The beans in your coffee travel many miles before being brewed. They travel up and down mountains, through valleys, and over dangerous rope bridges, even before being processed.
But what actually happens to a fair trade coffee bean throughout its journey — and how is it different to the journey of the regular coffee bean?
The truth is, a coffee bean’s journey totally depends on the grower, the farm, the co-operative, the processing unit, and more.
There’s a huge difference between how a small fair trade coffee farm works and a how a huge coffee plantation operates. However, it’s not just the ethics, offer of training and education, fair wages, and dedication to treating seasonal workers fairly that often set them apart. From the number of harvesters to the way farmers re-use their waste water – the fair trade coffee bean production process is eco-friendly, in tune with the earth, and makes the most of farming methods that have been used for hundreds of years.
CIPAC is a fair trade honey and coffee co-operative in Guatemala with more than 140 members.
The landscape here is remote, rugged, and mountainous, with an ideal climate and high elevation for coffee growing. Many coffee farmers have inherited their coffee plants from family members, and practise skills passed down throughout the generations.
There’s lots for CIPAC’s farmers to do before the beans are ready to be made into the delicious coffee we know and love. So what exactly happens on the journey from bush to mug? Let’s follow some of CIPAC’s fair trade coffee growers to find out…
The farmers harvest their coffee cherries from the end of December to the end of February each year. On family-owned farms, the whole family might get involved.
Coffee ripens at a slightly different time within this period, depending on the climate, the altitude, the type of soil and the variety of coffee. Some farmers even live in areas with their own microclimate, which means the coffee they produce has its own particular and quality flavour!
During the season, coffee cherries might be harvested two or three times from the same plant. This is because only the ripe cherries are hand-plucked from the bush to guarantee a high quality coffee. On large coffee farms, the harvesters must travel up steep hills and down into valleys to collect the cherries in a basket — which can be exhausting.
The harvesters then need to get the coffee cherries to where the farmers live; as this is where the de-pulping begins. The cherries need to be de-pulped within 24 hours, and the harvesters often have to travel up and down hills and across rickety bridges to reach the end destination.
While big coffee plantations use sophisticated equipment to remove the cherry skins quickly, farmers at CIPAC either use an electric de-pulping machine (where the cherries are poured in the top and emerge de-pulped from the bottom) or their own energy. The coffee beans are closely inspected as they’re poured into the machine, and any beans that don’t look quite ripe enough or are too ripe are taken out.
These de-pulped cherries are washed in special coffee water pools for at least 24 hours to remove the remaining wet layer covering the coffee bean. Some beans will float in the water and these beans are always removed.
After washing, the leftover water will contain some toxic elements that means it can’t just be thrown onto the plants in their backyard. But farmers at CIPAC know what to do – they re-use the dirty water and skins to make an eco-friendly compost to use around their coffee plants!
After the coffee beans are washed, they’re left out to dry naturally in the sun. The farmer chooses an area that’s wide, flat, and clean, and spreads the beans out with a rake. They turn the beans with this rake while the sun shines, and then hurry to cover them with a huge sheet if there’s a hint of rain or moisture about. As well as this, they also cover the beans every night, to keep off the dew.
This process can take several days, or much longer if there’s rain!
Once the coffee beans are dry – we have parchment beans!
The farmers take the sacks of parchment beans to the nearest road, where they’ll be a collected by a van sent by the coffee co-operative. Farmers in the most remote areas must make their way along dangerous winding mountain paths and encounter huge cliff drops. Can you imagine having to walk along a cliff-edge while carrying a 30kg bag of coffee beans?
If the farmers aren’t selling to a co-operative, they might have to make an even longer, more dangerous journey to reach a trader, particularly if the price for coffee is low.
Once the beans reach the co-operative storage site safely, they’re then weighed, checked for quality, and stored.
From parchment bean to green bean
At this point, the fair trade co-operative will organise the processing of parchment beans into green beans. This is the most important quality milestone yet, and involves the beans being judged by their weight and appearance, to make sure they’re of the best quality. Finally, the beans are ‘polished’, which removes the last layer of skin covering the coffee beans.
Some samples are taken so buyers can assess the quality through ‘coffee cupping’. ‘Coffee cupping’ involves a buyer slurping coffee in an attempt to accurately taste all the subtle flavours of the coffee, especially for the special varieties grown in areas with their own microclimates. These samples are sent to the co-operative, so they can easily vouch for the quality of the coffee to buyers!
Finally, the finished beans are bagged, and sold to an exporter.
With CIPAC, the coffee beans are sold to a fair trade operator in Mexico called Cafesca. From there, some of the beans are sent to another Mexican fair trade operator, Descamex, who are the only facility in the world to use the Mountain Water Method to produce decaf coffee. Descamex send the decaffeinated beans back to Cafesca, who transform all the coffee beans into instant coffee and instant decaf.
Once the finished coffee is sealed in jars, they’re loaded onto a container, then onto a ship, and then transported to the UK.
And that’s it! Coffee beans go on quite the adventure before making it into your mug. And while the huge coffee plantations use lots of workers and modern equipment, the fair trade farmers at CIPAC like to keep it simple. Family-run farms. Hand-picking only the ripest cherries. Drying the beans naturally under the heat of the sun. Fewer chemicals, and far more character.