The journey of a fair-trade coffee bean
If we Brits are married to our cups of tea, then coffee is our secret love affair. Recent figures revealed by the British Coffee Association (BSA) paint Britain less as a nation of tea-drinkers and more as coffee connoisseurs, with our coffee consumption increasing from 70 million cups a day in 2008 to 95 million cups a day in 2018.
Obviously coffee beans don’t grow in the UK, and it took a lot of manpower to get you your morning pick-me-up!
And, if you’re a fan of drinking fair trade coffee, that journey is more wonderful and varied. You see, the journey of a coffee bean depends on which farm it came from, the grower of the bean, and how it was processed.
Obviously, a large-scale coffee plantation will operate a lot differently from a simpler (and much smaller) fair trade coffee farm. Perhaps you know about the ethics surrounding fair trade coffee, the issues of pay and the treatment of workers, but it does go far beyond that. The number of workers, the use of waste water, and the difference in fair trade coffee production is not to be understated. The process is eco-friendlier and more worker friendly!
As an example, CIPAC’s fair trade honey and coffee co-operative in Guatemala has more than 140 members working for them. It may be a remote area, but it’s a fantastic place to grow coffee all the same.
Numerous farmers here are performing a trade inherited from many family generations. There are a lot for the CIPAC’s farmers to do before the beans are ready to be made into the delicious coffee that we know and love. So, what exactly happens on the journey from bush to mug? Let’s follow some of CIPAC’s fair trade coffee growers to find out…
Harvesting coffee beans
Winter is typically coffee-harvesting season for many farmers. And, on family-owned farms, the whole family might get involved. Coffee ripens at a slightly different time within this period, depending on the climate, the altitude, the type of soil and the variety of coffee. Some farmers even live in areas with their own microclimate, which means that the coffee they produce has its own and quality flavour.
Throughout the season, the same coffee plant can be harvested up to two or three times over. This is because only the ripe cherries are hand-plucked from the bush to guarantee a high-quality coffee. On large coffee farms, the harvesters must travel up steep hills and down into valleys to collect the cherries in a basket — which can be exhausting.
The de-pulping process
Once the coffee has been harvested, it is moved on to the farmers, which involves the harvesters often having to travel up and down hills and across rickety bridges to reach the end destination where the cherries are de-pulped within 24 hours.
While large-scale plantations use heavy machinery to quickly take off the coffee-cherry skins, farmers at CIPAC either use a small electric de-pulping machine (where the cherries are poured in the top and emerge de-pulped from the bottom) or they use their own energy. The coffee beans are closely inspected as they are poured into the machine, and any beans that don’t look quite ripe enough or are too ripe are taken out.
Cleaning the cherries
Once the coffee cherries are de-pulped, they are submerged in unique water pools for a full day, to clean them and remove any remaining layers. Some beans will float in the water and these beans are always removed. After washing, the leftover water will contain some toxic elements that means it can’t just be thrown onto the plants in their backyard. But farmers at CIPAC know what to do – they re-use the dirty water and skins to make an eco-friendly compost to use around their coffee plants.
Drying each coffee bean
After cleaning, the beans are laid out to allow the sun to dry them naturally. The farmer chooses an area that’s wide, flat, and clean, and spreads the beans out with a rake. They turn the beans with this rake while the sun shines, and then they hurry to cover them with a huge sheet if there is a hint of rain or moisture in the air. They also cover the beans every night to keep the dew away. This process can take several days – or much longer if there’s rain.
Transporting the beans
Once the coffee has dried, the parchment beans are formed. The farmers take the sacks of parchment beans to the nearest road, where they’ll be a collected by a van, sent by the coffee co-operative. Farmers in the most remote areas must make their way along dangerous winding mountain paths, where they encounter huge cliff drops. Can you imagine having to walk along a cliff-edge while carrying a 30kg bag of coffee beans?
If there are no co-operatives to sell their products to, farmers often must make longer, more dangerous journeys to find a trader. Once the beans reach the co-operative storage site safely, they are then weighed, checked for quality, and then stored.
Transforming the beans
Once the parchment beans arrive at a fair-trade cooperative, they are then turned into green beans. This is the most important quality milestone yet, and involves the beans being judged by their weight and appearance, to make sure they are of the best quality. Finally, the beans are ‘polished’, which removes the last layer of skin covering the coffee beans.
The beans are then sampled by buyers for quality in a process known as ‘coffee cupping’, which involves them slurping coffee to accurately taste all the subtle flavours of the coffee, especially for the special varieties grown in areas with their own microclimates. These samples are sent to the co-operative, so they can easily vouch for the quality of the coffee to buyers. Finally, the finished beans are bagged and sold to an exporter.
CIPAC sells the coffee beans to Cafesca, a fair-trade operator based in Mexico. From there, some of the beans are sent to another Mexican fair-trade operator, Descamex, who are the only facility in the world to use the Mountain Water Method to produce decaf coffee. Descamex send the decaffeinated beans back to Cafesca, who transform all the coffee beans into instant coffee and instant decaf. Once the finished coffee is sealed in jars, they’re loaded onto a container, then onto a ship, and then transported to the UK to be sold by retailers such as Traidcraft.
The journey has now reached its conclusion and it’s clear to see that coffee beans go on quite the adventure before making it into your mug. And while the huge coffee plantations use lots of workers and modern equipment, the fair-trade farmers at CIPAC like to keep it simple. Family-run farms, hand-picking only the ripest cherries, and drying the beans naturally under the heat of the sun. There are fewer chemicals, and therefore more room for character.
*Collaborative feature post*