Friday, February 10, 2012

A Coffee Farmer’s Life For Me!

Sipping your morning coffee? Ever thought of what’s behind it?

Well, on the other side of your morning macchiato exists a world foreign to many, a world filled with hundreds of hours, miles and faces. Hundreds to produce your one tall morning macchiato.

Today I want you to put down that hazlenut deep roasted blend you’re sipping on, and go on a (virtual) journey with me.

It all starts out as the sun rises in the fields of rural Honduras. The higher up you are, the better the quality of the coffee beans, so up, up, and up the mountain we’ll go. We’re packed into the back of a pick-up truck with at least 15 other pickers, ages anywhere from 7 to 70. We enter in to the cherry-red fields, where dozens of Hondurans are already hard at work, twisting the sweet red berries off the branches, methodically moving from branch to branch, tree to tree.

We’ll join in, grabbing a basket and fastening it to our waists. As the picking begins, there are a few key rules to remember. The redder the better—the reddest berries end are the ones that end up in specialty coffee shops, while green, and even greenish red berries are used to produce mass consumer coffee beans, more like what you might find at the gas station. And make sure as you pick, you twist carefully, so as not to break the stem from the berry off the tree. This creates a more sustainable practice, allowing new berries to sprout quickly from the same stems. As you might notice, there’s a lot more to that simple Starbucks cup than you might expect.

As of two Saturdays ago, this was me. I had wanted to experience the life of a coffee picker, and I was certainly getting a glimpse of it. But what I quickly found that was that while the work itself was not hard, I was painfully slow compared to my Honduran counterparts. In the time it took me, along with Heather, Eleanor and Anna, to fill about a third of our giant packing bag, the small Honduran children had already filled an entire bag by themselves. And while the average Honduran will spend 9-10 hours in the field, we were ready to call it quits after three. So we hauled our days’ picking down the mountain to have it weighed, where it came in at a whopping 1¾ quart. Our morning earnings? 70 lempiras, or about $3.50. Split that between the four of us, and for our three hours of labor, we’d earned roughly 88 cents each. Three hours of picking coffee beans, and still not enough to even cover a single cup of coffee in the States. Despite how it looks (below), I was clearly not made to be a coffee farmer.

But, back to our journey. From the weighing station, the coffee beans must pass through a “filtration system”, in a giant water basin. The bad beans (beans which have more air inside the shell) will rise to the top of the tub, while the good beans sink and continue onto the second step, in which the skin of the berry and part of the pulp is removed. The beans which come out of here are wet, slimy and deeply in need of sunlight.

They spend days drying out, either on concrete pavement or in solar dryers, which soak up the moisture. Depending on where the coffee field is, the beans are occasionally transferred to another part of town to allow them to dry out. Large spaces of pavement (such as the plaza in front of my house, the few sidewalks around town, or even my backyard) are ideal for this drying process. Occasionally I’ll return home from school to a coffee filled path to my front door. Crunch, crunch, crunch go your Starbucks orders under my feet.

Once an hour or so, someone comes out to rake the coffee beans, ensuring every bean gets its fair dose of needed sunlight exposure. The drying process is critical—beans that spend too long in the sun become brittle and are prone to breaking (resulting in ‘defective beans.’) Beans that spend too little time in the sun are more vulnerable to bacteria and mildew. Once the beans are dried to satisfaction, another pickup truck comes up the mountain but instead of packing the bed with people, packs it with bags of dried coffee beans.

From there, the coffee leaves La Union for the bigger cities, where the final steps in cleaning and processing can take place. Before it heads to the stores, the coffee is graded (this is where you’ll probably be wishing you’d been just a little more careful with finding only the reddest beans!) Graders have the tough task of tasting the brew, and once it’s been assigned a score, send it on to coffee suppliers worldwide. From there, the beans are roasted and turned into any number of beverages, from a simple cup of black coffee to a triple venti quad shot sugar-free extra-caramel latte.

And, most likely, without too much thinking, out of your pocket goes your money and into your mouth goes the hundreds of hours, miles and faces it took to produce that cup of coffee. And somewhere, in a foreign land below the border, that farmer is moving onto his next tree, picking another basketful of berries to produce your next coffee cup. And despite being worlds apart, an intricate connection is made. So raise your cup, and as they say here: Salud!

Are you sipping your coffee more consciously yet?

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