pulp, the soft red shell that you see when the coffee is still on the tree. The second is called "miel" in Spanish, which literally translates to "honey." It's a slimy layer that's almost impossible to take off by hand. (I'll describe the third and fourth layers later.) In order to remove the miel, the coffee first has to sit in a fermentation tank for 36 hours. It's important to let it sit for the right amount of time: if it ferments for too long, it creates a bad smell that ruins the entire tank of coffee; but if it doesn't ferment for long enough, it ends up rotting later on.

21-25: Once the coffee has been fermented for the right amount of time, it's ready to be washed. At this point, the miel comes off easily in the water, with the help of a worker who agitates it with a comb (#24). As before, the higher quality coffee sinks to the bottom (#25), while the lower quality coffee (and the miel) floats to the top. At Nueva Allianca, they've devised a simple but ingenious method for using this fact to separate the different grades of coffee. They place a wooden barrier along one of the channels of water (#23) which is too high for the first and second grade coffee to pass through; in this way they first collect just the third-grade coffee on the other side. Once this is done, they lower the barrier so the second-grade coffee can pass, and so on. While this process takes a long time, the advantage is the superior taste of the coffee. Some beneficios have a mechanical system that can remove the miel without fermentation, but while it requires less time and fewer workers, it adversely affects the quality of the coffee.

26: Once the coffee has been washed and sorted, it's spread on the patio to dry in the sun. The beneficio has a pump to bring it here automatically, but unfortunately it isn't working and the coffee has to be carried up by hand. The finca has decided not to invest in fixing the pump, because they expect to soon receive a grant to renew their facilities and make them more ecological. Right now, the plant uses a lot of water, none of which is recycled; the pulp makes the waste water acidic, and when it leaves the plant it contaminates a nearby river. Planned renovations will allow the beneficio to recycle most of the water, and to filter the water that does end up back in the rivers.  

27-29: Drying the coffee only in the sun might work if they had only a small harvest, but with the amount of coffee the beneficio processes, they need to use a dryer as well. It has to be kept at exactly the right temperature (around 60 degrees Celsius) in order to preserve the quality of the coffee. Therefore, the dryer has to be watched for 24 hours a day whenever it's in use. As you can see, it requires a lot of firewood! The dryer can hold up to 100 quintals (10,000 pounds). Normally they fill it with 80 quintals of coffee, which weighs just 40 quintals once it's dry - half of the initial weight is water! 

30-31: Once the coffee has been dryed for 24 hours, it can be stored for a long time (#30). At this point it's called (in Spanish) "café en pergamino."  As you may recall, a coffee cherry has four layers. The first and second were the pulp and the miel; the third is the pergamino, a parchment-like layer surrounding the coffee bean, followed by a thin film, called (in Spanish) the pelicula. Once these layers have been removed, it's called (in Spanish) "café en oro." (Sorry for not knowing all these terms in English!) Photo #31 shows the café en oro along with the removed pergamino and the pelicula, which our guide obtained by grinding the coffee with his shoe.

32-35: Nueva Allianca doesn't have the facilities to remove the pergamino and the pelicula, so they either sell the coffee in pergamino (which protects it from rotting) or commission another finca to finish the processing for them. One of these is the women's roasting cooperative, Mundo Verde, located in the community of Loma Linda. #32 shows the machine used to take these final layers off the coffee, while #33 shows where they end up! Afterwards, the women separate out the broken bits of coffee. They'll sell these in different bags for less money.

36-39: While many importers prefer to roast their own coffee, Mundo Verde also has roasting facilities. Roasting takes about half an hour. Once the women think the coffee might be ready, they test it (#36), then empty it onto a wheel where it cools over a ventilator (#37). Again working by hand, they remove any burnt beans (#38). Photo #39 shows the coffee at various stages of roasting.

40-43: The coffee is now nearly ready to sell! Not everyone likes to buy their coffee ground, but Mundo Verde has a grinder (#40) just in case. Photo #41 shows the scale they use to weigh the bags, along with a machine that seals them once they're full. The smallest bag (which costs half a quetzal, or about 7 cents) is used for the broken coffee, and has a shelf life of about a month. The middle one, which costs 2 quetzals (about 27 cents), contains a mix of first- and second-grade coffee, and has a shelf life of about 3 months. The bag on the right costs a whopping 6 quetzals (about 80 cents) and keeps the first-grade coffee fresh for six months.

Finally, here are a few interesting statistics:
* Suppose you have one quintal (100 pounds) of coffee cherries (about what our group picked). After depulping, only 60 pounds are left. Once you remove the miel, the coffee weighs just 42 pounds. Drying it for 5-6 hours in the sun reduces the weight to 32 pounds, and after 24 hours in the dryer it weights 22 pounds. After removing the pergamino, it's only 19.5 pounds; and once roasted, the final weight is just 11 or 12 pounds. That means it takes more than 8 pounds of coffee cherries to produce one pound of coffee! 
* Despite what you might think when you shell out $3.00 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, growing coffee isn't particularly profitable. Costs include salaries for the harvesters, weighers, and beneficio workers, as well as gas to transport the coffee, run the beneficios, and cut the firewood. Many people have been forced to abandon their fields when coffee prices dropped, especially farmers at lower altitudes where the coffee is of lower quality. The going rate for organic coffee is now just 750 - 800 quetzals per quintal of coffee in pergamino, or about $1.07 per pound. (And remember, it takes about 5 pounds of coffee cherries to produce one pound of coffee in pergamino!) Nueva Allianca hopes that as the quality of Guatemalan coffee rises (as it has been doing), so will its price.
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