Depending on where the coffee is grown, and what equipment the producers have available, post-harvest processing can be tackled in different ways. The co-operatives we work with have invested in micromills to allow them to control the processing and influence the quality.  Considerations that affect their choice of processing include the cost of the infrastructure, availability of water, and the volume of coffee they need to handle through the machinery. Pascale reports on the systems she’s seen in operation at some of the farms we work with.

Micromills

A micromill can be as small and compact as this one, located at Beneficio don Sergio. This machine depulps the coffee, and removes the fleshy layer so that coffee is ready to be dried in the sun on raised  or “African” drying beds.  

The mill allows producers to process three types of coffee; red honey, yellow honey and “fully washed” (meaning that it’s what is called machine-assisted wet processing.)  Each type is determined by the amount of pulp retained on the bean. The greater the amount of  pulp that is left, dries to a leave red sticky coating on the surface of the bean – it looks like Sugar Puffs breakfast cereal. Having their own micromill means that the producers retain quality control and can craft their coffee to create what specialty roasters want. 

This is what the inside of the micromill looks like. It contains a a pulping machine which removes the skin of the fruit and a demucilage machine. After removing the skin, this depulper takes off as much of the fruity mucilage layer as required. Removing mucilage by machine is easier and more predictable than removing it by fermenting and washing.  Low-water useage machines make the process less water intensive and more environmental friendly.

Fermentation is not used to separate the bean from the remainder of the pulp (as in done in for example washed coffees in Guatemala); rather, this is done through mechanical scrubbing. After removing the mucilage the coffee is ready to be dried.

Dry Mills

This is an example of a dry mill. Once beans are dried, it is called “parchment” coffee. To process parchment into the green beans ready for roasting, all of the layers need to be removed from the beans (this process is called hulling). Occasionally, beans may be polished in a machine designed to remove that last little bit of silver skin.

Beans are then graded and sorted, first by size, then by density. Beans are sorted by hand and mechanically as they pass by on a conveyor belt or by an air jet that separates lighter (inferior) beans from heavier ones. There are also machines with an infrared eye that detect the colour of the bean, separating inferior black beans. Union buys only Specialty grade quality beans. Secondary quality coffee might go to commodity or national markets. When producers process the beans themselves, they can monitor and craft the quality and don’t have to worry about inferior beans from other  outside farms being added to their production.

Wet Mills

This is a depulper at Don Cesar de Leon’s mill in La Libertad, Guatemala. Coffee must be depulped to remove the skin and fruit surrounding the bean. Some producers use motorized depulpers where others need to depulp by hand. When the skin is removed, unwashed parchment coffee goes through a sieve to separate beans that are not depulped correctly or have another defect. These cherries are collected in the blue basket.

Coffee needs to be processed the same day that’s it’s picked. Pickers can work from around 6:00am until 4:00pm, then have to start the processing if there isn’t enough labour. If there is a lot of coffee, this means that there is work until late at night! After depulping, the beans are fermented in a fermentation tank. The fermentation process should be watched carefully but usually takes around 24 hours depending upon weather conditions.

The mucilaginous pulp is removed by a fermentation stage that breaks down the mucilage by enzymatic activity to produce beans which have a rough surface. Care needs to be taken to control the correct length of time for this stage which  is determined mostly by environmental temperature; too long leads to over-fermentation and negative attributes in the cup. After fermentation beans are washed in clean water to produce “squeaky clean” parchment coffee; rubbing a handful of beans together creates a squeaky sound because all the  slimy mucilage has been removed.  After that the coffee is washed in these troughs, called correteos.

Manual depulping

The red and yellow coffee cherry skins you see here are dried to be used as organic fertilizer for coffee plants or garden crops. The blue basket contains undried parchment that still needs to be fermented and washed to remove the honey. Manual depulpers like this, process much less volume per day than the mechanical machines that have a motor or dynamo.

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 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.

Picking of coffee cherries from the tree is a very important part of the process of producing a great cup. Skilled producers know when is best to start picking and often work very long days ensuring that only the best quality cherries are selected, as fast as possible.  Pascale visited farms during the picking season and also tried her hand at it herself.

Coffee picking in Guatemala

It is always exciting to see (and taste!) red ripe coffee cherries. These are ready to be harvested, dried and processed into a nice cup of coffee. If you eat the fresh cherrries out in the field, the best ones are deliciously sweet.

Coffee pickers collect between 100 and 200 pounds (45 and 90 kg.) of coffee cherries per day. Only 20 percent of this weight is the actual bean. All coffee in Guatemala is processed with the wet method, this means that the pulp of the coffee cherry is removed from the beans within few hours of harvesting.  Even after a full day of picking there is still a lot of work to do.

Coffee Picking in Costa Rica

Here, Pascale joined in to see exactly what is involved in a day of picking – which is challenging work.

Coffee picking starts early in the morning, when temperatures are more pleasant. Depending on the size of the harvest and the amount of labourers available (after picking the coffee needs to be processed within a few  hours)  normally a day of harvesting ends between 3 and 4 o’clock. As Union Hand Roasted Coffee buys only the best quality Arabica beans it is important to pick only the red ripe cherries and separate these from the green ones. Beans should be picked selectively, ideally by hand rather than machine, and not stripped from the tree.

In the village of San Jeronimo the pickers are mainly family members – wives, siblings and inlaws and sometimes neighbours too.  Both men and women participate in the coffee harvest.

Picking only the red ripe cherries is easier said than done. I really tried, and was picking the slowest of everyone, but after an hour I only managed about a quarter of a basket. It didn’t help that the basket, which you wear around your body, fell off…so I spent quite some time collecting cherries from the ground. I dont think I’ll be offered a full time job next season.

What is a cajuela?

So how did Pascale do? Looks like she maybe filled a “cajuela”.

The wooden box being filled up with cherries is called a cajuela, the volume measurement used in Costa Rica to measure the amount of red cherries harvested. It is a rather complicated system to explain.

“What is a cajuela?”

“Well, a faneja has 20 cajuelas.”

“So what is a faneja then?”

“A faneja will give around 46 kilograms of coffee.”

A roaster might buy 400 fanejas of  coffee at one time, but because here at Union we handroast in bespoke quantities, we can take much smaller quantities of very special beans.  Some of our microlots may be as few as 10 fanejas, making them rather rare indeed.

USEFUL TO KNOW:

1 fanega in coffee cherries equals 250 kgs. gross weight, once it has been pulped and then dry milled this equals 46 Kgs.  Which is 1 quintal of green bean net weight.

So for example Union bought 345Kg of coffee from Finca Genesis, which is 7.5 quintals. To produce this required 10 fanegas (or 2500Kg) of coffee cherries to develop this microlot.

 

 

 

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