(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’?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!