The life of a coffee bean from farm to cup is a pretty remarkable one. It’s a journey that spans years of hard work and thousands of miles traveled. It’s something that’s so disconnected from our daily lives that we don’t often think about it when we grind and brew those little brown beans each morning.
We were fortunate enough to be able to see and participate in many of the amazing steps that a coffee bean takes as it makes its way from the farm to the cup and we’re going to attempt to share those with you in this part of our series. A couple of things to note before we get started though.
The first is that we are only going to be sharing from our experiences in Guatemala. There are already a great many resources available that go into the coffee growing and harvesting process in a very detailed way so we only want to cover the basics and our experiences.
The second is that the coffee grown for the De la Gente cooperative is specialty, handpicked coffee. Specialty coffee accounts for only about 1% of the world’s coffee production. In other places, and for larger companies, the coffee process is much more industrial and automated but the very best coffee comes from the types of processes we’ll show below.
Step One – The Plants
Coffee comes from coffee trees. There over 100 different species but we were working with the Arabica species while in Guatemala. Most coffee grown in the world today is Arabica. The trees can have long lives, with some varieties lasting 100 years. It takes 4 years for a new tree to start producing fruit though so the farmers will keep new trees growing in pots in their homes for the first year before planting them out in the field.
Once in the field, they’re planted into rows along with fast growing trees to provide the shade-loving coffee plants a break from the sun.
The short coffee shrubs will eventually grow into trees over 15 feet high. Depending on the varietial, each tree would be cut back about every 25 years to keep it at a manageable harvesting size. The mature plants have very thin trunks and are very flexible. To harvest the beans from a tree, you simply need to bend the tree over and pick the fruit from it!
The best coffee is generally grown at high elevation so each farm we visited was located on the side of a volcano, at altitudes ranging from 4000-6000 ft. Some climbs were easier than others!
Step Two – The Harvest
So what exactly are we picking on these trees anyway? Well… a cherry! Sort of. We’re picking the coffee fruit, which is often called a cherry. It’s a sweet, and pulpy fruit with two seeds in the middle of the fruit. Those seeds are the coffee beans! They’re not really beans at all but caffeine-containing seeds of the coffee fruit.
Coffee harvesting in Guatemala takes place once per year, typically between the months of February and April, which coincides with the country’s dry season. The harvesting is done by hand because the coffee cherries ripen on the branch at different times and one unripe cherry can ruin the flavor of 56 other cherries around it. Harvesting is an intensely time-consuming process. Farmers and hired hands harvest cherries throughout the day, and a typical day’s harvest is about 150lbs of fruit. The co-op members in San Miguel Escobar reported that the typical daily wage was around $10. Because of the remoteness and terrain of many plots of land, most of the harvest is brought in on the backs of farmers, if they’re not fortunate enough to have the means and accessibility to use a horse. Because the fruit ripens unevenly, a plot will need to be revisited once every few weeks throughout the harvest until all cherries have been picked.
So we’ve got our coffee fruit picked and taken back down the mountain but our coffee beans aren’t done with their journey yet! Next week, we’ll cover the work that goes into processing the coffee fruit into green coffee beans that are ready to be shipped and roasted!
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