It is the morning coffee that gets me ready for the day ahead. It is the coffee that perks me up when I hit a low during the afternoon at work. It is the coffee and cake that often makes me feel great when I need a wee treat. Although for me, I often opt for Fair Trade and I’m pleased to report that many coffee chains are also doing their bit by using Fair Trade coffee.
Have you ever wondered though how your coffee gets from bean to cup? There are many coffee plantations ranging from large-scale to small scale fair trade coffee farms. For me Fair Trade has something I’ve been passionate about and while the premise has always been fair pay and treatment of workers, Fair Trade goes beyond that as it is more eco-friendly and more worker friendly! For example, CIPAC’s fair trade honey and coffee co-operative in Guatemala has in excess of 140 members working for them. It may be a remote area, but it’s a fantastic area to grow coffee all the same.
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.
Here is the journey of bean to your coffee cup…
The Harvesting of your coffee beans
Winter is typically coffee-harvesting season for many of the farmers. On family-owned farms, the whole family might be working on the farm – it’s a family affair in the true sense. 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. This is evident when you try all the different coffee shops, not one is the same!
Throughout the season, the same coffee plant can be harvested up to two or three times over. 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 next stage is the de-pulping process
Once the coffee has been harvested, it is moved on to the farmers. This involves the harvesters often having to travel up and down hills and across rickety bridges to reach the end destination, where the cherries are de-pulped within 24 hours.
While large-scale plantations use heavy machinery to quickly take off the coffee-cherry skins, farmers at CIPAC either use a small 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.
The cherries are then cleaned
Once the coffee cherries are de-pulped, they are submerged in unique water pools for a full day in order clean them and 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.
Drying each coffee bean
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 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?
If there are no co-operatives to sell their products to, farmers often have to make longer, more dangerous 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
Once the parchment beans arrive at a fair trade cooperative, they are then turned 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.
The beans are then sampled by buyers for quality in a process known as ‘coffee cupping’, which involves them 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.
When the coffee is sealed in jars, they’re loaded onto a container, then onto a ship, and then transported to the UK to be sold by retailers such as Traidcraft.
So that’s the journey of the bean to your cup! I really could not live without coffee now and to know the workers are getting a fair wage and treated with respect makes me feel that I’m doing my little bit.