We are a nation of tea-lovers, right? Well yes, but according to data from the British Coffee Association (BSA), Brits are just as partial to a cup of coffee. We’re downing 95 million cups of coffee a day, which is a huge increase on the 70 million cups we drank 10 years ago.
But do you ever stop and wonder where your coffee beans came from? By now, ‘fair trade’ is a pretty common concept, but how much of a difference does it really make?
In truth, a coffee bean’s journey differs depending on the grower, the farm, whether or not it is a fair trade process, and more.
As you might expect, a small, fair trade coffee farm doesn’t work the same way as a huge coffee plantation. Beyond the issue of ethics and fair wages that the fair trade process is renowned for tackling, fair trade processes tend to be more eco-friendly too.
Let’s take a look at an example of this process at work over in Guatemala. CIPAC is a fair trade honey and coffee co-operative in the country, sporting over 140 members. The landscape in Guatemala is remote and mountainous, which makes it perfect for growing coffee. Many of the farmers here have inherited their farms and their skills through generations of family. And it all starts with harvesting…
Step one: harvesting
The end of December marks the start of the coffee harvesting season. On family-owned farms, the whole family might get involved. 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!
Coffee cherries can potentially be harvested multiple times from the same plant. 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.
Step two: de-pulping
The harvesters then transport the crop yield to the farmers. The cherries need to be de-pulped within 24 hours, and the harvesters often have to travel up and down hills and across rickety bridges to reach the end destination.
Bigger coffee plantations have equipment to remove cherry skins fast, but CIPAC farmers use an electric de-pulping machine, or a machine powered by 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.
Step three: washing
The de-pulped cherries are given a long soaking in special coffee water pools for 24 hours, in order to remove the last layer covering the beans. 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. But farmers at CIPAC know what to do – they re-use the dirty water and skins to make an eco-friendly compost to use around their coffee plants!
Step four: drying
The soaked beans are then left to dry in the sun. 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!
Step five: transporting
The dried beans are known as parchment beans. 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? Plus, if the farmers aren’t selling to a co-operative, they might have to make an even longer, more dangerous journey to reach a trader, particularly if the price for coffee is low.
Upon reaching the co-operative, the beans are weighed, checked, and stored.
The fair trade co-operative then turn the parchment beans 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.
Samples are taken for a quality process called ‘coffee cupping’. ‘Coffee cupping’ involves a buyer 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.
In CIPAC’s case, the coffee beans are sold to a fair trade operator called Cafesca, in Mexico. From there, some of the beans are sent to another Mexican fair trade operator, Descamex, who are the only facility in the world to use the Mountain Water Method to produce decaf coffee. Descamex send the decaffeinated beans back to Cafesca, who transform all the coffee beans into instant coffee and instant decaf. Once the finished coffee is sealed in jars, they’re loaded onto a container, then onto a ship, and then transported to the UK.
And that’s a fair trade journey! Coffee beans go on quite the adventure before making it into your mug. And while the huge coffee plantations use lots of workers and modern equipment, the fair trade farmers at CIPAC like to keep it simple. Family-run farms. Hand-picking only the ripest cherries. Drying the beans naturally under the heat of the sun. Fewer chemicals, and far more character.