Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The story of coffee

Just how does that wonderful burnt, brown liquid make it to my addiction?

I know that most people in the States think that coffee comes from coffee shops and tightly sealed foil baggies, pre-ground on flourescent-light lit grocery store shelves. Surprise, coffee actually grows on trees. Wouldn´t it be nice if all things we love grew on trees?

Guatemala is coffee country. Some of the finest coffees in the world are grown here, and literally right here on the volcano on which I live. There´s coffee fields everywhere and coffee trees grow between houses, along pathways, etc. Basically coffee trees are more plentiful than Mayan children, and that´s saying something.
I find it futile to post a photo of an actual coffee tree as I waited until just after the coffee harvest ended here to make this post(my deepest apologies). There is barely any cherries left on the trees so it would just look like a picture of green. But besides that, here´s how it goes.

Coffee is a huge income generator here in a very poor place. Men will spend weeks and months on end in the fields, during the harvest, gently pulling coffee cherries from trees and filling huge bags with them. That´s right, coffee begins as a cherry, literally looks like a cherry. When the cherries are ripe, they are harvested. But what then?

After the cherries are harvested, the men come down from the fields on the volcano at the end of each day to have their harvest weighed and then further processed. It takes about two full days of harvesting in order to fill a 50lb. bag. The harvesters make about the equivelant of about $25 to $30 per bag of raw cherries. That´s two days of extremly hard, hand shredding work, whilst carrying a heavy sack of cherries, for $30.

After the collection of raw cherries at the processing "plants" scattered throughout our tiny town, the cherries are then spread out in a thin layer on the ground in order to dry. Pictured above is a close up of coffee cherries drying, the light colored beans are the raw(pre-roasted)coffee beans and the darker colored beans are still wrapped in a dried cherry husk. And below is a larger view of the cherries drying at various stages, which I will explain.

The cherries dry for a certain number of days and when they are ready, they are processed in the first round of washings which the cherries/beans will recieve. The processing plants are basically a small, open-air building with a series of automated machines which the cherries pass through in order to wash the husk off the bean inside. It is a sight to see the men working through the night, washing, lifting baskets of cherries, raking through piles of cherries, and on and on and on.

Well, once is not enough to get the fruit off of the bean, thus the process of spreading, drying, and washing is repeated a number of times in order for the beans to be ready to roast. Wash, rinse, repeat comes to mind. In the middle picture, the darkest pile is the newest pile to be drying, whilst the pile on the right of the photo is mid-process(similar to the first photo/close up)and the very light colored pile is nearing its final stages just before roasting here in San Pedro, or shipping to a first world, coffee fueled country for roasting.

But that´s not the best part. The best part(heavy sarcasm), is what happens to the coffee cherries that come off of the beans. The picture below is of an enormous pile of fermenting cherries that have been washed off of the beans as they are processed. Oh, the smell, wow, the smell. . . We are talking tons of fermenting fruit here people. It´s a bit overwhelming upon first whiff, but I have come to appreciate it as a part of my life here, knowing full well
that I have to accept all aspects of my addiction to this wonderful product of the Earth.

The fruit is later collected and redistributed on the coffee fields as a fertilizer, hence the sign advertising a gift of coffee fruit/pulp. It´s like saying "Look what we have for free, rotten fruit!". And the Guatemalans snap it up.

All in all, the process of harvesting, drying, washing, drying, washing again takes about a month before the beans are ready for roasting. Personally, the most romantic part of this process for me is when the beans are almost ready for roasting and I see a Mayan woman on a roof top picking up baskets of raw, dried beans and slowly pouring them through the air so the breeze can carry away all the dust and leftover bits. Some things cannot ever be automated.

A pound of local coffee sells here for about $3.50, sometimes less, sometimes more, grown right on the volcano, roasted by an old man in the back of his house, now that´s fresh coffee.
And, I will say this, the smell of roasting coffee coming out of houses and coffee shops here is plenty to make up for the stench of the rotting fruit. You suckers worshiping Starbucks think that stuff is fresh, ha, ha, losers! We´ve already pissed out our coffee here by the time that stuff even makes it on a boat.

I find all this very fascinating and as I learned more and more about what was acutally happening all around me, every day, I definately appreciate more and more each cup of coffee or latté that I enjoy. The amount of extremly hard labor and the amount of love put into coffee growing, harvesting and processing here is impressive, to say the least.

As previously mentioned, the coffee harvest has ended. Which for me, means that no more HUGE trucks loaded with bags of cherries arriving from the volcano each afternoon, no more endless nights of watching the processing plants run, no more drying coffee. What it also means is that now the rain has started, the piles of fruit are fermenting at an even higher lever of stinkiness. However, the piles are also shrinking as farmers and the like are taking away the tons of fruit to fertilize their fields in order to begin again after a few months of blessed rain.

So now that I have made your cups of coffee much more than just cups of coffee, you can all look longingly into your burnt, brown goodness and imagine what it took to get it from these fields, through the hands of hard working Mayans and into your office, thus fueling your comments on my blog and your emails expressing your greatest thanks for your new coffee knowledge.


  1. I love knowledge! Now I will talk about coffee processing as though I have first hand knowledge (not that Rexburg will afford me much opportunity to talk about coffee).

  2. I agree with Amanda. I LOVE knowing how everything is made or works. Totally fascinating! I work with a guy whose family is in the coffee business here in town. Im sure he'd be interested to know that you are in the heart of coffee country. Good entry!!

    I love you!!