Monthly Archives: November 2008

The coffee process – on a tiny Farm near La Corona, Nicaragua

From experiences on Finca El Ranchita, 2km outside the village of La Corona, Matagalpa.

The farm is owned by Bernabe Cano Salgada, he lives with his wife Maximina, one son, one daughter, one daughter-in-law, one neice and seven grandchildren, although he has another son and daughter and more grandchildren living elsewhere as well.
The farm is 5 manzanas (a manzana is 1.73 acres), 2 manzanas are coffee, the rest is maize and chiltoma (a type of chilli) crops and pasture for their 12 cows. There are also quite a few chickens.

The coffee is all organic, no fertilizer or pesticides are used. It is also grown under shade of banana, orange and avocado trees and some remaining natural forest. The farm lies at an altitude of about 800m above sea level, and is irrigated from the Penas Blancas river that runs through the Yasica Sur mountain range.
The coffee is entirely arabica, a mixture of caturra and bourbon varieties.

Harvest season for the coffee is mid november to mid december. All the picking is done by hand, with baskets tied round the waist to hold the cherries. The coffee trees are tall, some over 8ft, and occasionally the trees have to be half pulled over to reach the cherries at the top. (i am not much below 6ft so i was actually very useful in this respect!) Harvesting takes a month, even with such a small crop because not all the cherries become ripe at the same time, and so each tree has to be picked repetitively until all the fruit are mature.

Bernabe and his daughter in law, Antoña, seem to do the majority of the harvesting by themselves, working ten hour days. Maximina works in the house, and their son Leonardo looks after the maize crop. Antoña’s 4 children all try and help pick coffee too, but only the eldest, 12 year old Lucy, can actually work effectively, (when she is not at school) the others (all under ten) can’t reach the trees!

After picking, the coffee has to be depulped (that is, removing the fruit flesh from the beans) the same day. First the cherries are tipped into a tub of clean water. Those that float are bad – either with bugs in (making air holes) or sometimes with only one bean inside the cherry, not two. These bad beans are scooped off the top, and composted.

The depulping machine mixes the cherries with just enough water to soften the fruit, and then simply presses the fruit until the hard beans in the centre squash out. The beans will sink and the fruit floats. The beans are then let out the bottom of the machine, and the cherry pulp removed from the top. Bernabe drains the fruit pulp and then feeds it all in to his worm farm where is is broken down into great compost.

The depulped beans, still in their muscelage, are left to ferment. Early harvested beans ferment for 18-24 hours, those later in the harvest for 36-48 hours. This has to be carefully monitored as over- or under- fermenting can ruin the quality of a whole batch. Generally, the longer it ferments, the sweeter the flavour, but it can easily get too sweet and taste alcoholic!

After fermentation, the beans are washed again, in running water. Any flesh remaining will float and can be removed and composted. The water also carries away the muscelage called Miel, or honey (it does actually taste sweet). The run-off water is cloudy and called ‘agua de miel’. On this farm is was just left to drain into the soil- although it’s acidity cannot be good for the earth. Bernabe did not seem bothered about this.

The beans are then dried on a large mesh sheets supported on wooden frames, so the beans are always kept a few inches off the ground. They are turned over every 20 minutes so they dry evenly. Drying at this stage reduces the water content of the beans to about 40-45%. In good weather (not guaranteed in the mountains) drying only takes 2 hours, but they have to be very careful because it can rain very suddenly and unexpectedly, and rained on beans are ruined beans.

Once dry, they are sorted. This can take several hours. Bernabe (and often as not, anyone else who is around) has to go through and meticulously pick out the bad beans that have survived the other processes. Broken beans, those with chipped parchment, those with small holes as a signs of broca bugs. It is boring, time consuming, slightly hypnotic and requires a lot of concentration and good eyesight. However, this is what makes good quality – one bad beans can spoil 30 good ones. And you need about 50 beans to make one espresso. The beneficio will check and if there are too many, he will not be able to sell that sack.

Technically, the bad beans picked out at this stage end up either as worm or chicken food, although Bernabe said occasionally the family keep them, toast them over the fire and use that coffee for family breakfast. I tried it to see if I could tell the difference knowing I was drinking low quality stuff. However, they all insist on heaping so much sugar into it that it was impossible to tell. It smelt amazing as it was roasting though.

The finished coffee is packed into waterproofed sacks of 100lb each (some farms use 60lb bags instead which seems to be more conventional) and the trip is made to the beneficio (processing plant) which for this co-operative is a two hour journey, the otherside of Matagalpa. We hitched a lift clinging on to the back of a neighbour’s truck who was also going to the city. After that we had to get ourselves and 100lb of coffee on a bus for the remainder of the trip. Bernabe’s family do not own a vehicle, and as the beneficio require the coffee to be as fresh as possible, this trip has to be negotiated once a week during harvest season.

Bernabe can get $180 a sack for his coffee (thus, ‘better than fair trade’ price of $126, although the cooperative is fairtrade certified) as it usually achieves 80-85 points on the SCAA’s cupping scale (making it a “speciality” coffee), but the journey to the mill alone, without a lift, will cost him $2.30 a week on top of the ongoing costs of running the farm. The sheer amount of manual work and skill that go into this process is incomparable with the income it commands, particularly with a family of thirteen to feed. Bernabe and Antoña effectively work for $1.80 an hour, for 200 hours a year during the harvest season, and have to make that income last for the other 11 months, feeding their enormous family, maintaining the farm, paying bills and supplemented only by income from their other small crops, and the money their children send from the cities to help support the grandchildren.

On a personal note, it really made me feel terrible for working at Caffe Nero for so long. Sure their coffees are expensive, but for a £2.30 latte, the two espressos in it costs the company 4p. The amount farmers like Bernabe receive from each latte we drink in the UK comes to a fraction of a penny. I gave the family as much as i could for my stay there – the equivalent of what would have paid staying at a hotel and eating in a restaurant for a week. I also gave the kids a present of 30 cordobas each – about a pound. Best fiver i’ve ever spent – that buys them all a notebook for school and chocolate bars for a week.
I hope my reader(s) are dutifully feeling first world/middle class guilt now. And please don’t even contemplate buying Nescafe instant now you’ve read this. Muchas gracias.


Posted by on November 26, 2008 in Uncategorized


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Coincidences, coincidences….

I am living in a very small world filled with a lot of luck and some strange coincidences.

Since I last updated this blog, I have rented a room in Matagalpa, from local woman called Emma Navarro, who was actually born in Canada. I met her accidentally when I stumbled into her cafe on my very first night in the town. Not only is the house almost perfect (with the exception of the locals habitually having pro-sandinista street parties outside the front door with enormous speakers on the back of trucks blasting out that awful Latino dance music, ugh) – but Emma herself is fantastic. She doesn’t try and mother me or tell me everything is ‘peligroso’ as most older local women do whenever i ask for advice. She is also very well connected and has been really helpful.

Her husband virtually never speaks unless it is absolutely necessary, but I found to my delight the other day, that when he thinks he’s alone in the house, he sings, really loudly, and really badly. And, he was singing a song I recognised, by a group called Mana, but an old one. I had bought that album in Peru, in 2001!! My favourite song of theirs, the lyrics translate as “why am I still here in this place as always, in the same town, with the same people? I have been here too long. What if you never left? What if you never existed? I could have forgotten, and I could have moved on..” That became my anthem for living in Chester-le-Street and being depressed. It could suit Darlington quite well too!!

But what of the coffee I hear you cry? Well, there is certainly a lot of it about! I’ve had more adventures at Selva Negra since my last blog, including “interviewing” Eddy Kuhl extremely briefly. I asked him if all his green initatives on the farm actually had any affect on the taste or quality of the coffee. He said it was a good question, but didn’t seem to be able to answer it!! He did invite me to a conference he’s presenting at, in Managua this Friday. Am definitely going to go. Afterwards I went for a walk in the coffee crops, – and this is 100% true and I’ve got a bruise to prove it: I slipped on a banana leaf!!!! Very slapstick!! Ended up flat on my back, and ripped a hole in my trousers. Doh. Having limped back and tried to de-mud myself in the loos, I ended up missing the last bus back and having to hitch the 12km back to town in the back of a truck – which turned out to be full of sacks of coffee! Sitting in the back of a pick up truck, driving down through the mountains at twilight was so, so beautiful. Provided you have comfy coffee sacks to sit on, it is the best way to travel!

Back in Matagalpa I seem to be spending a lot of time sitting in Cafe Picoteo, Emma’s place. Well, why break the habit of a life time? The coffee is good, and local. But more importantly, I seem to be developing an uncanny knack of meeting useful people, accidently. Emma’s brother in-law Pedro, for instance, who happens to be heavily involved with CafeNica – a local coffee co-operative. Emma also introduced me to ‘su amigo’, Daniel (another really Nicaraguan sounding name!). Daniel now lives in Boston and so speaks a little English. And guess what? He is back in Nicaragua at the moment, because he has his own coffee farm to attend to. Even more usefully and luckily, he happens to be going to Managua this Friday to help his daughter buy a house on the beach (as you do) and has offered me a lift so I can go to Eddy’s conference! Woohoo!

The other day I thought I ought to spread my money around a little rather than just funding Emma, so I went looking for a decent cappuccino. I found plenty, specifically in a place called Cafe Barista. This is one of the few places I’ve found so far in Nicaragua that serves genuine espresso based coffees – and very good ones at that – latte art and everything. I told them I worked as a barista in the UK, and the owner, a youngish bloke called Lester Balladares Castro, invited me behind the bar to try making a cappuccino.

Typically, and possibly a result of too long spent at Caffe Nero (and it’s been a year since I left now, thinking about it), I made the worst, most embarrassing cup I think I’ve ever done. I felt completely stupid. Serves me right for showing off really! Lester just laughed it off, and then I noticed the wall. Behind Lester was a giant photo of Lester shaking hands with Stephen Morrissey, World Barista Champion 2008! This guy really knows his stuff then, if he’s competing at that level. I felt a little less dumb about my crappuccino after that. We talked about the Barista championship for a while, and sure enough, he’s met James Hoffman, and even Matt Milleto from Barista Exchange. That particular side of the coffee industry has obviously been exported to Central America already, making this world even smaller than ever. I am going to show him Jonathan Morris’s stuff on Cappuccino Conquests, because as far as I’m concerned, the very existence of Cafe Barista in remote Matagalpa, makes Lester a Cappuccino Conquistador!!

A proud moment for Lester!

A proud moment for Lester!

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Posted by on November 13, 2008 in Uncategorized


Selva Negra

My first visit to Selva Negra – a completely organic farm north of Matagalpa, set up and run by a German couple, Eddy and Mausi Kuhl. The farm produces around 5000 sacks of award winning, shade grown arabica coffee every year. There are 150 permenant workers there, all housed on site, paid $100 a month, given three meals a day and there´s even a school for the 64 children on the farm, and three baseball teams!
Eddy and Mausi took over in 1975, and reserved a third of the land to natural forest, a third for coffee, and the rest to farm buildings which house the workers and pasture for cattle, pigs and chickens. Eddy has written book, “Nicaragua y su cafe” – i’ve got to try and find that on Amazon! I met Eddy very briefly (as my guidebook says, they are both happy to give you a tour but only they are not busy, which is not often!). He seemed very enthusiastic when I said I was a student of coffee, and everyone else I’ve met says he never stops talking, so he could prove very handy for this project!

The coffee is processed at a ‘beneficio’ or mill which is attached to the main farm house. However, this roaster is very small, and they only roast a little for domestic sales – you can buy bags of their coffee in the souvenir shop or at the Coffee Museum in Matagalpa for instance. (and yes, i bought some!) 80% of the main crop is exported to the States, and the other 20% to Spain – this is all exported green (unroasted) however.

Unsurprisingly, the farm is certified organic, and also has the Rainforest Alliance stamp. In 1995 it won a “Semper Virens” award (‘always green’) from the International Ecological Summit. The only stamp they don’t carry is FairTrade – but they don’t need it. They are SCAA members, the coffee obviously commands a very steep price, even during the coffee crisis, and the workers are looked after very well indeed. This may be one example where I will agree with the Cup of Excellence people, it is quality coffee which makes money just by being high quality. However, this is also a large, private farm set in near-perfect coffee growing area. What they do here couldn’t necessary be done on tiny farms within community owned cooperatives.

The green credentials are extremely impressive however. The biggest polluter in coffee production, particularly in wet processing like this is waste water which is used to wash the coffee cherries off the beans. The water gets extremely acidic with the fruit juices and on most farms, is pumped into the nearest river. Here, however, it goes through a two-tank pressurised purification system that uses the porous volcanic rocks to filter the water. These tanks allow the juice to ferment until biogas can be collected – this is used for cooking on the farm. The remaining water makes its way round the farm in over 1km of PVC piping, and evertually makes it to their hydroelectric plant, which also uses natural streams and a lake to power the turbine and provide electricity to all the farm buildings.

Biogas and/or methane is also collected from an anaerobic digestor. All other organic waste, including human waste from the compost toilets, cattle manure and chicken waste/bedding is added to these digestors. Once the gases have been collected, the solid waste joins the decomposing coffee cherries as worm food in the delightfully enormous worm farm, and comes out again a few weeks later as perfect compost.

No part of the coffee plant is wasted, as even the husks (parchment) are burnt under the huge grills in the kitchen – apparently coffee-smoked meat tastes fantastic, and I can well believe it! (the restaurant on site serves authentic German smoked sausage from the farms pigs – i wonder if they were coffee smoked too? They were exceptionally good!) The ashes from these grills are then mixed with water, until they can be used as liquid fertiliser on the crops again.

Other plants are also used throughout the farm as natural, sustainable ways of crop protection. Banana trees shade the coffee and feed both the workers and the cows, tall, strong yucca plants provide windbreaks and protect against landslides, a special type of moss is grown specifically on slopes to avoid soil erosion in heavy rains (and trust me, there is a lot of heavy rain in those mountains!!) They even grow eucalyptus trees, then shred the leaves, mix them with water and spray it on the coffee plants as a natural insect repellant. Finally, the very clever red bottles trap the ‘brocas’ (coffee weevils) – but even they die drunk and happy.

I came away from this first trip mightily, mightily impressed (and soaking wet). I think my two companions for the day, Dean and Julie, were a little taken aback with quite how geeky and excited i got by it all, but they both said the found it interesting too so I am not quite mad. However, I now have a million questions for Eddy and Mausi, the main ones being, how on earth did they design all these green processes?? And more importantly, does any of this ecological wonderfulness actually affect the flavour and quality of the coffee? I did ask, and was told by our guide for the day, Manuel, that it would be possible for me to come pick coffee there when the harvest begins properly in a week or so. I’m not entirely sure if he was taking me seriously, however. I have every intention of going back up there on Monday though, so we shall see!


Posted by on November 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


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I have been “away” for 6 days now. It feels like a life time! Little things, Nanowrimo, RASC, phone bills keep reminding me of my other life, but all that feels so far away already.

The coffee conference in Ohio was fantastic – really really interesting, and I met so many fascinating people and useful contacts – though I hate to think of them like that. A few academics whose papers I´ve read, but who actually exist in the real world! Shock horror! There were representatives from the SCAA and Cup of Excellence awards, who I had big issues with, which are too long and complex to go in to on here, although I have the beginnings of an academic paper on the topic of quality and who exactly it is who is creating the market for speciality coffees. It is not who you might think. Anyway, I made myself infamous by standing up as asking “Why not let people drink crap coffee if that is what they want?”

I never did get a straight answer to that, but several people congratulated me on asking it in the first place. One of the most vocal in the complimenting was a guy from the University of Guelph in Toronto, Stuart McCook who presentated a fantastic paper about robusta coffee and how it basically doesn’t exist in coffee discourse or history. A very good point, thinking about it – which sends me off on a whole new train of thought about whether my own project should focus specifically on “speciality” coffee, (whatever that actually means) or whether to just talk about coffee in general, allowing me to include robustas. Stuart asked me to keep an ear to the ground on my fieldwork to see if robusta is being grown in Nicaragua or Costa Rica. Costa Rica actually passed a law making it illegal to grow robusta, but it wouldn´t surprise me if it still is in some areas.

There were also talks from farmers themselves which was really useful as well. One of the best things about the conference was that it wasn´t entirely academic, there were industry people there too, and it gave much more varied perspectives. Apart from Steven Topik´s paper on the history of why Americans drink coffee, and Ken David`s talk on coffee myths, (and, I guess, talks by representatives from the World Bank, Transfair and the Rainforest Alliance) it concentrated entirely on the farmers and actually growing the stuff. Only Jonathon Morris mentioned the retail side of things with his Cappuccino Conquests paper. I did find myself bouncing up and down wanting to do a presentation myself just to fill the gap! Strangely enough i didn´t get the opportunity, but it does go to show that I was wrong to be intimidated! They were a very friendly bunch really.

I am now a few thousand miles further south in ludicrously hot Nicaragua. The heat (37 degrees celsius at midday in Granada) does nothing to help my brain function academically. The mind, quite literally, boggled at the thought of actually doing work during the day, and all I could do was flop about, sweat and scratch my numerous mosquito bites. This does not a productive Bel make. I am, however, renewing my status as “almuerza” (lunch) for the various insects here. In Managua, there were giant ants carrying seeds about the place industriously. I don{t know if they bit me, but certainly something did. In Granada there is just the usual array of annoying flying things.

Managua (the capital) was irritating as usual – too hot, noisy, dirty and for me on my own, impossible. I couldn{t walk about on my own because it was too dangerous, and taxis automatically charged me double for being foreign. Plus there is a distinct limit to the number of places you´d want to visit in Managua anyway. I made my excuses to the manager of Hotel Los Felipes (my one, tranquil oasis there) and fled to Granada.

Granada was much as I remembered it, with a few major personal landmarks missing. La Fabrica, my favourite bar in the whole world, closed dowm. This is not surprising really since I never knew how that place made money anyway. Hospedaje Central has also changed, gotten smaller and has now become Nueva Central. This is because the original owner, Bill, actually died a few years ago. That really was a shock to me, made me realise how long it´s been.

Sadly too, when I found Donna finally, she told me that Cafe Chavalos has also closed, mainly because the kids who worked there were stealing money from their own organisation, and Donna grew tired of footing the bill. That is a big shame, I had high hopes and a lot of respect for that project.

Donna is still inimitably Donna. As soon as we met, she whisked me off to an election party! The entire US ex-pat community gathered in a small bar t cheer on Obama. Absolutely fascinating, I got so caught up in the mood that I even started to get nervous as well, even though I can{t vote and don´t actually understand the system. Anyway, the good guy won, we all had too many drinks, and that result made a lot of Nicaraguans happy as well. The local paper insisted that McCain had previous dealings with the Contras, 30 years ago, so a Republican win could have had serious repercussions in Nicaragua too!

Yesterday, I finally started work-work… and now my interweb time has expired, so that will wait for another time..

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Posted by on November 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


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