Once coffee cherries are picked, pulped and washed, the drying is a very important part of the post harvest process. The way moisture content is controlled affects the quality and ultimately the price that the producer receives for their crop. Pascale met Jose, one of our producers in Guatemala who has been innovative in coming up with solutions to improve his coffee.

Jose Fernando Lopez Lopez, member and vice president of the coffee department in Esquipulas Cooperative, Huehuetenango Guatemala who produce our “Liberacion“,  is very proud of his wet mill equipment.  The way he speaks about coffee is inspiring and in recent years he has invested a lot of time in his coffee and the cooperative organization.

He has many ideas and aspirations. Last year, he upgraded his wet mill because it was too small, and restricted the speed and volume he could pulp his coffee. Now he plans to hitch his old depulper onto his pick-up truck so that he can go out to the fields with his wet mill and depulp the coffee there. Depulping on site will mean less coffee to transport, and fewer trips to the parcels overall. Instead of transporting the cherries to the dry mill he can now transport parchment, and save time and money  Very innovative! He should also discover that by pulping cherries almost immediately after picking his quality will improve even further. 

Jose also owns a pharmacy. He employs day labourers who take care of his coffee up in the mountains, day to day. He needs to visit his pacels of land regularly to keep guiding the day labourers in washing, fermenting and drying the coffee. Below he is checking the progress of beans as they dry.

The wet parchment coffee contains greater than 50% moisture, which must be carefully dried to reduce the water content down to 12%. To dry this parchment coffee, the beans are arranged in a thin layer on large concrete patios to dry naturally in the sun. The beans are raked regularly throughout the day to ensure even drying throughout the parchment layer.

An alternative approach is to create raised “African Beds” where the beans are spread on open-mesh netting suspended above the ground on tables, that allows the air to circulate above and below. Whichever approach is  taken, drying time must be controlled and is dependent upon weather conditions and relative humidity. Rapid drying can cause the parchment to split which is detrimental to the coffee, and slow drying with poor air circulation will contribute to mould growth.

Although sun-drying is the favoured technique because it is considered to contribute towards enhanced cup quality, mechanical drying is also used in some circumstances. Here beans are rotated in drums that are blown through with hot air. This can be an effective technique to “predry” before finishing with sun-drying, or if weather conditions are just too wet. Complete mechanical drying is not always well regarded for specialty coffee and may contribute towards lower cup quality.

At some co-operatives, they have built covered patios (parabolic driers) to protect the raised “African” drying beds.  This is a tent-like structure- the top and walls are made from plastic, protecting the coffee from rain, and sometimes mesh is used which facilitates air flow which helps to avoid condensation which could cause mould to grow.  

Maize is a most important crop in Guatemala as the ground flour is used to make tortillas which are part of every meal here. At the end of the season when all the coffee is dried, the terraces are used for drying maize too.

We try to share examples of best practice from all the countries we source our coffee with other famers around the world. Every situation is slightly different but we find that it improves our relationships and deepens their trust in us if we speak together regularly to update them about a range of subjects from agronomy techniques to labour rights, and to learn from them too. Pascale is researching socio-economic conditions for us and regularly conducts surveys and runs workshops with farmers to exchange feedback. It’s been interesting to see how certain aspects have changed. For instance, the increased role played by women in the coffee economy has developed greatly since the coffee crisis in the late 90s.

Labour conditions and equality

It is always difficult to gather producers together and give workshops, especially during the harvest. I am getting used to “the hora chapin”, the Guatemalan hour, and now realise workshops always start late. But they’re worth it – here we welcomed 62 producers, 45% women and 55% male. It is inspiring to see that level of female participation as Guatemalan culture is dominated by gender issues including so-called “machismo”.  It is culturally defined that the woman’s role is in the house taking care for her husband and kids. Historically it has been rare for women to get involved in events like ours, especially events related to education. The workshop deals with labour standards, but also briefly discusses women’s right to equal payment and their right to participate in events. Discussing these issues is very important in a mainly male dominated society.

Some women are working with their husbands, or sometimes in place of them. Many men from this area migrated to the United States for work.  Some remain loyal to their families and send money home, however unfortunately many of them disappear or start a new family in the States abandoning their families in Guatemala.

In Tuiboch Todos Santos, 23 producers participated in our workshop about costs of production and labour standards. I presented the results of my previous study on cost of production. To gain and keep producers’ trust it is important that we dont just come to do our study and disappear, but we also need to return and share our results.

Besides the workshop on the costs of production, I also discuss labour standards. Union Hand Roasted Coffee is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative which works to protect poor and vulnerable workers, particularly children and day labourers. We discuss these standards with our producers. Producers often tell us that because of their economic situation children sometimes need to help on the farm, but say that these activities generally do not interfere with schoolwork. We explain that it is also important for children to play and rest – they can help on the farm but need time for themselves too.

Coffee training

We believe it is essential to equip producers with the knowledge that helps them to grade and cup their own coffee, and have done so for almost a decade now.

Esquipulas has two trained cuppers, Adriel Alfaro and Iliana Martinez. For any group of producers selling coffee having cupping experts is very important. Not long ago, growers would take a sample of their harvest to a local buyer, who offered the producers a price after cupping their coffee. If they were told that quality was poor, producers had no clue whether or not this was true – as I’d heard in Costa Rica, the cupping often took place behind closed doors and was surrounded with mystery and secrecy.

By training local staff, and making cupping sessions open to all growers and communicating cupping results to producers, things change. If a producer has doubts, he can try and taste his own coffee (one does not need to be a super experienced cupper to distinguish common quality issues such as heavily fermented coffee). Cupping results are shared with the producers and recommendations are made. This way the cupping process is very transparent and accessible to all producers. Cupping is done within eight days of delivery of the coffee, and if the coffee passes acceptance, the co-operative makes a pre-payment against the full selling price.

Knowing how to evaluate quality is especially relevant for the co-operative when they are considering applications from new producers who wish to join. In the past, some less scrupulous growers have wanted the benefits that the co-operative offers, particularly around price guarantees in difficult seasons, but they are not reliable or don’t produce beans of sufficient quality. Cupping expertise also protects the co-operative when they are selling their crops as they can judge which beans are premium and should fetch the highest price.

At Union we have developed close relationships with both co-operatives and individual producers over many years. As we have close ties with farms in so many countries, we can help to pass on techniques and up to date advice, particularly in areas where industry education is sporadic and there is poor access to resources.  Pascale also visited farms in Guatemala with ANACAFE, who work with local farmers both on site and through large scale events.

We visited six parcels in Huica, a village located in the mountains of Huehuetanango and around a 45 minute drive from La Libertad.. It is a small village and not all houses and parcels are accessible by car. This year there are several new female members from this village, many of whom are widows or divorced so now they have to take care of their parcels alone.

We visited these parcels with staff from ANACAFE (the national coffee association in Guatemala) that monitors coffee producers and gives technical advice across all coffee-producing regions of Guatemala. Their engineer came to advise how to tackle problems. Although producers are very experienced in producing coffee, in many cases they do things because that’s how their parents or neighbors do so, and this is not always the most efficient way.

Up to date advice from agronomists and engineers is very much appreciated by the producers. For me it is also interesting to participate in these kind of events, I am a development/agricultural economist with modest  but rapidly increasing knowledge of crop cultivation. A day in the field like this helps me a lot in expanding my knowledge.

It’s also important for producers to share knowledge with each other. As well as the growing and care of the plants, they need to understand how to properly commercialise their crops, what’s involved in international export and crucially, how to raise the crop’s quality to the highest levels possible.

We also visited a group of 55 producers located in San Miguel Ixcahuacan, San Marcos Guatemala. The cooperative started this project because they hope that other producers can benefit from their experience with the high quality coffee market. These San Miguel Ixcahuacan producers approached the cooperative with for help in independently exporting their coffee.

Transmission of knowledge is not always easy.  These producers rarely have access to the internet or suitable reference books. For advice they depend on ANACAFE’s agronomist (the national coffee institute) but thave insufficient staff to visit all groups on a regular basis. Learning from the experiences of neighbours and fellow producers is therefore a convenient way of transferring knowledge.

Cooperativa Esquipulas R.L. originally started as a cooperative that focussed on credit and savings. Coffee is one of the principal income sources in the area so they have incorporated a dedicated team devoted to exporting high quality delicious Huehuetenango Highland Coffee that for Union they have named “Liberacion” …

During the harvest four or five people work exclusively in coffee administration. They are in charge of finding lines of credit to pre-finance the harvest, making payments to the producers, weighing and collecting the coffee, storing the beans, cupping and all administration etc.

The cooperative was established in 1964, and received legal status in 1979. Their mission is to contribute to the quality of the lives of their members in a positive way by providing services such as credits, saving account, health and sustainable projects.

Its health service is free for their members. A doctor visits the cooperative every Saturday and there is a pharmacy that offers medicine at fair prices.

Co-operatives perform a vital service for their members and also offer support to each producer to make sure that everyone in the collective can be successful, get the best price for their crops, and secure their future in the coffee industry.


At Union Hand-Roasted Coffee our mission is to hunt for fantastic coffees. We do this through Union Direct Trade, which means that we work directly with farmer and producer organizations, often through co-operatives of coffee farmers who work together to share facilities, achieve better trading terms and obtain access to vital credit facilities.  For example, in Costa Rica, the establishment of micromills and taking responsibility for processing to improve quality, means that producers are directly in control of their coffee which gives them access to markets without relying on Coyotes (middlemen) to buy their coffee. Pascale visited the Puente Tarrazú micromill in the Los Santos region of Costa Rica which is famous for its excellent cup quality – something that they’ve worked very hard to protect.

Visiting our producers in Costa Rica


In Costa Rica producers always used to sell the red cherries to intermediaries or large buyers such as Volcafe. Producers had to accept the price they were offered and had no power to influence this because they had no other market access. They were frustrated that the extra work to produce their correctly picked, high altitude coffee was mixed with lower quality coffee also purchased by some of those companies. With the beneficio humedo, or micro mill revolution, this has changed.

A micro mill can be described as a small factory where coffee cherries are processed into parchment coffee. The micro mill allows producers to  process separate micro lots. In doing this, they can

  • achieve higher quality, consistently
  • add value to their coffee
  • negotiate better prices.

Now coffee from Puente Tarrazú does not end up at the bulk market mixed with low quality annonymous coffee, but is sold to roasters retaining the identity of the finca.  

This is the stunning view from the terraces of the San Jeronimo Micro Mill, about an hour from Buenos Aires in the Perez Zeledon region near the Chirripo volcano where Pascale visited in July and September.

These producers cultivate Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, and Tipica. The collection of the fruits takes place between August and December and the coffee is fully washed during processing.

Seven associates funded and constructed the mill, but each year another 30-50 producers used to deliver their coffee to the mill for processing.  This volume led to problems – some producers received a credit for the complete harvest then delivered only a minor part of their production to the mill, or refused to comply with the mill’s strict quality restrictions.

Last year the management of the mill decided that they want long-term and trusted relationships with the producers that bring coffee to them and so interviewed all the producers and vastly reduced the number to a more manageable number of about 20 producers.

Why are micromills good for coffee growers?

As well as ensuring the quality of the coffee, it’s very important for the micromill cooperatives to protect the growers and their incomes as the coffee market has been volatile in the past two decades. Union Hand Roasted Coffee enters into long-term agreements with a floor price guarantee and in many cases, pre-financing arranged with micro-credit agencies which we underwrite. Cashflow is crucial to ensure that the producers can live during the season, plan ahead for buying fertilizer, and afford to pay labour costs during the picking season. We want to protect the producers’s livelihoods as well as our access to their coffee. Pascale found out why this is so important from the Puente Tarrazú producers:

As they explain, around the millennium, many producers abandoned their coffee farm, as prices fell to ₡25.000/$50,- colones per faneja. Coffee became a non-profit making business, as prices did not even cover production costs. It was almost impossible to invest in coffee since no banks were willing to finance coffee related projects.

The crisis affected the region, some people lost their houses or their land and the vast majority took less care of their farms. Some neighbours decided to partially or completely retreat from coffee, but this group decided to fight for better coffee prices and set up a micromill to cultivate and process Caturra, Bourbon and Tipica. 

Working with producer associations helps us to secure the best coffee, and gives them the best prices as well as long term security. We also get to work with producers who are passionate about coffee, and discover new experimental coffees (which we often offer as special microlots) that are a privilege to sample.

Coffee co-operatives in Guatemala

This picture is taken in the bodega (warehouse) of  Esquipulpas Cooperative in La Libertad, Huehuetenango, Northern Guatemala – the issues around financing and cashflow are very similar in all the countries where we work.  The picture shows the sacks of parchment coffee that the individual farmers have delivered to the bodega.

Before Union started working with them,  the cooperative did not receive pre-finance for their coffee so they could not provide any money before the harvest for their members. Instead they took out loans which allowed them to pay a part of the coffee price to producers at the moment they deliver.  But the interest rate from local bank was very high, and the loans are against property – which are not worth very much, so the value of the load  was small.

Now with the relationship with Union, we’ve introduced specialist agencies  like Root Capital to prefinance everything they require at low interest rate. The cooperative now has funds to purchase larger volumes of fertilizer at a more competitive rate. And farmers have money to pay pickers at the begining of the season. 

The cooperative also guarantees the producers a minimum price (this year, it was Q1250 per quintale), regardless of the price the coffee achieved when it is sold. When the coffee is delivered to the cooperative, the producers receive 80% of the year’s minimum floor price, and then receive a second payment when the coffee is ready for export. We know this is working  working well for producers becasue the cooperative has seen a 20% increase in membership applications this year.

Page 4 of 10« First...2345610...Last »