This is a collaborative post.
Since I live in England I’m convinced that the Brits are married to their cups of tea, but they have a secret love affair with coffee. Recent figures revealed by the British Coffee Association (BSA) paint Britain less as a nation of tea-drinkers and more as coffee connoisseurs. With the total coffee consumption increasing from 70 million cups a day in 2008 to 95 million cups a day in 2018. I’d say, Britain is on a verge of a divorce!
So, if you’re a fan of drinking fair trade coffee, you might want to know how that journey of a fair trade coffee bean end up in your coffee mug. It’s totally amazing, so read on. The journey of a coffee bean depends on; which farm it came from, the grower of the bean, and how it was processed.
Small fair trade coffee farms operate completely differently then the large commercial plantations which involves all aspects of coffee farming. We are all aware of the ethics surrounding fair trade coffee. These are often involve the issues of pay and the treatment of workers, but of course it’s more than that. When talking about ethically farmed coffee we also talk about the number of workers, the water usage (including waste water), and all in all the process is more eco-friendly 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.
Numerous farmers here are performing a trade inherited from many family generations. There’s lots for CIPAC’s farmers to do before the beans are ready to be made into the delicious coffee we know and love.
So what exactly happens on the journey from bush to mug?
Harvesting coffee beans
Winter is the coffee harvesting season in coffee producing countries. On family-owned farms, often the whole family gets 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 areas and farms have their own microclimate. In remote areas, which means the coffee they produce has its own particular and quality flavour.
Throughout the season, the same coffee plant can be harvested up to two or even three times over. The reason for this is that only the ripe cherries are hand-plucked from the bush to guarantee a high quality coffee. Often on the big coffee farms, the harvesters must carry the harvested beans up on steep hills, that makes the work a lot harder as opposed to the small farms.
The de-pulping process
While large-scale plantations use heavy machinery to take off the skins (this process is done within 24 hours of picking), CIPAC farmers either use a small electric de-pulping machine or their own energy. They also make sure that the beans that don’t look quite ripe enough or are too ripe are taken out and they don’t affect the quality.
Cleaning the coffee cherries
after the de-pulping process, the cherries are submerged in special water pools for a whole day. This will clean them and also remove any remaining layers. The beans which float in the water are always removed, as they are not good. This process leaves the washing water containing some toxic elements, so it requires special attention. Whilst the big farms just dump this water somewhere often wrongly, the CIPAC farmers re-use the dirty water and skins to make an eco-friendly compost to use around their coffee plants.
Drying the coffee beans
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 hurry to cover them with a huge sheet if there’s a hint of rain or moisture about. As well as this, they also cover the beans every night, to keep off the dew. This process can take several days, or much longer if there’s rain!
Transporting the beans
Once the coffee has dried, parchment beans are formed. The farmers sell the parchments off to the coffee co-operative. This normally involves lots of transportation challenges like dangerous winding mountain paths and 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 have to make extra journeys to find a trader. Once the beans reach the co-operative storage site safely, they’re then weighed, checked for quality, and stored.
Transforming the beans
This is the time when the most important quality milestone happens. Once the parchment beans arrive at a fair trade cooperative, they are then turned into green beans. This involves the beans being judged by their weight and appearance. They are being ‘polished’, which means removing the last layer of skin covering the coffee beans. Then, the beans are sampled by buyers which they call ‘coffee cupping’. These samples are sent to the co-operative, so they can easily vouch for the quality of the coffee to buyers. The last step is bagging the beans and soon they will be soon 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. Then it gets packaged and it makes it’s way to the UK and other parts of the world.
Quite an adventure, isn’t it? Still, fair trade farmers at CIPAC like to keep it simple on small, family-run farms. Hand-picking only the ripest cherries. Drying the beans naturally under the heat of the sun. Fewer chemicals, and far more character.