RSS

Monthly Archives: February 2009

Panamanian Rage Against The Machine

(ok so there is only a passing reference to Panama in this, but I love the word ‘Panamanian’. Surely ‘Panamania’ should be a technical term for ‘overenthusiam about everything’?)

All in neat rows, too!

All in neat rows, too!

This week I visited Doka Estate, another massive coffee plantation, this time on the edge of Volcan Poas, outside Alajuela, Costa Rica. The journey up there took nearly 3 hours, and involved 3 different buses and a 2km hike, each way. But worth it – just getting out of San Jose lifted my mood incredibly, and more importantly, the bus rides took me up to 1400m, through ‘fields’ of coffee. Beautiful!

This is really what Ticos are raving about – coffee here is a huge source of national pride. This tiny country produces 2% of the worlds coffee, and is the 11th biggest producer in the world. Doka Estate has been owned and managed by the local Vargas family for three generations now; they are practically a national institution.

Out of the bus window

Out of the bus window

Yet all the coffee is arabica (referring, confusingly, to the African variety of coffee, as opposed to the Asian robusta). It is harvested entirely by Nicaraguans and Panamanians. It is then roasted to French Roast level to go in French Press coffee makers, or to a darker espresso roast to go in Italian espresso machines. The rest is exported, mainly to the United States. A proportion is decaffeinated using the Swiss water method and exported to Germany. And yet the bag of the stuff I’ve just bought still proudly says “100% Costa Rican” on it….

I would like to know where all the machines are made, which process the coffee. One thing very striking about Doka Estate was the fact that virtually everything is automated. This is a very large farm, its 2000 manzanas produces an average of 9000, 100lb sacks of coffee per year. With production on this scale, ‘traditional’ or manual methods, such as those I found in Nicaragua, just wouldn’t be effective. As well as these practical issues, however, the people at Doka believe that this machinary actually improves the quality of the coffee. This is news to me, since for the past few months I’ve been fed the notion that traditional, romantic and artesan methods are the best.

It is Big.

It is Big.

Take, for example, the huge Chancadora machine. Similar to the one at Cafe Britt, it is designed not only to remove the fruit from enormous volumes of coffee, it also automatically sorts it into three quality grades. Each grade of coffee is then depulped separately, using three different sieves, and then fed into three different fermentation tanks, so the coffee can be washed separately too, to avoid mixing and contamination. I don’t know how many people would have to be employed to do this without the machine – but it would at least be in double figures. It eliminates the need for all those hours I spent sorting seemingly identical coffee beans by hand.
The most ingenious part of the machine, however, is the fact that the whole thing operates without electricity! No expensive waste of energy.

I hope he never falls in!

I hope he never falls in!

The fruit is initially sorted by dropping the cherries into water. Those that float are third grade quality, the stuff you can’t export, along with twigs and leaves and caterpillas and anything else that accidently ends up in the pickers basket. These are scooped off the top of the water and delivered to the third grade depulper. Similarly, the second grade stuff sort of hangs in the middle of the water, and the excellent, premium stuff is right at the bottom. They can easily be separated like this and processed independently. But what makes the whole thing work, is that this pool of water is 5 metres deep! It can sort 250 cajuelas (a cajuela is 25lb of fruit) at a time. The weight of all that water is enough to power the mill, it turns all the depulping drums and forces the cherries through the sieves. Clever stuff.

Just like a huge Tumble dryer!

Just like a huge Tumble dryer!

Some electricity is used to power the large drying drum. This looks like a huge tumble dryer, where they second and third grade beans are dried. The premium grade beans are still dried in the sun, and turned over every 45 minutes by armies of (usually) women walking up and down in the heat with huge rakes. This improves the quality, apparently, because occasionally dehydrating the beans too quickly can impede the flavour. Assuming the tumbledryer thing must be expensive to run and that bean raking must be a good local source of employment, I asked why not all the beans were dried on the patios. This time is was for efficiency reasons. The beans take 24 hours to dry in the drum, but 5 days in the sun – thats if, of course, you can get 5 days of solid sunshine, halfway up a volcano in the tropics.

Finally, they also have a big trillar (which removes the dried parchment from the green bean) and Oliver-esque sorting machine at their drying mill further up the road. There was one of these machines at Solcafe in Matagalpa, it was big and new and exciting, and they had befriended it and named it ‘Oliver’, which I thought was rather cute. The Doka machine has no name, but performs the same function as dear Oliver, that is, automatically sorting the beans again, by size, weight, density and colour.

A bit of the Mighty "Oliver"

A bit of the Mighty "Oliver"

The more sorting that is done, the better the quality. At Solcafe, before the arrival of Oliver, 48 women were employed to do this by hand, requiring intense concentration and excellent eye sight. This machine can do the job of 48 people, quicker and more effectively.

Despite all this, however, Doka still employs about 450 people full time, and 600 extra for the harvest season. I was very, very, intrigued when my guide, Angel, (yep, really, and he was a bloke too) told me that all the coffee pickers were migrant workers from Nicaragua. I´d also just found an article in the newspaper about Panamanian coffee pickers coming to Costa Rica for the harvest too. Given that both Nicaragua and Costa Rica produce coffee themselves, what are the incentives of coming here for four months of the year? And more importantly, are there not Ticos who can do it??

The incentive is of course, money. At Doka, each picker gets paid $1.50 for every cajuela of coffee they pick, and a good picker can get 10-15 cajuelas a day. There are also other benefits. all the temporary workers are given accomodation at Doka, and there is a kindergaten for accompanying children as well. But this still is not a lot of money. Angel had no idea what these people did for the rest of the year, either. Ticos are apparently not keen to pick coffee, even those who are unemployed much prefer to get temporary work in factories than on farms. Angel actually said they were lazy! I asked if they ever turned anyone away who turned up to work. He said No, only when they had enough people, but it is usually the same people who come year after year. They do not need any specific skills, they just have to pick only the ripe, red cherries, and it is in their own interest to do it quickly.

This is an interesting point. Up until now, I´d be mentally linking skills with quality. Nicaraguans certainly put a lot of effort and labour into producing their coffee, and in doing so, increase the quality. There is much to be said for the idea of “artesan” production, that lovely image of the farmer caring about his crop so much, he does all the work by hand… But all these machines at Doka, and similar farms, take away the need for human labour, and as such, take all the skill out of the production. The machines are very clever, granted, and somebody with a lot of creative, technical skills designed them in the first place. But in this context, the skill is not actually in the continuing production, but yet, the quality equals, if not exceeds, that of the more “artesan” coffee.

In socio-economic terms, these machines negate the need to employ quite so many people on these coffee farms. It is only the picking that cannot be done by machine. The Panamanians and Nicaraguans who migrate to Costa Rica for the harvest every year, might well possess the skills, (or would be capable of learning them,) to sort coffee beans, or rake the patios and so on, and so Costa Rica could also produce artesan, “handmade” coffee if it wanted to. However, it seems to be making a considerable profit selling the machine-processed, yet very high quality coffee anyway. Consequently, it would appear that quality is not directly linked to skills, and that artesan coffee is merely an option for those who cannot access machines!

Doka Estate´s range of quality coffees

Doka Estate´s range of quality coffees

Advertisements
 
1 Comment

Posted by on February 26, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Costa Rica, Culture Shock and Cafe Britt

FANFARE! This is the first official blog from Costa Rica. I made it here after a very long and bizarre journey on a boat, on which I first experienced Japanese porn. I also didn’t get any sleep for a good 36 hours, and just to improve my mood no end, I was robbed. As such, my first day in Costa Rica was spent half asleep, queuing up to get police reports (not that I have any hope that they will find my camera etc, but merely because my insurance demands it) and then scouring San Jose in search of new USB leads. (of all the things to steal??). Consequently, my first impressions of Costa Rica were not good.

My first week here has not really done much to alleviate this. I am not a fan, so far. I am not seeing any of this Pura Vida everyone is advertising. Actually I think my vida was purer in Nicaragua. San Jose, being the capital, is huge and sprawling, a lot more pleasant than Managua, but very westernised, or at least, Americanised, and ludicrously expensive for Central America.Montufar, on the outskirts of San Jose. Picture taken from a grim little cafe at the "mall" I think I am spending more here than I would at home!! Worse still, I am now living out in the pits of suburbia, with Emma’s sister in law, Olga-Marie. She and her family are nice enough, but certainly not as daft or as outgoing as Emma, and I rarely see them anyway, they are all at work all day. There is absolutely nothing in this suburb, everyone just drives their 4×4 into the city. And its mind bogglingly ugly, especially in comparison with the beautiful mountains surrounding the area. My only saving graces here are Rosibel, the overworked but perma-cheerful ’empleada’ (i will not say ‘Maid’) and Abuela, who is 86, healthy, carefree and can happily drink me under the table. She likes her beer.

At 86, she has an impressive tolerance for alcohol.

At 86, she has an impressive tolerance for alcohol.

But what of the coffee??
Well, I have begun work very quickly so far because I am of the belief that the quicker I get the information I need, the sooner I can leave (yep, I really dislike it that much!). I found a lovely coffee shop hidden in the depths of the Mercado Central, where they roast their own coffee on site.

Smells devine

Smells divine

Whilst gazing in awe at the roaster and breathing in that magnificent scent of coffee, I got chatting the bloke sitting next to me. He was of the opinion that Costa Rican coffee was the best in the world. I laughed and told him that I’d just spent three months in Nicaragua where they say exactly the same thing about their own coffee. This provoked an almost violent rant about Nicaraguans – he’d never heard of Nicaraguan coffee being applauded as world class (although it has been, several years running). Nicaragua is an ugly, dangerous place, apparently, and ‘they all come over here’.I said I’d loved my time there, met some great people and the first day I got to Costa Rica, I was robbed. His response? “it was probably a Nicaraguan who robbed you.” I invited him to visit Britain someday. I think he’d fit in well…particularly with the Tory party, for instance.

Blue skies... good coffee

Blue skies... good coffee

What we were drinking, however, was coffee from Cafe Britt. Cafe Britt are based up in Heredia, a big town about half an hour from San Jose. They have the biggest wet mill in the country, and offer Coffee Tours for tourists. I decided it was a good place to start, so I headed up there on the full day, Coffee Lovers Tour.

It was actually really fun. Definitely designed for tourists, they turned a trip round the plantation into a theatre performance. The ‘actors’ obviously love what they do and put a lot of energy into their performances. But at the same time, it was still informative. We zipped through the plantation,

Hats not compulsory

Hats not compulsory

where our guide, Jose-Antonio, showed us the different layers of the bean with a giant plastic demo bean (Made in China), and interestingly pointed out that you only actually use 20% of the coffee berry. The fruit flesh, muscelage, and parchment are all removed, as is the moisture content. Costa Rica has actually passed a law saying farms have to recycle this fruit – and so at Cafe Britt, they mix it with chicken manure and use it as fertilizer. They also keep the dried parchment after trilling, and mix it with fibres from banana leaves to make paper. Guess where my next Lovely Notebook is coming from??

Cafe Britt buys in coffee from over 1000 different farms in Central Valley, and process it all at Tierra Madre, their huge beneficio or wet mill. They also sell three types of coffee, at different levels of quality. This made me prick up my ears. They definitely associate ‘organic’ produce with quality. Their ‘first grade’ coffee, the expensive stuff, is organic certified, and shade grown at altitude. This is marketed as Cafe Britt’s own brands; they do a dark roast, a light roast and an espresso roast. The second grade is still considered gourmet, and is shade grown at altitude as well, but they are allowed to use chemical pesticides on this stuff as necessary. This is where you get Cafe Britt single origin coffees, from Volcan Poas, Tres Rios and Terrazu, specific coffees from specific areas. These two types are exported and sold nationally with the Cafe Britt logo. The third grade stuff is ‘café convencional’. This is not gourmet, it is not exported, and Cafe Britt do not put their name on it. It is not grown at altitude, and is not shaded, and consequently all manner of chemicals are used to force the stuff to grow where it would not grown naturally. So I asked where it went. Jose mumbled something about ‘national companies’, but wouldn’t give me names. I can draw my own conclusions!

A very clever machine

A very clever machine

All of this coffee is processed at the same mill, however. Here, they call the depulping machine a chancador, not a despulpador, but its effectively the same thing. Except it is HUGE. And fully automated. No handcranking here! Same process as Nicaragua – beans are poured in to water, and the ones that float are removed; they are bad beans. But instead of becoming chicken feed, this stuff is sold to other food companies, as it is used to make coffee flavourings! Interesting! After squidging the beans out, this clever machine actually sorts the coffee for you – there are three different ‘sieves’ to feed the beans into the three classes of coffee. The third grade sieve has to be made of harder materials, because the beans it processes are likely to be underripe, and therefore the fruit is harder to remove. Ingenious! Better still, Jose proudly claimed that, despite its size, this mill only uses 50% of the water is would normally require. All the ‘aguas de miel’ or dirty water is recycled – fermented anaerobically to make biogas, then filtered so that the remaining water can be used to irrigate the next crops.
The big pool where the waste water is purified

The big pool where the waste water is purified

The washed beans are still dried naturally in the sun, and raked by hand. Cafe Britt also roast on the premises. Another huge machine can roast 100 tons of coffee per month. As such, they also have a cupping lab and expert cuppers to create the roast profiles of each batch of coffee. We got a very brief cupping demonstration as well, and I managed not to get it up my nose this time!! They can also decaffeinate the coffee (more, they say, for international markets than for Costa Rica. They agreed with me, decaff coffee is like nonalcoholic beer – pointless!) We even got a rather fun, hand drawn demo of the decaffeinating process (Swiss water method – ‘like giving the beans a sauna’).

Nice drawings, makes it all so clear!

Nice drawings, makes it all so clear!

Even more interestingly, the left over caffeine forms a white powder,which they sell to the likes of Coca Cola for use in energy drinks (BLEURGH!) and to the pharmaceuticals industry – it is that which goes into painkillers where they claim it’s ‘non-drowsy’!!

So. What can I conclude from this? 1.) I can’t afford to do many more ‘tours’ like this….
But sensibly. There is a lot of information about quality that can be drawn out from here, but for once, this doesn’t seem to lead to more waste. The waste at Cafe Britt, despite its huge size, seems very well managed. I think however, that it is exactly because of its size and success, that the company is able to manage its waste so well. It has the facilities to purify water and compost fruit on a huge scale, and can access markets for by-products of production. This is a very successful, nationally recognised company, but that does not necessarily mean it is typical of the Costa Rican coffee industry. What is typical, remains to be seen!

I didn´t see anyone looking like this, but its a nice image.

I didn´t see anyone looking like this, but its a nice image.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on February 19, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Cafe en tu Carro?

Por Annabel y Carl Townsend, Universidad de Sheffield, Reinos Unidos.

Nuevas investigaciones en la Universidad de Sheffield, Reinos Unidos, muestran que pueden extraer aceite de los granos de café perdidos para ser usados como biodiesel para automóviles y otras maquinarias.

La investigación está basada en una práctica en Nicaragua, y sigue la investigación científica de la Universidad de Nevada-Reno, quien anuncio en el 2008 que habían descubierto que el aceite extraído de granos de café antes usados o restos del mismo (chingaste) pueden ser reusados para hacer una nueva forma de biodiesel. La investigación de Sheffield muestra que el aceite de café puede ser directamente extraído en grandes cantidades a partir del grano de café fallado que crece en Latino América cada año.
Esta investigación podría tener futuras implicaciones y consecuencias para la industria, y también podría ser potencialmente mejorada las vidas de cafetaleros y pequeños productores de café en Centro América. Cada año, una significante proporción de la cosecha del café no puede ser exportada porque no tiene la calidad estándar demandada por los mercados internacionales. Este café defectivo y de tercero calidad posee mas aceite que el café de alta calidad, por lo tanto es ideal para la producción de aceite como biodiesel.
Vendiendo este café que se convierte en combustible y no en bebida (lo que demanda bajos precios para los productores) tendría mejor uso como aceite, de otra manera este café de baja calidad estaría en la basura, y a la vez proveería un potencial recurso sostenible de biodiesel. También, seria un proveedor barato de recursos de energía natural para los mismos productores de café.
Adicionalmente, separando una parte de este café de la cosecha requeriría menos tierra, ya que aceite de café proviene del granos no util, entonces no necesitas plantar mas café por este aceite, (como la soya, que necesita de diferentes plantaciones para sus diversos usos) evitando algunas de las mas controversiales dificultades alrededor de la industria del biodiesel.
Si esa nueva energía potencial puede ser producida comercialmente, podríamos muy pronto llenar los tanques de los carros así como nosotros mismos con una taza de café por la mañana.

(¡¡Muchisimos gracias a Diana y Jasmina por sus ayudar con mi gramatica!!)

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 5, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Nica Vs Tico

this time next week I will be on my way to Costa Rica. In a boat. I’ve already stayed in Nicaragua a month longer than I was expecting too, but I still reckon I could learn so much more if I stayed even longer… But I have a hubby and ferrets back home who I miss a great deal….

As for the coffee, one of the main reasons for this trip was to do comparisons between quality and waste on small, organic farms here, and massive commercial plantations in Costa Rica. Making those comparisons has so far been very easy, but not necessarily impartial. Telling people I am going to Costa Rica has met with mixed reactions, but none of them particularly positive.

One thing I love about Nicaraguans is the fact that they are all so opinionated. They are informed too, though, and very willing to voice their opinions, loudly and passionately, at every available opportunity. General consensus seems to be that Costa Rica is ‘bonita’ – pretty, but ‘caro’ – expensive. There are a lot more tourists there, which means the people are accustomed to seeing foreigners and I shouldn’t have to endure anymore “Chelita” cat calls and hissing from the ‘machistas’. Woohoo!!! But, at the same time, a lot of Nicas have warned me that ‘Ticos’ are ‘cerrado’ and ‘frio’ – not was warm and welcoming towards tourists as in Nicaraguans are.

When I have asked about Costa Rican coffee, I can rarely get past issues of national pride. Of course, all Nicaraguan coffee is much, much better than Tico coffee. ‘They don’t have the right geography’ (I am assuming this means climate, the volcanic soil, shade from cloud forest and altitude sound pretty similar to me). ‘They don’t do organic’ erm…. That remains to be seen, but I’m pretty confident they do. ‘It’s not good quality’ – why not? ‘it’s all machines, they don’t use traditional methods’. Ok, but I’ve still never worked out the advantage of ‘traditional methods’, other than the romance of it. I get the impression that farmers here would use machinery, if they could get hold of any. Such is national pride in their coffee however, that I’ve even had people tell me, including a respected journalist from one of the major newspapers, that sometimes Nicaraguan coffee is shipped to Costa Rica, repackaged and sold on as Tico coffee for a better price, meaning, of course, that Costa Rican coffee is only famous for being good quality because it’s actually Nicaraguan…..

You can’t engage in any debate like this in Nicaragua without dabbling in politics, which usually results in impassioned rants about the woeful state of the country, from both right and left wing supporters. Both sides agree, however, that the coffee industry is suffering immensely. From a Sandinista perspective, the country, and coffee production is crippled by the fact that Nicaragua is proudly left wing, and the ‘Gringos’ (Americans) won’t help, and won’t buy the coffee for this reason alone. The revolution bankrupted the country, (true, from whichever political perspective you happen to take) and all industries are still reeling from this. For the average Sandinista supporter, coffee growing is very much a nationalised, internal occupation, you grow your coffee to support your family and that’s it. There is little awareness of private investment, or of private companies actually profitting from the industry. Most of the big cooperatives here are government agencies. In turn, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) is the party of the poor, who trust that they will provide. Who else do they have?

From the more right wing vantage point, both liberal and conservative, the coffee farmers are surviving but not succeeding, and this is because of a lack of vision, a lack of stimulus to desire more than just a means of survival, and that way of thinking is a direct result of years of Sandinista government. The farmers feed the cooperatives, and the cooperatives feed the government. No-one works in coffee for themselves, so no-one makes a profit anymore. They say, before the 80s, everything was better for coffee. But after the Sandinistas took charge, there has been no private investment in El Campo and coffee has, effectively, stagnated. There is no development. (this may well be true, but although the Nicaraguan revolution happened in the late seventies/early 80s, the International Coffee Agreement also collapsed in the 80s, and the price of coffee crashed. So certainly in Nicaragua is impossible to tell whether the current situation is a result of revolution or world economics!)

Nicaragua has the natural resources to be a very rich, prosperous country. But it lacks the organisation and infrastructure to make use of it’s natural advantages. And this is, undeniably, a result of decades of political upset, revolution, civil war, foreign intervention and governmental corruption, and that applies to both left and right.

Costa Rica, as far as I can tell at the moment, are rich enough, and prosperous enough, to have developed the infrastructure sufficiently within the country to allow coffee farmers to access international markets, and this access is, for the majority, independent of the government. Consequently, the quality of the coffee, whether Nica or Tico, is irrelevant. Costa Rica can market their coffee internationally, Nicaragua can’t, or at least can’t so easily. And this fact is inescapable, even if the Nicas are right, and they really do produce better coffee.

Never talk religion, politics or coffee.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 1, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , ,