Tag Archives: nicaragua

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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Spring Greens

I meant to post this the other day for Earth Day, or better yet, a few weeks ago after Earth Hour at the end of March. Of course, everyone turned out their lights at the allotted time then, so the planet has been rescued and we can all breathe a sigh of relief as we all get back in our cars and switch our screens on again….

Excuse the sarcasm. I just don’t get Earth Day. Isn’t every day Earth Day? It’s not like we go anywhere else often, is it?

I am on a bit of a Green coffee kick nowadays, however. I don’t mean Green coffee as in, raw coffee, although I do have some large sacks of that in the basement at the moment. Nor do I mean the likes of Nescafe Green Blend. Despite that still being the most commented on post on this blog, I haven’t actually seen many anti-oxident filled, weight-loss marketed, gimicky and green-washed coffee products in quite a while. Maybe they haven’t reached Canada yet. This is a very good thing.

What I mean this time, is environmentally-friendly coffee, if that isn’t an oxymoron. I’ve already written a great deal about organic and/or sustainably produced coffee, and there are very many issues with it. In brief, organic coffee is far more difficult and more risky for impoverished farmers to grow – sometimes is it not worth the investment of time, labour and resources to grow a crop that may well be eaten by pests before it can be harvested. Then there are the high-end buyers who refuse to buy organic coffee under the impression that using chemical fertilizers optimises the quality of the beans….

Of course, the farmer-friendly alternative involves cutting down the cloudforests and destroying the biodiversity in the tropics, just to grow a cash crop.

In summary then, it is very very difficult to grown coffee in an environmentally-friendly way. But given that millions of people’s livelihoods depend on those crops, can we not just consume it better?

I am trying to do my bit. My last post was ranting and raving about how wasteful Keurig k-cups and other coffee pods are. Getting rid of them would be a start. I am soon going to launch the first ‘green’, trike-drawn coffee cart in Regina (not actually green, more, PURPLE) – it’ll be the only food truck downtown that doesn’t have an engine too.


I am also selling reusable travel mugs, and CupCuffs – very stylish, reusable sleeves for your takeaway coffees that don’t involve cutting down trees to make cardboard disposable ones. (FYI, they’re made in Canada too, not sewn by small Korean children and shipped around the world).

I also saw this the other day:

I’d love to see that in Regina – it may be a while yet though…

Recent studies claiming that arabica coffee could be wiped out by climate change in as little as 80 years were widely reported, but the one that stuck with me most poignantly was this:

Mainly because it highlights the devastation in my beloved Nicaragua. I can as flippant as I like about Earth Hour and associated first-world hand-wringing, but this – this is serious.

So what can we do? Not stop drinking the coffee. Stopping drinking coffee just makes it worse – the farmers still have to sell it to someone! The whole globalised market is not suddenly going to disappear over night, no matter how much I dislike Starbucks/Nestle/Keurig/insert-latest-fashionable-boycott-here. Instead, do as the farmers tell us:

Coffee picker Myra Carmen Chavarría in Atuna Uno was amazed when I told her that I spent £2 or more every day on a cappuccino. “If you love coffee in your country that much, you need to help us survive to grow it for you!”

Simple really: pay more for it, or lose it. Paying a higher price for coffee won’t cure climate change, but it will certainly help the farmers cope with that climate change better. Or, start learning to love Robusta coffee that is more resilient to climate change and disease – and tastes far worse.

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Posted by on April 24, 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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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!!)

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Posted by on February 5, 2009 in Uncategorized


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