Following a fair trade coffee bean
As we all well know, coffee beans don’t grow widely in the US. In fact, just two states, Hawaii and California, are able to grow coffee plants commercially. Therefore, most beans are imported from South America and it took a lot of manpower to get you your morning pick-me-up!
And, if you drink fair trade coffee, that journey is all the more wonderful and varied. You see, the journey of a humble coffee bean depends on which farm it came from, the grower of the bean, and how it was processed.
Of course, a huge coffee plantation will work differently from a small, fair trade coffee farm. Sure, you know about the ethics surrounding fair trade coffee, the issues of pay and the treatment of workers, but it goes far beyond that. The number of workers, the use of waste water, the difference in fair trade coffee production can’t be understated. The process is more eco-friendly and more worker friendly!
For example, CIPAC’s fair trade honey and coffee co-operative in Guatemala has over 140 members. The area is remote, but it’s a fantastic area of coffee-growing.
Many of the farmers here are practicing a family-inherited trade. 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? Let’s follow some of CIPAC’s fair trade coffee growers to find out…
December to February is the usual coffee-harvesting season for farmers. 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 the coffee they produce has its own particular and quality flavour!
The same plant can be harvested two or three times throughout the season. 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 process of de-pulping
The harvesters proceed to move the coffee to the farmers for de-pulping. The cherries need to be de-pulped within 24 hours, and the harvesters often have to travel up and down hills and across rickety bridges to reach the end destination.
Big coffee plantations have machines to take off the coffee-cherry skins rapidly. Farmers at CIPAC either use an electric de-pulping machine (where the cherries are poured in the top and emerge de-pulped from the bottom) or their own energy. The coffee beans are closely inspected as they’re poured into the machine, and any beans that don’t look quite ripe enough or are too ripe are taken out.
Washing the cherries
De-pulped coffee cherries are washed in unique water pools for 24 hours to 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 the beans
Following the washing process, the beans are allowed to dry naturally in the sun. 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 product
Parchment beans are formed once the coffee is dry. 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 and encounter huge cliff drops. Can you imagine having to walk along a cliff-edge while carrying a 30kg bag of coffee beans?
Without a co-operative to sell to, farmers need to make a longer, riskier journey to a trader. Once the beans reach the co-operative storage site safely, they’re then weighed, checked for quality, and stored.
A fair trade cooperative then turns the parchment beans 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’re of the best quality. Finally, the beans are ‘polished’, which removes the last layer of skin covering the coffee beans.
Samples are made for buyers to ‘coffee cup’ for quality. ‘Coffee cupping’ involves a buyer slurping coffee in an attempt 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.
Cafesca, in Mexico, is the fair trade operator that CIPAC sells the coffee beans to. 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 transported to the US as well other countries around the world where they are sold on to consumers. In the UK for example, they are sold by retailers such as Traidcraft, who specialise in a wide range of fair trade products.
And there you have it, the journey has come to an end! Coffee beans go on quite the adventure before making it into your cup. 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. Drying the beans naturally under the heat of the sun. Fewer chemicals, and far more character.