by Lana Labermeier
Last month, Counter Culture Coffee invited me on a trip to Finca Esperanza Verde, high up in the hills above San Ramon in Nicaragua, where I got to see coffee being grown, harvested, and produced. Counter Culture is the roaster for the Big Bear Café, where I sell coffee produced from (among other places) Finca Esperanza Verde. Over the course of the trip, I was humbled by the grand scale of coffee production and it made my role as a retailer and barista seem very small.
The beans that fuel the world, that wake everyone up in the morning, are the result of millions of peoples’ work around the world. That work is long, deliberate, and hard. Much harder than learning how to pull a good shot or brew a nice Chemex. If anything, learning about the path from seed to cup makes me want to perfect the shots and perfect the brew, in order to validate all that hard work.
This was my first trip to origin, and my first real look at how coffee is grown. I am by no means an expert, and there is a lot of nuance in the growing and processing of coffee that I have only recently been exposed to. So this is not an encyclopedic description of coffee processing. It is, however, a walkthrough I experienced.
Coffee, native to Ethiopia, is the common term for two species of coffee, Coffea arabica (the good one) and Coffea robusta (the less desirable one). Within C. arabica there are many different varieties, from heirlooms to more common ones. In Nicaragua, the three main varieties we saw were Catuai, Caturra, and Bourbon.
Coffee starts with this plant. It has dark green leaves, cannot withstand frost, and, depending on variety, grows between 8 and 15 ft tall. It grows at elevations ranging from 3,000′ to 6,000′ and within 15 degrees latitudinally from the equator. The coffee plant is found in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. It prefers mountainous hillsides and temperatures ranging between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In general, an increase in elevation and a decrease in temperature and sunlight result in an increase in quality.
These are coffee cherries on the stem. The harvesting season runs from October through March in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, April and May are the harvesting months. Once mature berries begin to appear on a farm, all will be harvested by a month’s time. Deep red berries are ready to be picked, while green ones are the least ripe.
Coffee cherries feature pulp, a seed, and a fuzzy, hard, fleshy layer around the seed called mucilage, which is removed later. You can pick coffee cherries and eat them straight from the stem, and just like flavorless real cherries, they’re bland. They have the same mouthfeel and texture as real cherries.
The coffee farm at FEV centers around the shade canopy, which is old, tall, and multi-storied. Maybe the most interesting thing I learned about coffee farming while in Nicaragua was that it’s best to think about growing an ecosystem first—and then growing coffee within that ecosystem. It’s important to have a variety of shade tree species for height and habitat, especially if you grow organically.
Those are typical picking baskets, which are strung around ones’ waist with another bag. Extra bags are rolled up and tied inside. The giant lemon in the basket isn’t something that typically winds up in the harvest basket. It is typical, however, to find citrus, banana, and cacao, among other non-fruit trees, growing amidst the coffee plants—a sign of canopy diversity.
Once picked, the day’s harvest (which begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m.) is grouped together near the wet mill. I picked for 3 hours and managed to harvest only a meager half bucket. At the end of the day, the cherries are measured out in buckets and recorded, so as to know how much everyone gets paid.
Once they have been measured for pay, farmers dump the coffee cherries into bigger buckets of water to sort for floaters. Density and quality in coffee are correlated; the floaters are skimmed off the top for low-quality uses or compost.
After removing the skimmers, the coffee cherries are poured into a funnel (above) to be run through the depulper. In Nicaragua, all the pulp is removed with similar machines. The depulping machine at FEV is powered by hydroelectricity, but most other small farms we visited used hand cranks. The pulp flows through a funnel onto a screened tray, where the waste collects. The pulp is composted and used for fertilizer. Several organic farms (including FEV) had built or were building intensive worm composting facilities to make fertilizer for their plants.
So the pulp has been removed. You’re left with hard, slimy beans, covered in mucilage. Removing the mucilage involves a process you don’t typically associate with coffee: fermentation. The beans are kept in concrete holding tanks as they ferment. The fermentation period must be timed precisely, as over-fermentation can result in a bad taste in the cup (as can under-fermentation).
The beans are then washed in a water channel washed. The locks in the channel are used to help separate and sort for density, while paddles are used to wash the coffee. The runoff from these fermentation tanks is called agua miel—honey water—and it must be sustainably eliminated, as it can cause changes in water table pH, among other problems. Farms we visited had agua miel holding tanks.
Less dense coffees come off first, and are stored separately from the less dense coffees which are the last to be removed from the washing. The beans are still hard, but they’re mucilage free.
The beans are then dried on elevated racks before being shipped out to the dry mill. This is the way to do it: not on the ground or on plastic. Here, the beans are also sorted for visual defects. A bean gone bad.
Now, it should be noted that not all coffee is washed, or wet processed. Some of my favorite coffees are dry processed (or alternately, naturally processed), which involves drying the coffee with the pulp on before dry milling. This lends the beans a significant berry flavor when brewed.
Beans from the drying rack:
That’s Marigojipe, a larger variety, on the left, and probably Caturra on the right.
Ready for the grinder? Not quite. More next week from the dry mill, and more on organic farming.