Guayabal, Colombia – Coffee: the long way from the bean into the mug

Coffee is, after petroleum, the world’s second most important export product. Who expected this? And Colombia is one of the largest exporters of this much in demand and sensible product. All coffee from this country belongs to the high quality sort Arabica and is from exquisite quality. There is also coffee that doesn’t meet the export demands: immature or overripe beans and those that are infested by a bug. These beans are picked out during processing, but not thrown away, because they have purchasers as well. They are either roasted and drunk in their own country or sold to the Nescafé Company that produces instant coffee from them. How delicious.

That’s not all we learn about the noble beverage today. Cultivating the seedling is a science in itself, the bushes need a lot of care and have a limited life of about 21 years. Coffee is harvested between September and May with two main harvests in October/November and March/April. The plants only grow in elevations between 1300 and 2000 m / 4200 and 6600 ft, the higher the better is the quality. They need a balanced climate of sun and rain. Right now harvest is bad due to too much rain and missing sun hours. Coffee harvest is manual labour: only the red and yellow mature fruits are allowed in the baskets. Mobile pickers that also work in different plantations like banana, cotton, tobacco or sugar cane can harvest 100 kg / 220 lb coffee beans per day and get 20 cents per kilo / 9 cents per pound.

During processing the outer skin is peeled by machine, composted and later on used for fertilizing the plantation. In several washings the sweet coating of the pip has to be removed, some haciendas make wine of it. Again and again faulty fruits are sorted out. Finally the beans are dried and transported to the fabric of the coffee federation where they are weighed and their quality is reviewed. Only there the second peeling takes part where the parchment skin is removed and the coffee is packed for exporting. The skins are sold back to the coffee farmers for a small amount of money, who use them to heat the drying oven. The parchment as fuel is resource-saving, cheaper and more odourless than charcoal or propane.

The coffee bean is during the whole process of growing and production extremely sensitive to outer influences that could ruin smell and flavour. Fertilizers and insecticides can only be used thriftily. The beans have to be packed airtight for their transport to the United States or Europe where they are roasted, mixed and possibly ground. It remains a mystery to me – now more than ever – how a pound of this plush brew can be sold for a couple of dollars in supermarkets. The winners of this business must be the big coffee companies, the losers the harvest hands and the coffee farmers. The highly interesting tour at Hacienda Guayabal costs 20,000 Pesos per person in Spanish, 25,000 in English (11 / 14 $). It took us 2.5 hours. Of course a coffee tasting is part of it.

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