Tag Archives: beans

Beanless coffee?

So, this is now a real product, being developed on Kickstarter:

Coffee… extract? I suppose. They seem to have extracted the molecules from coffee that produce the nice flavours and aromas, and then mixed them in with some sort of unidentified brown powder. You brew the result like real coffee, and it tastes… like the good bits of coffee but not the bitter notes?

I am totally for getting people not to alter their coffee with cream and sugar, and it is the bitter notes in coffee that people object to most.

But this raises sooo many questions:

What is the brown powder????

Why do we need the brown powder to brew it with? Why not make it soluble? (Answer: because brewing the coffee is part of the experience, apparently… sigh…)

What about the oils? Good espresso – well, any style of coffee really, needs the oils in the bean to produce that amazing body and mouthfeel, as well as containing most of the fragrance and freshness. How does this recreate that component?

Is it caffeinated?

Is it actually coffee???

Just…. WHY?


I am half-tempted to back the Kickstarter just to try some of this stuff.


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Posted by on February 11, 2019 in Uncategorized


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Building the bumpy road towards sustainability


Look! I dressed up and everything!

I was recently invited to speak at the Engineers Without Borders fundraising Gala at the Royal Saskatchewan Hotel. This was a little intimidating: very posh hotel, 150 people all in formal dress, paying a lot of money to hear me waffle on…. and me knowing very little about engineering! They knew I was the Official Local Coffee Geek though, so somehow I had to link coffee knowledge to engineers, along the general theme of “Building the Future”. This is what I came up with!

(Be warned, I had to speak for 20 minutes. Long Post Klaxon!)

What has coffee got to do with Engineering?

Well, the coffee was the first commodity and food industry to become Fairtrade certified. The Fairtrade Foundation was set up to help farmers who were living in poverty as a result of the crash in the global prices of coffee. The Fairtrade movement guarantees a minimum price for farmers to help stabilize the industry and to guarantee at least a minimum income from the crop of coffee. Furthermore, when international coffee buyers negotiate a contract under the Fairtrade scheme, they agree to pay not only a fair price for the coffee, but also an additional ‘social premium’ – around 10cents per pound of coffee. This social premium goes to the coffee cooperatives, and is used to fund projects that benefit the coffee farming community a whole. These projects can be anything from building schools for the local children, or irrigation and clean water projects to investing in new coffee processing technology at the cooperative’s coffee mill. This is where engineers and development workers are crucial to the coffee communities. Fairtrade schemes just provide the money, they don’t often get involved in the actual building!

I am going to talk about coffee farming in Nicaragua because this is where I did a lot of my own fieldwork. Nicaragua is a developing country, and nearly a third of its GDP comes from its coffee industry. The vast amajority of Nicaraguan coffee farms are less than 3 hectares in size, and are also located in remote, hard to reach areas. High quality coffee needs high altitude – over 800metres above sea level, and a very humid, warm climate and very fertile soil. Some regions of Nicaragua in the Northern highlands, in the cloudforests and on the side of volcanoes provide near-perfect coffee-growing conditions. A great deal of Nicaraguan coffee is grown organically too, in an effort to preserve the cloudforest biodiversity, so the coffee plants are grown in amongst other plants and trees, with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides used. This technique means the coffee tastes great and fetches higher prices for the farmers, but it also creates a great many infrastructure problems.

Small coffee farms are generally grouped together into cooperatives, in fact, the Fairtrade Foundation insists on them, and only gives Fairtrade Certification status to recognised, democratically based cooperatives. The cooperatives process the coffee from hundreds, sometimes thousands of farms. The coffee production process is very complex – it’s not just a case of picking it off the tree and roasting it. The farmers pick the coffee by hand, then depulp it, (meaning, take the fruit off it) on their own farm, meaning that each farmer has to have their own depulper machine (either handcranked or diesel powered). The coffee beans are then washed to remove the sticky fruit muscelage. The coffee beans then have to be dried out so that they lose at least 10% of their moisture, before they are transported to the central processing mills operated by the cooperative. At the processing mill, the coffee is “trilled” in a huge machine which essentially removes the now-brittle parchment like layer covering the beans. Then they are dried out further, spread out on huge concrete patios in the sun and turned regularly, and finally they are meticulously sorted to remove low quality, defective beans, first by hand, then by a very clever complicated machine, which detects the beans’ weigh, size, shape, density, and colour, and grades the crop accordingly. Only then can it be sold to international buyers.

In recent years, the coffee commodity price has recovered well, and the price of it on the global markets has far exceeded the Fairtrade guaranteed minimum. But to get the very best prices, farmers have to produce the very best quality coffee – and customers are getting more and more discerning. The quality can be affected by any number of climatic and environmental factors, and much like wine, there are good and bad years for coffee, and variations between coffee grown in Nicaragua and coffee grown in Ethiopia, for instance. Some variation in quality can be controlled by the farmers, and their skills and most significantly, the access they have to some resources has a huge bearing on the coffee’s quality.  This is where the Fairtrade social premium comes in.

In order to preserve the coffee’s quality, certain parts of the production process have to be performed within certain time frames. On the farm, the fruit has to be removed from the beans within 24 hours, otherwise it can start to ferment, which damages the flavour of the coffee. Similarly, the beans must be transported to the cooperative’s processing mill as soon as possible, so that the beans can be dried out quickly and farmers can minimize the risk of damage from unexpected rain or from pests whilst the coffee is on the farm.

Transporting coffee to the cooperative processing mill is not as simple as it sounds. As mentioned previously, the farms are usually halfway up mountains and in tropical cloudforests. In many parts of Nicaragua, irrigations is a huge problem too: in winter, it is too dry and the ground cracks or turns to sand, and landslides are common. In summer, areas can flood and roads can be cut off entirely by mudslides. If there are actual roads, they are usually unpaved, steep and tightly curled around the mountains, and can be virtually impassable without a large and powerful 4×4 vehicle – which are well beyond the budgets of the farmers. With hundreds of farms spread out over large areas, the cooperative cannot practically manage coffee collections themselves, so the farmers have to transport their coffee by their own means. I did see one farmer negotiating a steep mountain track with a 100lb sack of coffee beans strapped to the back of his little 125cc motorbike, but otherwise, they are forced to use the rural bus service, that is, very old yellow school buses donated from the United States, which serve as the only form of public transport. As you can imagine, neither is a particularly ideal option, but the risk of damaging the coffee crop – that often represents the entire annual income for the farming families – is too great, and so they always find a way!

Another big issue in Nicaraguan coffee regions is that of water pollution. Washing the sticky fruit mucilage off coffee beans on the farms requires a source of clean running water, and quite a lot of it too. Whereas most farmers do have access to this at least, supplies are still limited and washing the coffee has its own set of problems.

In neighbouring Costa Rica, farmers are required by law to purify and reuse water on coffee farms, which is far easier to achieve when Costa Rican farmers have the resources to purify water already installed on the farms. In Nicaragua however, farmers cannot afford this sort of technology, and the cooperatives are not in a position to implement it either. Water containing coffee mucilage is extremely acidic, and if it is left to just run off the farms and soak into the earth, it can strip important nutrients from the soil, which potentially damages the following year’s crop, as well as any other plants in the vicinity. In the worst case scenario, run-off water can enter the water table and exacerbate existing flooding, and also enter the water supply intended for human consumption.

Maintaining and enhancing coffee’s quality is paramount to the farmers’ livelihoods, as the best, most sustainable prices are paid for the highest quality coffee. However, the quality of the crop depends a great deal on the farmer’s ability to manage the logistics of processing coffee beans, and on his access to resources and technology.

The Fairtrade social premium paid to the cooperatives provides the financial resources to aid the farmers’ often precarious situation, but in practical terms, a lot of the work needs to be developed by skilled, knowledgeable engineers. If farmers cannot afford 4×4 trucks, then mountain roads must be improved and maintained so that transporting coffee is made easier and more efficient. To avoid pollution, irrigation needs to be properly managed and developed, and the farmers must be provided with the technology (and technical know-how) to purify and reuse their water supplies. None of these problems are insurmountable but they do require the help of skilled infrastructure experts, and most importantly, engineers who actually understand the coffee industry, and who can see what needs to be done to help the farmers and to improve the quality of the coffee we all take for granted.


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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Oil slick rescue!

Ye gads!!!!
What an adventure. Today I (unintentionally) came to the rescue of a coffee shop (which had better remain nameless). The problem? Espresso machine pulling shots too short (ie: not enough water running through the coffee.) It was also flashing its lights rather pathetically, hissing worryingly when it refilled and also beginning to leak hot water out of the side of the machine!

Pressure and temperature dials seemed normal and there was no obvious cause of the leak. So, I tried to reprogram it to increase the volume of water going through the coffee. No joy. The espresso was just dripping out, incredibly thick and black and sludgey, and a double shot took over two minutes to pour. It tasted vile and coated the roof of your mouth like bitter tar.

So I thought, maybe it’s just ground too finely. I adjusted the grind – it was very finely ground, like icing sugar, but seemed to be clumping together too. Even turning the grinder to its most coarse setting didn’t improve the espresso, so I turned it back again and ground some more in case it was a one-off blip. It was no anomaly; the second batch resulted in the grinder getting blocked as well and I had to poke the stuff out with the end of a spoon. So we decided to give the machines the benefit of the doubt, and tried to pull a shot using decaf espresso from another grinder. This shot worked perfectly!!

The Doctor’s diagnosis?

REALLY terrible coffee!


The decaf shot was what gave it away. There was nothing wrong with the espresso machine, it was the coffee going in to it that was causing the problems. On closer inspection, it was roasted really, really darkly. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but next to the decaf espresso, the beans looked black and very shiny. Rubbing ground coffee between my fingers felt really greasy – a sign of very low quality coffee (higher quality arabica has less oil content). The fact that it was blocking the grinder tells me exactly how greasy it was – coffee should not do that! And even very very finely ground coffee should never be so thick as to withstand the espresso machine pushing water through under 15 atmospheres of pressure.

Here’s the beans. They look safe enough, don’t they? Looks can be deceptive.

In the end, we just had to throw the beans away. A different blend of espresso roasted by another company but made in the same grinder and with the same espresso machine, worked fine and poured a nice shot. The roast can make A LOT of difference!

Here is the bag of machine-breaking beans, just in case you were wondering. Take note of the roaster’s logo.



Posted by on March 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


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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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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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