As a chill enters the air here in southern Connecticut, we all clamor for a cup of coffee to warm us up, prepare us for the day, and perhaps keep us going through the afternoons as they grow darker. But did you know that our daily routine connects us to the rainforests and mountains of the equator, where workers pick coffee cherries while birds and monkeys chatter in the distance? And now that we’re more mindful of sustainable and regenerative farming practices, these connections in our daily lives deserve consideration.
The ‘Bean Belt’
Coffee, our beloved and ubiquitous drink, is grown in over 50 countries located around the equator. Known as the “bean belt”, coffee plants flourish within these countries’ mountains and tropical rainforests, where 25 million farmers produce coffee for a living. The countries that export the most coffee are Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia.
As shown in the above map, two species of coffee beans, arabica and robusta, dominate the world’s coffee bean production. Arabica is a more delicate plant that prefers rich soil and grows more slowly, yielding a smoother product that specialty coffee purveyors like Starbucks prefer. Robusta is a less fussy plant that produces more yield with harsh and bitter-tasting beans. It is often used in instant coffee and in ground coffee blends, like Foldgers.
Demand for Sustainability
No matter if growing arabica or robusta beans, coffee producers around the world are evaluating their processes to become more transparent and sustainable, but only those following specific guidelines receive accreditation by global sustainability initiatives.
To receive certification, producers must practice ecological conservation, fair labor practices, and plan for long-term sustainability of the land, as practiced by the Rainforest Alliance. Collaborating with this organization, UTZ regularly audits their producers to ensure compliance with acceptable farming methods, working conditions and transparency through their product tracking system, MultiTrace. Another organization, the Fairtrade Foundation, focuses on decent working conditions and establishes a fair floor for prices. And industry-specific organizations, like the 4C Association, focus on improving the economic, social & environmental conditions for those in the coffee sector.
An example of such a farm is Finca El Ocaso, located in West-Central Colombia, bordering the Andes Mountain range. Avid naturalists and birders, the Patino family ensures the farm’s sustainability so that their business can complement and enrich the biodiverse habitat and its vibrant ecosystem, providing home to 110 identified species of birds and several endangered plant and animal species. Because of their rigorous sustainability practices and ecologically-minded philosophy, the farm has earned certifications from the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, as well as the 4C Association.
Harvesting a Sustainable Bean
Let’s take a closer look at the journey from coffee cherry to cup with the help of our specialty coffee farm in Colombia.
El Ocaso operates 35 hectares (almost 90 acres) of land, 18 of which are used for growing 30,000 pounds of coffee each year. Though most of their product remains in South America, the farm works with Campesino Specialty Coffee, a purveyor of sustainable and sought-after Colombian arabica coffees, for distribution access to the United States.
The initial harvest at a coffee farm requires years of planning, as seed germination to cultivation can take as long as four years! When the trees flower, the air is filled with a sweet jasmine fragrance. The flowers last only a few days, after which the cherries develop and will ripen for about 9 months.
Harvesting then begins when the cherries are ripe and will continue for several months. Colombia experiences two periods of harvesting: a main harvest and a smaller, “mitica” harvest. At El Ocaso, the mitica occurs between October and December, where they collect 20% of their annual production.
A unique and sustainable attribute of El Ocaso is the careful harvesting of their cherries. The workers pick one cherry at a time, taking up to 12 hours a day in very hot and humid weather on Colombia’s mountainous terrain, as opposed to machines strip-picking the plant, placing the plant’s and soil’s health in jeopardy come the next harvest. At the end of the day, each worker’s haul is carefully weighed and they are paid on the merit of their work, a crucial factor to maintain their sustainability certifications. On the busiest of peak harvest days, the workers can collect up to 11,000 pounds of cherries.
After the main and mitica harvesting seasons, it’s time to evaluate the plants for next year’s harvest. A coffee plant is productive for about five years, and then the trunks are snipped and new coffee plants grow from the trunks. It will take another two years to bear flowers. This process only can happen two times, after which the whole plant comes out of the ground.
Processing and Distribution
After harvest, the cherries are sorted by grade and processed immediately on the farm, starting with depulping the cherry to the bean and then letting the beans dry before fermentation.
Working with Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Company, a partner within the Campesino Specialty Coffee group, El Ocaso broadened its sustainable practices by experimenting with different fermentation and drying processes. During fermentation, naturally occurring microorganisms interact with sugars in the mucilage and many chemical changes take place, which lead to a pleasant, distinct flavor. Once the beans come out of the drying process, they go through a second phase of selection to yield only the best beans for dry-milling and export at Campesino’s warehouse.
“The selection and subsequent steps of depulping, washing and drying coffee cherries constitutes one of the most arduous, meticulous and personalized jobs in the whole coffee production chain.”
At the roaster, the dried beans will be examined before roasting to determine final grading. Whether at a large commercial facility or a small specialty roaster like Blanchard’s, the beans will undergo a final transformation that will then lead to its distribution to the United States…for our enjoyment!