Tag Archives: Costa Rica

The Great Coffee Dictionary Project

Reblogging this from coffeebyproxy – another coffee blog by fellow coffee anthropologist, Kate in Colorado. I am going to add my bits as soon as I have time (gulp!), but if you are linguistically gift coffee lover, then please feel free to contribute!


The Great Coffee Dictionary Project.

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Posted by on June 23, 2014 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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My Book is out!!

Here it is!!!

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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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My Life in Coffee

Time for some pretty pictures.
It occurs to me that I’ve been messing around in the coffee industry for six years now. I’ve had a lot of adventures and learned a huge amount. Coffee has taken me all over the place, from the Voodoo Cafe in Darlington in 2006 (where it all began in earnest), Durham for Caffe Nero in 2007, to Sheffield for the PhD for the next four and a half years, London for Caffe Culture and other research gigs on numerous occasions, then Ohio, and Guatemala City for conferences in 2010, six months in Nicaragua and Costa Rica for fieldwork in 2008-9, back to Darlington for my coffee van in 2009, Afternoon Tease in 2010, my first ever North East Coffee Festival and Doctor Coffee’s Cafe in 2011, and finally to Regina, Saskatchewan for 13th Ave Coffee House in 2012. Oh and my book is being published by a German publisher. It’s been quite a journey!

Here’s some highlights! These are in no particular order and there are a lot of them!

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Posted by on September 29, 2012 in Uncategorized


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We’re going on a coffee hunt!

“I do find the world of business fascinating,” says Peter as I try, somewhat confused, to explain why I am going all the way up to North Berwick, not far from Edinburgh, to buy Nicaraguan coffee, which actually came from Pumphreys in Newcastle in the first place.

I am too small, or at least, Doctor Coffee’s Cafe is too small. The cooperative in Nicaragua cannot sell me coffee directly, because it is simply not worth their while to export such small quantities. Instead, I tried Pumphreys, who do get Nicaraguan coffee – from Cecocafen -in stock. But again, Pumphreys do not sell enough pure Nicaraguan to make it worth roasting and retailing themselves. They sell huge sacks of green Matagalpan coffee to Howdah’s Tea and Coffee Company in North Berwick, who roast it to order, and will then sell it on to me, back in Darlington. This is just one example of why my Theory of Commodity Fishnets gets so complicated.

It is also an example of how so many attempts at ‘ethical’ trading are thwarted in this industry. I tried! I really tried! I am writing a paper at the moment for the ‘AcKnowledging Ethical Economies’ section of the Royal Geographical Society conference, and mine concentrates on the idea of Direct Trade. In simple terms, this just means coffee retailers are actually visiting the plantations and buying directly from the farmers, or at least, the cooperatives, and then roasting it themselves, straight to their customers. In academic terms, this serves to strengthen and shorten the links in the commodity ‘chain’, shares knowledge of coffee between producer and consumer and thus, theoretically makes trading somewhat more equal, and allows consumers to ‘engage’ more with what they are buying. There are of course, some flaws to this arrangement: namely, my issues with how much control and influence the buyers have. I don’t think this Knowledge is actually shared that equally, and we’re back to the subjective cupping-as-quality-control problem. But that is a whole other paper.

In economic terms, which for Doctor Coffee is more important, Direct Trade cuts out the middlemen. The less people there are in the chain, the less the money has to be shared. This can mean coffee is a bit cheaper for me, but also that the farmers actually get a bigger proportion of the price. I have managed this with my Costa Rican coffee. Cafe Cristina grow, process and roast the coffee and ship it to me, and I turn it into drinks in my Ape. Simples! But with the Nicaraguan stuff, this simplicity has so far eluded me. Instead, I have to pay the farmers, the Solcafe workers who process it, the importers and the roasters, and chase it around the country before I can actually use it to sell cappuccinos to the Darlington masses.

I would love to be able to tell you that this is why your average coffee is so expensive. But it isn’t the reason. A £2.25 cappuccino from Caffe Nero also includes the cost of the milk, cup, baristas’ wages, rent, electricity, tax, branding, insurance….I have plenty of overheads with Doctor Coffee’s as well, so I am not going to say exactly how much the Nicaraguan coffee works out as. Suffice to say though, the proportion of the price that actually makes its way back to the farmers in Matagalpa is depressingly small. And there seems to be very little I can do about it!

North Berwick

North Berwick




Posted by on August 9, 2009 in Uncategorized


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World Barista Championships

Woo… it all happened. This year, in Atlanta.


And he’s the British guy! Gwilym Davies. Yay!! Finally, we win something.
Actually, we seem to do very well at the competitive art form that is making coffee. 2008’s winner was Irish, and 2007’s was British as well.  Strange that a source of national pride (at least, in certain circles) comes from coffee? Maybe we no longer cling to our teapots as much as everyone thought.

Gwilym Davies was apparently using a 50% Costa Rican blend of coffee anyway. I am debating whether to look up to see how the Costa Rican entrant did. I saw the national finals in San Jose while I was there, and it was won by a girl called Auren Hortensia Chacon Leiva. I remember thinking at the time it was pretty obvious she was going to win from the start – she was very, very good. But unfortunately not world class.

I am still finding it very hard to associate events like the Barista championships with the conditions on the coffee farms. This is not one joined up industry, by a long way.

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Posted by on April 20, 2009 in Uncategorized


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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

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Posted by on February 26, 2009 in Uncategorized


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