Where Your Coffee Comes From

While Guardabarranco does a number of different things, the project centers around small coffee producers and their communities. Despite having grown up in Seattle, being a coffee lover, and being surrounded by coffee lovers my whole life, I really never had any idea where my coffee came from before the first time I met Claudia and she showed me the farms in Dipilto. I thought I’d start this blog with a short description of where that delicious dark beverage I, and so many others, consume every morning comes from.

Your coffee starts as a seedling in a seedbed. The seeds (coffee beans) used to grow coffee are carefully selected from the best plants on a farm. The best variety of coffee plant to grow depends on the growing conditions of the farm and the preferences of the market.

The strongest seedlings then make their way from the seedbed to a shaded nursery. As the time for planting approaches, the shade is removed to prepare the plants for transplantation to the hillsides.

Plants take about 2 years to begin producing coffee. Their production increases until it reaches it’s maximum at 7 years and then begins to decrease. Between 8-9 years they will cut the plant to it’s stump and it will grow again.

When the cherries are ripe they will turn either red or yellow, depending on the variety of plant. Each cherry contains two coffee beans. The inside the cherry around the beans is a sweet and mildly stimulating “honey”, which answered my long standing question: If coffee beans are toxic until they are toasted, why did anyone bother toasting them?

During harvest season, large groups of migrant workers travel north from farm to farm with the harvest.

Coffee picking is hard work, it’s necessary to only pick the ripe cherries and leave the green ones. As well, if a cherry is not twisted off the branch properly the plant will not grow another cherry in its place in the following season. Workers must go quickly, and to make matters more difficult, most coffee farms are at least partially situated on steep and often muddy slopes, combined with the bushy foliage of the coffee plants, just moving around is a chore.

The cherries are then de-pulped. This means removing the soft outer layer of the cherry. In our small farms, this is done with a machine powered by a 2-stroke motor from a dirt-bike fed from the story above by the worker’s baskets. It’s important that this machine is calibrated properly so that it removes all the pulp without biting the beans.

Here we have the wet-mill. The wet-mill is used to separate the good beans from all the rest of the stuff. This worker is stirring the beans in the chute. At the end of the chute is a skimmer that stops the bad floating material. The good beans, which sink, fall into a catch where they are strained and then put in big 100lb bags called ‘quintales’.

As quickly as possible the beans are taken to drying-patios. Here they are dried. They are constantly turned over with repeated raking.

When they’re dried, they’re taken to a warehouse where they’re stored and aged. A light colored papery material called ‘parchment’ loosens itself from the bean. This is removed from the bean leaving, ideally, a grain that is bluish-green, well shaped, and slightly translucent.

The coffee you drink is probably roasted with a big machine, a little like a laundry dryer, which rolls the beans and keeps them consistently moving. In the mountains, they use a wood fire, a cast iron pan, and a stick. The important factors here, with a machine or in a pan, are high heat and constant motion to get an even roast. It’s also necessary to provide some kind of wind or ventilation to remove light flaky chaff that peels off the beans during roasting. In this photo one of our producers, Roberto, is roasting in a pan.

Spin spin spin.

Cooling the beans quickly to stop the roast at the right point is important. Here, a piece of wire mesh is being used to give the beans good ventilation.

And there you have it, from beginning to end. If you’re anything like me, you’re craving a cup of coffee right about now.

(Special thanks to Clement Reidel for a large portion of the photos)

-Bennett LaFond


Hello from Guardabarranco

Guardabarranco is a non-profit organization based in Ocotal, Nicaragua that works with local farmers and people in the community to create an exchange of knowledge, experience and culture through volunteer work.

The organization offers coffee industry-centered tours and classes and uses the profits to fuel community improvement programs in a variety of venues. Currently we offer volunteer positions in organic agriculture, education and coffee farming, and are looking to expand to a local foods program with a family bakery in the nearby community of Mozonte. For more information, check us out at http://www.eco-nic.com/