Monthly Archives: December 2008

Jack and the Beanstalk

One day Jack’s mother cried, “We’re stoney broke!
Go out and find some wealthy bloke
Who’ll buy our cow. Just say she’s sound
And worth at least a hundred pounds-
But don’t you dare to let him know
That she’s as old as Billy-O!”
Jack led the old brown cow away
And came back later in the day,
And said, “Mum! I got, I really don’t know how,
A super trade-in for our cow!”
Jack’s mother said, “You little creep,
I bet you sold her much too cheap!”
When Jack produced one lousy bean,
His startled mother, turning green,
Leaped high into the air and cried:
“I’m absolutely stupified!
You crazy boy, you really mean
You sold our Daisy for a bean?!”
She snatched the bean, and yelled “You chump!”
And flung it on the rubbish dump.
Then, summoning up all her power,
She beat the boy for half an hour,
(Using, and nothing could be meaner,
The handle of a vaccuum cleaner!)

(from Roald Dahl’s Jack and the Beanstalk, c. 1988? If its not completely accurate it is because the above is written from memory alone, I learned the whole thing off by heart when at Primary school – 16 years ago, and I haven’t seen a copy since)

It is true, there is very little in the world that I can’t relate to coffee nowadays. I’d like to construct an elaborate, aetelogical myth of coffee origins, of epic length, and possibly even in iambic pentameter. This may yet happen, in a few weeks time I will be embarking on an uncomfy nine-hour bus journey to Costa Rica- perfect opportunity for some wanton scribbling….

But for now, let us stick with Jack and his magic beans. Ahem. The moral of this particular version of the story is that taking baths is a good idea. Jack defeats the giant by having a wash so the giant can’t smell him. (“A bath,” he said, “does seem to pay, I’m going to have one every day!”)
So far, so non-coffee related.
But, and whilst being heavy handed with the dramatic licence, I could argue that an equal valid lesson here is to trust in the magic beans, for they will eventually bring you great wealth. Sure, it won’t be easy, but it’s always going to be better than cattle farming!

Well, maybe. At the top of the beanstalk there is wealth, but that wealth is guarded carefully by the Giant. More on the Giant in a minute.

During my time in Nicaragua, I’ve visited four completely different coffee farms. All the farmers at these places have traded in their cows, received their magic beans, and have grown their beanstalks accordingly.
At the first farm, the beanstalk was of great quality and held a lot of golden fruit, and ‘Jack’ there found that, when you got to the top, the Giant wasn’t actually that big and scary after all. In fact, he and the Giant are good friends now.
At Farm number 2, having discovered the Giant at the top of the first beanstalk, Jack constructed a second beanstalk – ok, it wasn’t a fantastic beanstalk, it wasn’t even organic, but then, the Giant wasn’t that intelligent, and when he was guarding the top of the first stalk, Jack could nip up the other one, and still get to the gold.
At the third farm, Jack roped in all his mates from his village, and even some curious tourists who wanted to see the view from the top of beanstalk. Together, they were too much for the one poor giant, and Jack was able to collect all the gold and share it out with all his friends. Except the tourists, who just went home feeling very good about themselves for helping out poor little Jack.
But at the last farm, the smallest of them all, Jack’s beanstalk grew very very tall, and the Giant was very big. The gold was a long way up, and the beanstalk didn’t look very safe. Jack tried to climb this beanstalk but was scared to go too high in case he fell, so he had to make do with the few tiny bits of gold that he was able to reach. After a while, well-meaning health and safety inspectors came to see Jack’s beanstalk, and constructed a safety net for him around the beanstalk, so if he fell, he wouldn’t fall too far. But even so, this Jack had very little chance of ever even reaching the top of his beanstalk, let alone defeating the Giant and collecting the gold for himself.
However, this Jack, with some help from other members of the Tall Beanstalk Owners Cooperative and Support Group, came up with a cunning plan. They would just get their own Giant, to climb the stalks for them!

Maybe this does need a little more explanation. ‘Jack’ is of course, the different sorts of farmer, and the beanstalk is the coffee crop. The gold is the money they could make from this coffee. And in more than one of these examples, the farmers literally did trade their cows for beans. The safety net on the fourth farm is the Fair Trade guaranteed minimum price. The tourists on Farm #3 are the beginnings of volunteer and ecotourism projects here.

But what is the Giant? I hear you cry…
This is what I have been trying to work out myself. The Giant represents everything unjust in the coffee industry, it is he who gathers all the money for himself, keeping it from the farmers who have actually done the hard work growing the beanstalks in the first place. The Giant is not, however, the average coffee drinker. In this story, the Giant might even be wearing a green apron, and selling huge and very sweet bean-flavoured milkshakes to coffee drinkers, for extortionate prices. It is the money from this that the Giant wants to stop Jack getting his hands on.

This Giant represents the international coffee markets, and specifically the buyers, the middlemen. In Nicaragua, foreign coffee buyers are known as Coyotes, a name which conjours up exactly the same image as these people have in this country – not a pleasant reputation at all. The correct name is actually ‘Catadores’, those who work in La Catacion, or coffee cuppers. They are the people who taste and sample the coffee, and judge its quality using pseudo-scientific, but usually pretty subjective methods. As a result, they also control the price of this coffee – if they think it is not good quality, they will only pay a very small price for it. And then, they have a tendancy of adding on a huge price mark up, and selling it on to coffee shops to make big profits. In this situation, Jack can only hope that his Giant is honest. Jack struggles to produce the best beanstalk he can, so that a little of the Giant’s wealth trickles down to him.

This has been the situation for quite some time. But in the last decade at least, the Jacks of Central America have been fighting back. One tactic, not available to most, is to simple make friends with the Giant, so that he wants to share his gold with you. This requires Jack to be pretty wealthy to start with so that the Giant does not appear too big and scary. In other words, this can only be achieved on huge, successful and usually foreign-owned coffee farms.

Another tactic is to grow a second beanstalk. Growing non-organic low grade coffee alongside high quality stuff, is easier and cheaper to produce, and provides a failsafe for when the Giant guards the wealth on the first beanstalk.

Thirdly, Jack can rope in the help of his friends – as in, work in cooperatives, and share the wealth from all the little beanstalks out fairly. Again, this only works if there is enough good quality beanstalks – and having a great view from the top of them helps to promote foreign interest as well.

Finally, to help the really impoverished Jacks with their tall beanstalks, some places are trying to find their own Giants. Cooperatives and companies like Cecocafen have created their own cupping laborotories, and trained their own cuppers to assess the quality of their own coffee – inside this country. This allows Jack to understand the value of his beanstalk, and also teaches him how to look after it and improve it. However, this Giant is still independent of Jack- he won’t say it’s a lovely beanstalk when it isn’t. But this Giant is at least tame and friendly, and can really help defend Jack against the Big, Scary foreign Giants that might otherwise keep all the gold for themselves.

I’ve already met the local catadores at Santa Emilia, and tomorrow I am set to meet up with Julio, who is one of the cuppers at Cecocafen. I still have my doubts about cupping, but mainly because it still seems to me to be incredibly subjective. However, if having their own cupping lab really does benefit the farmers, then so be it!

Once more Jack climbed the mighty bean,
The Giant sat there, gross, obscene,
Muttering through his viscous teeth
Whilst Jack sat tensely just beneath.
“Fi Fie Fo Fum,
Right now I can’t smell anyone!”
Jack waited til the Giant slept,
Then out along the boughs he crept
And gathered so much gold, I swear
He was an instant millionaire.


Posted by on December 12, 2008 in Uncategorized


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Mi proyecto – en español

Mi nombre es Annabel Townsend y soy una estudiante de la Universidad de Sheffield en Inglaterra. Tengo un proyecto para mi tesis de post-grado sobre café en Nicaragua y Costa Rica. Me gustaría conversar con ustedes sobre esto.

Estoy en el segundo año de mi post-grado. En el último año, he estado leyendo documentos académicos sobre la producción de café, la historia del café en América Latina, y también sobre globalización y los mercados internacionales.

Antes, estudiaba Antropología. Este proyecto es desde el departamento de Geografía Humana en mi universidad, y todavía tengo un interés fuerte en estudios culturales, también de café y socio-económicos.

Mi proyecto ahora es con un programa de búsqueda se llama “The Waste of the World” o La Basura del Mundo, y financiada por el Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) en Inglaterra. El objetivo de este programa es estudiar conceptos de basura y calidad en las industrias globales. Soy una de tres estudiantes trabajando con las industrias internacionales de comidas y agriculturas y he escogido estudiar sobre café porque es la segunda industria más grande en el mundo, y también la ‘calidad’ es muy importante en los mercados de hoy.

Mi intención con este proyecto es seguir los granos de café desde la producción en las fincas aquí en Nicaragua, hasta los beneficios de cafè, y las cooperativas, y entonces a tostadores en Inglaterra y finalmente a los cafetines y tiendas de café en mi país. Quiero conocer las diferencias entre café orgánico de Nicaragua, y café convencional de Costa Rica, porque en Inglaterra, usamos los dos igualmente. Estoy interesada en las diferencias en sabor y calidad, y también en los métodos de producción.

Después de mi trabajo en Nicaragua y Costa Rica, voy a regresar a Inglaterra, donde tengo contactos con compañías de café. Espero trabajar y estudiar en una compañía de tostadores internacionales, se llama Coburg Coffee Company en Londres. Coburg Coffee Company tuestan café para una compañía grande de cafetines en Inglaterra, se llama Caffe Nero. Caffe Nero tienen cerca de 400 tiendas de café en el país. Desde hace dos años, yo he trabajado en Caffe Nero como una Barista, entonces, conozco la compañía muy bien.

Mis estudios con estas compañías será el mismo que en Nicaragua. Explorare sus conceptos de calidad en la producción de café, y también me gustaría ver qué pasa con basura que generan en los diferentes procesos.

La información que yo recolecte estará publicada en mi tesis en mi universidad y también en parte del programa de Waste of the World. Todos los detalles estarán disponibles desde esta universidad en Inglaterra, y daré créditos a todos mis colaboradores. Pero, si ustedes prefieran, pueden ser anónimos. No voy a incluir información sin consentimiento de ustedes.

Agradeciendo mucho su ayuda y su colaboración con este proyecto. He incluido mis preguntas preliminares para ustedes, y espero podamos conversar mas en el futuro.
Muchas gracias.


Posted by on December 5, 2008 in Uncategorized


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Crap Coffee

A large part of this project is about ideas of coffee quality, and some of the best coffees in the world are produced here in Nicaragua. Professional cuppers from the Speciality Association of America rate Nicaraguan, organic, shade and altitude grown coffees well into the 90s on their cupping scale. There is no shortage of the stuff either. Bernabe’s coffee from his little farm in La Corona averages at 85 points during the cupping tests at Cecocafen (the cooperative that has its own cupping laboratory). I spent the weekend at Finca Esperanza Verde, whose 15 manzanas of coffee also goes to Cecocafen, where is has won countless awards, including one to say that coffee typifies the flavours of the region – this is truly terroir coffee, held in as much esteem as champagne is in France. And the farmers are very proud of their crops.

But at present, I do not know enough about cupping to judge quality for myself. I just have to take their word for it – which I am loathe to do, especially when it comes to the SCAA. So, how do I ‘study’ quality? One way of truly knowing something, understanding it properly, is to look at it’s opposite. So, today I am concentrating on utterly crap coffees. Even though I am in the heart of the coffee lands, finding crap coffee was actually a lot easier than expected.

On the breakfast table

On the breakfast table

When I first arrived in Matagalpa and met my new landlady, Emma, I told her I was here to study coffee. This she took to heart, and for my first breakfast in the house, I was greeted with a large jar of Nescafe ‘Clasico’ – instant coffee. Emma was oddly proud of this, and I found out later that it was a special gift, she was showing off. Nescafe Instant is very expensive here, more so, infact than the exceedingly good quality, freshly ground stuff! I went round the supermarket this morning, and sure enough, all the varieties of coffee were piled up together. 100g jar Nescafe Clasico Cafe Soluble= 69 cordobas (just over £2). 1lb bag of ‘export quality’ Matagalpan ground coffee= 34 cordobas. Half the price!

There is also “Cafe Presto” which I reluctantly bought a foil packet of, (for research purposes only, you understand!). Cafe Presto is another brand of instant coffee, but is entirely Nicaraguan – grown, produced and marketed here. On the back, in Spanish and translated into rather bizarre English, it says “Our coffee is harvested in high grounds where the climate and the special care cause the grains of coffee that we select to prepare our Presto Instant Coffee.” Underneath that it helpfully informs me that it contains “100% coffee”. Useful. The slogan screams “¡Reanimando Nicaragua!” (reanimating Nicaragua) – but the people pictured enjoying this stuff on the packet do not look very animated, or even Nicaraguan for that matter.

The offending item

The offending item

Racial undertones aside, my main question concerning Presto is just – what on earth is in it? Surely they can’t be using their fantastic quality organic arabica to make instant crap? And if they are, WHY? Is there really such a demand for instant coffee here that they will use their precious speciality crops to produce it? If so, why do they then sell instant coffee at prices too expensive for the average Nicaraguan to afford? Instant coffee as a luxury item is a very new and strange concept for me. Another comparison with the wine industry – this is like going to Italy and finding that they are all lusting after Blue Nun!!

It could of course be robusta coffee. They do grow some robusta in Nicaragua. So far all the farmers I’ve spoken to say there is some, but of course, they don’t grow it themselves, their neighbours might though… It is not something you casually admit to. Javiar at Finca Esperanza Verde said there was no need to grow robusta on that farm, because they had the altitude (1300m above sea level) and climate to grow arabica. Robusta, as the name suggests, is more robust, it can survive lower temperatures and with more rain, and also grows at lower altitudes. Robusta is for coffee farmers who haven’t got the geography. (“like in Costa Rica” as several people have said, always somewhat smugly).

Cecocafen, being a FairTrade certified cooperative, also accept what they call “cafe convencional” – non organic, lower quality stuff, and pay the fair trade rate for it. Bernabe at La Corona prefers to grow the highest quality he can, because it commands a price considerably higher than the fair trade rate. But if something goes wrong, he knows Cecocafen provide the safety net and he can still sell the lower quality beans there. This, he says, is the main reason why “his neighbours” grow robusta. It is a fail-safe. Robusta crops are far less likely to fail. and they are easier to grow in the first place. Some of the farmers, particularly in that area (which is at 800m, considerably lower than Esperanza Verde) grow both varieties of coffee, “just in case.” Robusta trees are usually a bit taller than arabica, and so the robusta can also be used to shade the quality crop.

So, this all suggests that there is opportunity, incentive, market and seemingly a demand for crap coffee in Nicaragua. But as ever, there is also almost a sense of shame, of taboo. And maybe even a sense of ´waste´if I can construct this concept coherantly. Crap coffee definitely exists here, but no-one really wants to talk about it. They all much prefer to tell me about their quality – which is just as useful in the long run!!


Posted by on December 1, 2008 in Uncategorized


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