Tag Archives: waste

Keurig? I’ll just have a nice hot shot of printer ink instead…!

I don’t think I’ve ever actually written about Keurig on here.

I kinda didn’t want to acknowledge their existence in the hope that they just died a death quietly in the corner. However, despite my abhorrence, they are incredibly popular still, and I really cannot fathom why.

At my current office job, we have fairly dreadful, stale old drip coffee, but it is cheap and hot and readily available. On the floor above us, the other department has a Keurig machine, which is considered LUXURY in this company. Our supervisor’s desk is full of little pods that he sneaks upstairs to brew on their machine when they aren’t looking. He lent me one once during an Out of Coffee Crisis on our floor. I actually prefer the stale drip…

I honestly cannot understand the fascination with Keurig – or any of the other pod-brands, Tassimo, Starbuck’s Verisimo, Nespresso etc. Their fans cry “but.. convenience! speed!” – really? how? By the time you’ve waited for it to heat up, clipped in your k-cup and waited for it to ooze into your cup, you might as well have boiled the kettle and made a pour over or a French Press. “But it makes just one cup at a time!” – again, why is that a good thing? In the other department, there must be at least 30 people sharing one Keurig machine. Making a big potful is not only easier, it’s also more sociable. If you want to make coffee for just one person with a French Press, just put less coffee and less water in, simples!

This office is not the only place I’ve encountered Keurigs, I worked somewhere with one over the summer and had no choice but to drink it. I tried everything in it – every brand, every different variety/flavour I could lay my hands on (yes, flavour, even “cinnabun” or Irish Cream flavoured k-cups – both were undrinkable!). I never found a single one that didn’t taste stale. I know the pods are sealed and air tight, but you’ve no way of knowing how old the pre-ground coffee was when it was put in the pod!! Fresh is most definitely best.

Then of course, there’s this:



Keurig is made by a company called Green Mountain Coffee, but the only ‘Green’ I can see is that bin, above. I mentioned that K-cups are airtight and plastic – this unfortunately means non-recyclable plastic and lined foil lids glued on, so the different materials can’t be sorted in order to be recycled. So, even if everyone in the upstairs department has just one k-cup a day, that is 30 plastic pots going into landfill every day, plus all the creamer pots for their beloved double-doubles (cos woe betide anyone who ever has actual fresh milk in our fridge!!). It is disgustingly, needlessly wasteful.

But! I hear ye cry, You can get reusable, refillable k-cups!

Yes, you can:


But, why would you want to? Why spent $100+ on a Keurig machine and buy refillable pods, and not just put your coffee in a French Press which costs a tenth of the price? I don’t get it.

However, it gets worse:

It is worth reading that article if you are offended by this rant – they are far more balanced than I am. In brief though, Keurig are launching a new version of their machine, only this time, the pods are going to be DRM-protected. This means, only official Keurig-branded k-cups will fit in the machine. Pirated copies (?) won’t work. So no more buying the cheaper varieties from Costco. No more Timmies or Dunkin Donuts versions. And no more refillable ones. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure someone will “hack” the DRM soon enough, my point is just that instead of doing something about their packaging waste, Keurig have decided patenting is more important than the environment, and have now made it impossible to use their machine in a more eco-friendly, sustainable manner.

It is the same technology that allows various inkjet printer companies to stop you using unbranded printer cartridges, or stops you refilling them – so you end up with a situation where it is cheaper to throw out the whole printer and buy a new one, than it is to buy replacement cartridges for the original. Printer ink is the most expensive liquid in the world, followed by Chanel No.5, then champagne, bottled water, then maple syrup which is still more expensive than crude oil! I am fairly sure k-cups follow along not far behind, particularly when you factor in the environmental cost of the plastic pods.

When “researching” this post, I came across someone else’s hashtag: #killthekcup ! I won’t got that far, but I remain convinced that k-cups are giant bras, and pods are for whales and alien hatchlings only, and neither should be confused with coffee makers. Don’t do it, folks!


Posted by on March 6, 2014 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , ,

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.


1 Comment

Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Mid Point Conference

Last week (30th April) we all had to troll down to the Royal Geographical Society in London, to present papers about our findings at the half -way point in the Waste of the World program. This was a lot of work. Here is mine, Anna and Joby’s conference presentation.











Leave a comment

Posted by on May 3, 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: , , , , , ,

Mi proyecto – en español

Mi nombre es Annabel Townsend y soy una estudiante de la Universidad de Sheffield en Inglaterra. Tengo un proyecto para mi tesis de post-grado sobre café en Nicaragua y Costa Rica. Me gustaría conversar con ustedes sobre esto.

Estoy en el segundo año de mi post-grado. En el último año, he estado leyendo documentos académicos sobre la producción de café, la historia del café en América Latina, y también sobre globalización y los mercados internacionales.

Antes, estudiaba Antropología. Este proyecto es desde el departamento de Geografía Humana en mi universidad, y todavía tengo un interés fuerte en estudios culturales, también de café y socio-económicos.

Mi proyecto ahora es con un programa de búsqueda se llama “The Waste of the World” o La Basura del Mundo, y financiada por el Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) en Inglaterra. El objetivo de este programa es estudiar conceptos de basura y calidad en las industrias globales. Soy una de tres estudiantes trabajando con las industrias internacionales de comidas y agriculturas y he escogido estudiar sobre café porque es la segunda industria más grande en el mundo, y también la ‘calidad’ es muy importante en los mercados de hoy.

Mi intención con este proyecto es seguir los granos de café desde la producción en las fincas aquí en Nicaragua, hasta los beneficios de cafè, y las cooperativas, y entonces a tostadores en Inglaterra y finalmente a los cafetines y tiendas de café en mi país. Quiero conocer las diferencias entre café orgánico de Nicaragua, y café convencional de Costa Rica, porque en Inglaterra, usamos los dos igualmente. Estoy interesada en las diferencias en sabor y calidad, y también en los métodos de producción.

Después de mi trabajo en Nicaragua y Costa Rica, voy a regresar a Inglaterra, donde tengo contactos con compañías de café. Espero trabajar y estudiar en una compañía de tostadores internacionales, se llama Coburg Coffee Company en Londres. Coburg Coffee Company tuestan café para una compañía grande de cafetines en Inglaterra, se llama Caffe Nero. Caffe Nero tienen cerca de 400 tiendas de café en el país. Desde hace dos años, yo he trabajado en Caffe Nero como una Barista, entonces, conozco la compañía muy bien.

Mis estudios con estas compañías será el mismo que en Nicaragua. Explorare sus conceptos de calidad en la producción de café, y también me gustaría ver qué pasa con basura que generan en los diferentes procesos.

La información que yo recolecte estará publicada en mi tesis en mi universidad y también en parte del programa de Waste of the World. Todos los detalles estarán disponibles desde esta universidad en Inglaterra, y daré créditos a todos mis colaboradores. Pero, si ustedes prefieran, pueden ser anónimos. No voy a incluir información sin consentimiento de ustedes.

Agradeciendo mucho su ayuda y su colaboración con este proyecto. He incluido mis preguntas preliminares para ustedes, y espero podamos conversar mas en el futuro.
Muchas gracias.


Posted by on December 5, 2008 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , ,

Crap Coffee

A large part of this project is about ideas of coffee quality, and some of the best coffees in the world are produced here in Nicaragua. Professional cuppers from the Speciality Association of America rate Nicaraguan, organic, shade and altitude grown coffees well into the 90s on their cupping scale. There is no shortage of the stuff either. Bernabe’s coffee from his little farm in La Corona averages at 85 points during the cupping tests at Cecocafen (the cooperative that has its own cupping laboratory). I spent the weekend at Finca Esperanza Verde, whose 15 manzanas of coffee also goes to Cecocafen, where is has won countless awards, including one to say that coffee typifies the flavours of the region – this is truly terroir coffee, held in as much esteem as champagne is in France. And the farmers are very proud of their crops.

But at present, I do not know enough about cupping to judge quality for myself. I just have to take their word for it – which I am loathe to do, especially when it comes to the SCAA. So, how do I ‘study’ quality? One way of truly knowing something, understanding it properly, is to look at it’s opposite. So, today I am concentrating on utterly crap coffees. Even though I am in the heart of the coffee lands, finding crap coffee was actually a lot easier than expected.

On the breakfast table

On the breakfast table

When I first arrived in Matagalpa and met my new landlady, Emma, I told her I was here to study coffee. This she took to heart, and for my first breakfast in the house, I was greeted with a large jar of Nescafe ‘Clasico’ – instant coffee. Emma was oddly proud of this, and I found out later that it was a special gift, she was showing off. Nescafe Instant is very expensive here, more so, infact than the exceedingly good quality, freshly ground stuff! I went round the supermarket this morning, and sure enough, all the varieties of coffee were piled up together. 100g jar Nescafe Clasico Cafe Soluble= 69 cordobas (just over £2). 1lb bag of ‘export quality’ Matagalpan ground coffee= 34 cordobas. Half the price!

There is also “Cafe Presto” which I reluctantly bought a foil packet of, (for research purposes only, you understand!). Cafe Presto is another brand of instant coffee, but is entirely Nicaraguan – grown, produced and marketed here. On the back, in Spanish and translated into rather bizarre English, it says “Our coffee is harvested in high grounds where the climate and the special care cause the grains of coffee that we select to prepare our Presto Instant Coffee.” Underneath that it helpfully informs me that it contains “100% coffee”. Useful. The slogan screams “¡Reanimando Nicaragua!” (reanimating Nicaragua) – but the people pictured enjoying this stuff on the packet do not look very animated, or even Nicaraguan for that matter.

The offending item

The offending item

Racial undertones aside, my main question concerning Presto is just – what on earth is in it? Surely they can’t be using their fantastic quality organic arabica to make instant crap? And if they are, WHY? Is there really such a demand for instant coffee here that they will use their precious speciality crops to produce it? If so, why do they then sell instant coffee at prices too expensive for the average Nicaraguan to afford? Instant coffee as a luxury item is a very new and strange concept for me. Another comparison with the wine industry – this is like going to Italy and finding that they are all lusting after Blue Nun!!

It could of course be robusta coffee. They do grow some robusta in Nicaragua. So far all the farmers I’ve spoken to say there is some, but of course, they don’t grow it themselves, their neighbours might though… It is not something you casually admit to. Javiar at Finca Esperanza Verde said there was no need to grow robusta on that farm, because they had the altitude (1300m above sea level) and climate to grow arabica. Robusta, as the name suggests, is more robust, it can survive lower temperatures and with more rain, and also grows at lower altitudes. Robusta is for coffee farmers who haven’t got the geography. (“like in Costa Rica” as several people have said, always somewhat smugly).

Cecocafen, being a FairTrade certified cooperative, also accept what they call “cafe convencional” – non organic, lower quality stuff, and pay the fair trade rate for it. Bernabe at La Corona prefers to grow the highest quality he can, because it commands a price considerably higher than the fair trade rate. But if something goes wrong, he knows Cecocafen provide the safety net and he can still sell the lower quality beans there. This, he says, is the main reason why “his neighbours” grow robusta. It is a fail-safe. Robusta crops are far less likely to fail. and they are easier to grow in the first place. Some of the farmers, particularly in that area (which is at 800m, considerably lower than Esperanza Verde) grow both varieties of coffee, “just in case.” Robusta trees are usually a bit taller than arabica, and so the robusta can also be used to shade the quality crop.

So, this all suggests that there is opportunity, incentive, market and seemingly a demand for crap coffee in Nicaragua. But as ever, there is also almost a sense of shame, of taboo. And maybe even a sense of ´waste´if I can construct this concept coherantly. Crap coffee definitely exists here, but no-one really wants to talk about it. They all much prefer to tell me about their quality – which is just as useful in the long run!!


Posted by on December 1, 2008 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , ,

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


Tags: , , , , , ,

Selva Negra

My first visit to Selva Negra – a completely organic farm north of Matagalpa, set up and run by a German couple, Eddy and Mausi Kuhl. The farm produces around 5000 sacks of award winning, shade grown arabica coffee every year. There are 150 permenant workers there, all housed on site, paid $100 a month, given three meals a day and there´s even a school for the 64 children on the farm, and three baseball teams!
Eddy and Mausi took over in 1975, and reserved a third of the land to natural forest, a third for coffee, and the rest to farm buildings which house the workers and pasture for cattle, pigs and chickens. Eddy has written book, “Nicaragua y su cafe” – i’ve got to try and find that on Amazon! I met Eddy very briefly (as my guidebook says, they are both happy to give you a tour but only they are not busy, which is not often!). He seemed very enthusiastic when I said I was a student of coffee, and everyone else I’ve met says he never stops talking, so he could prove very handy for this project!

The coffee is processed at a ‘beneficio’ or mill which is attached to the main farm house. However, this roaster is very small, and they only roast a little for domestic sales – you can buy bags of their coffee in the souvenir shop or at the Coffee Museum in Matagalpa for instance. (and yes, i bought some!) 80% of the main crop is exported to the States, and the other 20% to Spain – this is all exported green (unroasted) however.

Unsurprisingly, the farm is certified organic, and also has the Rainforest Alliance stamp. In 1995 it won a “Semper Virens” award (‘always green’) from the International Ecological Summit. The only stamp they don’t carry is FairTrade – but they don’t need it. They are SCAA members, the coffee obviously commands a very steep price, even during the coffee crisis, and the workers are looked after very well indeed. This may be one example where I will agree with the Cup of Excellence people, it is quality coffee which makes money just by being high quality. However, this is also a large, private farm set in near-perfect coffee growing area. What they do here couldn’t necessary be done on tiny farms within community owned cooperatives.

The green credentials are extremely impressive however. The biggest polluter in coffee production, particularly in wet processing like this is waste water which is used to wash the coffee cherries off the beans. The water gets extremely acidic with the fruit juices and on most farms, is pumped into the nearest river. Here, however, it goes through a two-tank pressurised purification system that uses the porous volcanic rocks to filter the water. These tanks allow the juice to ferment until biogas can be collected – this is used for cooking on the farm. The remaining water makes its way round the farm in over 1km of PVC piping, and evertually makes it to their hydroelectric plant, which also uses natural streams and a lake to power the turbine and provide electricity to all the farm buildings.

Biogas and/or methane is also collected from an anaerobic digestor. All other organic waste, including human waste from the compost toilets, cattle manure and chicken waste/bedding is added to these digestors. Once the gases have been collected, the solid waste joins the decomposing coffee cherries as worm food in the delightfully enormous worm farm, and comes out again a few weeks later as perfect compost.

No part of the coffee plant is wasted, as even the husks (parchment) are burnt under the huge grills in the kitchen – apparently coffee-smoked meat tastes fantastic, and I can well believe it! (the restaurant on site serves authentic German smoked sausage from the farms pigs – i wonder if they were coffee smoked too? They were exceptionally good!) The ashes from these grills are then mixed with water, until they can be used as liquid fertiliser on the crops again.

Other plants are also used throughout the farm as natural, sustainable ways of crop protection. Banana trees shade the coffee and feed both the workers and the cows, tall, strong yucca plants provide windbreaks and protect against landslides, a special type of moss is grown specifically on slopes to avoid soil erosion in heavy rains (and trust me, there is a lot of heavy rain in those mountains!!) They even grow eucalyptus trees, then shred the leaves, mix them with water and spray it on the coffee plants as a natural insect repellant. Finally, the very clever red bottles trap the ‘brocas’ (coffee weevils) – but even they die drunk and happy.

I came away from this first trip mightily, mightily impressed (and soaking wet). I think my two companions for the day, Dean and Julie, were a little taken aback with quite how geeky and excited i got by it all, but they both said the found it interesting too so I am not quite mad. However, I now have a million questions for Eddy and Mausi, the main ones being, how on earth did they design all these green processes?? And more importantly, does any of this ecological wonderfulness actually affect the flavour and quality of the coffee? I did ask, and was told by our guide for the day, Manuel, that it would be possible for me to come pick coffee there when the harvest begins properly in a week or so. I’m not entirely sure if he was taking me seriously, however. I have every intention of going back up there on Monday though, so we shall see!


Posted by on November 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , ,

Old news is still bad news for Starbucks.

The great drain robbery | The Sun |News

Have a looksee at that, dear reader. It may be tabloid sensationalism but it is still pretty shocking all the same. (I haven’t read the Sun in years, and to be honest the simplicity of the language in it surprised me more than the content of the article – but I admit I am turning into an Guardian-reading intellectual snob very quickly!)

So, they leave taps running constantly so that “germs do not breed in the tap”. Riiight. It makes me wonder why the person who came up with that is allowed out in public really. I thought nowadays, there was help for people with that level of germ-phobic OCD.
Flippancy aside, it does defy logic. Does anyone who turns a tap off at home then risk catching … I dunno, typhoid (?) from all these evil bugs in the taps? What about bugs breeding in the constant puddle of water that must collect in the sinks under these taps? Are Starbucks now going to be responsible for a UK outbreak of malaria?

If you extend this train of thought though, what about the other machinery in a coffee shop which use water? Are the dish washers to be in constant use, in case water stagnates in the pipes at the back of them? And what about the coffee machine itself? Those are plumbed directly into the mains, and water is drawn into the tank and heated until it is used in coffee. As the tank empties, more water is drawn into it. Presumably even Starbucks closes for a few hours a day – to stop germs breeding inside the coffee machine, minimum-wage baristas should be employed 24/7 to continually pull water through the tank! Just in case!

Ye Gads, people….

All coffee shops have a lot of waste, mostly organic waste too. Everything from water waste (even without idiotic policies like that, there is still a lot of waste water; at our Durham Caffe Nero, we had to hand wash dishes, and then put them through the glass rinse as well to make sure – we did not have room for an industrial dishwasher!) – to waste coffees when the baristas made mistakes, to branded packaging, to throwing out un-sold sandwiches and pastries that are still perfectly edible, to wasting 10-15 kg of used coffee grounds per shop, per day – which could all be composted but usually ends up in landfill. All these forms of waste are usually an accepted, or at least, unquestioned part of coffee shop life.They only become an issue – they are only labelled as ‘Waste’ with all the word’s negative connotations, when people outside the coffee shop become aware of it. For those working there, it’s just ‘what you do.’

For example, here Starbucks Responds To Water Waste Criticism In China
– it is the same issue, someone found out about Starbucks leaving the taps running all day, criticised the company in the media, and Starbucks then tries to justify it with their imbecilic healthy and safety policy. But more significantly, LOOK AT THE DATE OF THE ARTICLE: October 2007. The Sun’s expose is not actually a new revelation, but more significantly, it means that Starbucks have carried on wasting this water, even though there were public concerns about the issue a full year ago.

For me, the issue is not just the unjustifiable, unethical waste of water, it’s the fact that Starbucks are so big, they think they are beyond criticism. They continue with their wasteful practices because the company is arrogant enough not to take any heed of the views of its customers. I avoid Starbucks anyway, but I am in the minority. If what I’ve written here has affected you – vote with your wallet. Just don’t go there!!



Oo, guess what? They’ve decided there might just be other ways to wash things up other than leaving taps running…

That’s big of them…

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 6, 2008 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , ,

Caffeinated Musings from the Teenage Fanclub

I have spent a significant amount of time in the last year trying to avoid Customers. For me, coffee shop customers are not really relevant. One of the main concerns and trains of thought within the Waste of the World programme is waste as part of the production process – often integral to production, and not just the end result of consumption. Therefore, I am interested in what, if anything, gets wasted as coffee beans are processed into the branded caffeinated-beverage-of-choice in UK coffee shops. Customers consume; they are not part of the production process, although, admittedly, they are the reason for the production process.

However, with some not so subtle persuasion from my supervisors, I have been convinced to do a few focus groups with customers in the cafes I am studying. Customers can create waste in their own way. The most obvious way being, if for whatever reason they do not like the coffee they are served, they complain, and the coffee drink is wasted. There are also more indirect ways in which the customer is responsible for waste. I am trying to argue within this project that very high quality coffees are more wasteful to produce. Therefore, if the customers demand high quality coffee, then more has to be wasted in order to supply that demand. In some cases, I would also suggest that the level of skill involved – not just by the barista, but by the farmers and roasters as well, is wasted on the customers who just want the caffeine content for instance. Then there are other even more subjective things like wasting time in coffee shops, and wasting money on overpriced fashionable coffee brands. And so on and so forth. Eventually, they wore me down, and I agreed to interview some customers to find out, essentially, how fussy they are.

My first ‘focus group’ – and I use the term very loosely in this sense, was with the self-defined ‘Teenage Fanclub’ – that is, a bunch of teenagers who I knew from when they used to take up space and not spend anything in the Voodoo Cafe, but who very kindly followed me to Caffe Nero when I started working there instead. They all do still go out to coffee shops of varying sorts, they all knew each other even if they didn’t know me, and they will talk for hours and hours with little prompting. So I thought they would be a good group to start with.

Having co-ordinated with “the first official layabout of the cafe” and told him to meet me in Nero and “bring friends”, we took over the back of the cafe, ordered eight different drinks at once which annoyed the barista until she realised how much it all came to, and then proceeded to ramble on about anything that came in to their heads about coffee in the full knowledge that I was recording this for vaguely sensible purposes. The one thing I’d forgotten in all of this is how tiring controlling the conversation of a bunch of over-confident, raucous adolescents is. I used to do this on a daily basis, whilst simultaneously cooking and making coffee for them, six days a week. That part of my life seems an incredibly long time ago now. I can’t decide if I actually miss it.

Most of the "Focus group" being "rewarded" with Nero coffee

Most of the 'focus group' in Darlington's Caffe Nero

In amongst the idiocies (and there were plenty), this bunch did actually say some useful things -especially about why they went to specific places:


Well you know I tend to go to In Arcadia but if you’re gonna go to one the old high street chains in Darlo then I tend to go to Coffee @ Elliots cos they don’t pretend to be Italian and you can go in there and say “I’ll have a large black coffee please and you’ll get a Large Black Coffee. No bloody Frenchy americano or whatever it is.

Although they did appreciate that customer service was important, they did not appreciate conspicuously being sold a brand:

Bel: Has anyone ever been to Starbucks in Darlington?
Grem: (very quickly) NO.
Timmus: Yeah…
Vince: Yeah, it’s terrible
Rose: Really overpriced
Sadie: I wouldn’t have but other people dragged me in.
Grem: That one (pointing at Meg) dragged me in to a Stabucks in Newcastle
Meg: I’ve not been to our Starbucks, not when the cappuccinos are nearly twice as much
Grem: Yeah but once when we were out in Newcastle –
Meg: Yeah but there were other people there telling us to come in…
Grem: Yeah I suppose
Bel: So would you see Neros are being better quality than Starbucks?
Grem: Yes.
Vince: And better value for money as well actually
Bel: Really?
Grem: Yeah, Starbucks in really expensive and you get a tiny little cup
Vince: I used to order Frappuccinos quite a lot and Starbucks give you like, ice cream! It’s just a milkshake, and you’re like, “I could’ve gone to McDonalds for that!””

They also admitted that often, it was not just the coffee they went in for:

Sadie: I think I’m just lazy. By the time I’ve walked all the way in to town, I just want to sit down somewhere. Coffee just comes with it!

Surprisingly, (for skint teenagers) they all said that they would pay more for high quality coffee, and good service:

Rose: Well you see them do more here.
Grem: Again, it’s all about selling the brand. If you see them do more here, you think, well, you tend to think you’re getting your money’s worth, it must be good! Maybe it is worth paying £2.90 for a big coffee!
Bel: So if you see them doing things you’re more likely to pay more?
Grem: If there’s more effort then you pay more money
Bel: Ok
Vince: You get a better quality too
Grem: yeah. If it looks classy and presentable then..
Vince: And if they look presentable as well…
Grem: Would you really go into a coffee shop where it’s being manned by a bunch of fat ugly sweaty slobs?

However, having said that, they didn’t really seem to realise what skills the barista actually has to possess:

Timmus: erm, make coffee?
Vince: Blend the beans correctly, erm, make sure it’s the right temperature and all of that, quite a lot really.
Bel: So, you mean using the machine…?
Timmus: Know how to make milk froth!
Vince: Put all the extra bits on make sure it looks right
Nelson: Know how to make coffee stylish!
Vince: Yeah, know how to make coffee in style for the customer

They were also all perfectly prepared to complain when their coffee wasn’t made right:

Vince: Serg.
Nelson: Serg made terrible coffee
Bel: Oh Serg! oh I see
Grem: He managed to burn filter coffee.
Grem: I don’t get how! It’s impossible! That is fool-proof! Vince could do it!
Sadie: Aawww. Poor Vincey.

Most were very politically aware of Fairtrade issues, and agreed that they would probably pay more if they knew the farmers were getting a fair price for their crops. They were also convinced that FairTrade is fashionable, and that most brands could sell Fairtrade coffee if they wanted to:

Vince: Most places now say they do fairtrade
Grem: – but really they don’t
Vince: Yeah
Grem: (cough) Starbucks!
Sadie: They can’t justify not having fairtrade cos it’s not that much more expensive compared to the amount they add on to the price of the coffee in the first place!

When I explained that Caffe Nero claims to pay ‘better than fair trade prices’ for its coffee, but doesn’t have the official FairTrade mark, they were not impressed: “I feel scummy now!”
They also had some endearingly naiive views on Fairtrade coffee plantations:

Grem: I think so, cos fairtrade farmers are getting more money so they can put more back in to it, to improve the quality of the beans, improve the quality of the harvesting machines, prevent against losses and bad weather and floods and stuff.
Vince: The extra money’s like an investment, isn’t it? The more money you put in, the more you get out of your investment
Grem: Yeah, with that little, whatever it is, -when they sign up to Fairtrade that first little bit of money that you get, they can maybe get a new harvesting machine or hire a few more members of staff, then they get a larger crop next year, and then they can sell more, and get more, and it expands at an exponential rate!

– I didn’t have the heart to explain that it doesn’t quite work like that.

I came away from this group very grateful to them for being unusually helpful. It was only when I listened to the recording over, and over, and over, and over, and over again in order to transcribe it, that I noticed how utterly silly they can be at times:

Bel: Ok! Great! Well, again, is there anything else anyone wants to tell me at all?
Nelson: erm.. Noooo.

Bel: Alright then! Well in that case, thank you very much-

Grem: Oh yes!
Bel: Go on then
Grem: Scientists might be creating a Black Hole with some particle accelerator or something.
Bel: Thank you for sharing that.
Grem: Well you said anything else!!
Bel: Groan.
Grem: They probably all drink loads of coffee, it’s probably why, they’re all trying to find the Tiny Little Coffee Particle!
Bel: Do you think they could make espresso through a particle accelerator?
Grem: What happens if you fire a tangerine, and a Malteaser through a particle accelerator?
Vince: It’d just go whiizzut!!!
Grem: You end up with a Terry’s chocolate orange!
[General groaning]
Grem: You see these are the kind of things you think of when you’re fuelled up on caffeine!
I am not on ANY kind of drugs today, thank you very much!
Oh! And that’s being recorded!

In all honesty, I think this material is actually more valuable for market research for when I open my own cafe than it is for my PhD research. When I open Dr Coffees, I must remember to sell Big Black Coffees, not grande americanos, I must provide “big slouchy squashy sofas that you can sleep on!”, I mustn’t upsell cakes at the end of every order, coffee must be strong but not burnt, I mustn’t make teenagers feel uncomfy if they sit for four hours in the shop having only bought one coffee, hot chocolates and mochas must be topped with as much cream as can be physically fitted in to the cup, and the whole place must be staffed by “fit” waitresses. And dying the coffee pink always helps too.

I have several more of these focus groups left to do, and I have a feeling that other, older, less caffeine-sensitive customers may have very different views.

One more quote from the Fanclub:

Vince: You should put it up as a podcast, it’d be hilarious!

In the relatively safe knowledge that no-one is going to bother downloading all 20MB of this file other than Grem himself, here is the podcast:

Teenage Fanclub Podacast 5th Sept 08


Posted by on September 9, 2008 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , ,