|The Long Road To Quality Coffee|
© 2007, 2008, 2009 George Howell
Coffee production overview
With this brief overview I begin the story of how quality coffee is produced, from seed to cup.
There are three key stages of production. The first is farming, which involves planting and nurturing coffee plants in a tropical environment that is punctuated yearly with a nine-month development of the coffee bean from flowering to the harvest. The second stage is the processing of the raw, green coffee seeds that we call “beans;” this involves removing the two seeds from the fruit, drying them to a stable moisture content, sorting them to assure quality consistency from cup to cup, and storing the coffee before shipping. The second stage ends when the coffee is shipped to the roaster. The third and last stage, roasting, involves long-term green bean storage, roasting, packaging, and brewing of the coffee beans into a beverage ready for consumption.
A fine coffee should be clean tasting, sweet (not sugary), and aromatic. Before reaching our cups, however, coffee goes through a long and perilous journey of transformation. There are many decision points through all three stages of production where quality can be irretrievably lost and often is. At the farm level, for instance, it can be forfeited in the choice of the seed, the decision as to where the coffee plants will grow, caring for the plant, or in the harvest. Processing and finishing involve many more quality decision points. The consumer may even purchase a masterpiece only to destroy it in the brewing, the final decision point!
The potential exists for the world to produce a lot of very fine coffee. Sadly, quality is usually sacrificed due to error or cost considerations. Chronic low coffee prices paid to farmers throughout most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first have held back coffee’s full potential to delight consumers.
First Stage: Farming
There are four critical decisions that a coffee farmer must make to produce quality coffee. The first one is relatively permanent: The farmer chooses where he will grow the coffee plants (Location). More or less costly adjustments can later be made regarding what slopes to concentrate on, which areas are less productive, or finding an ecological balance for the overall health of the farm. The second quality decision is what species and cultivar of coffee to grow (Seed). Because of coffee’s low prices during most of the twentieth century, choices have often been made on the basis of productivity and disease resistance but not quality. Such decisions can be reversed, but at great cost in time and money.
The third quality decision is how, the cyclical and costly hard work of maintenance of all facilities and the complex care and nutrition, in tropical conditions, for each plant in its environment (Grow). It takes nine months to get from flowering to harvest, twice that for grapes. Damage to the ecosystem, whether due to lack of resources, poor craftsmanship, or natural causes can have a crippling impact. The final decision stage is the harvest, where much can and often does go wrong (Harvest). The cardinal rule is that coffee must be picked ripe, yet this is rarely the case. The small coffee fruits, called cherries, are often in varying degrees of ripeness side by side. Each ripe fruit must be hand picked. A cherry contains inside only two coffee seeds, which we call beans.
Farming - Where, the first quality decision
All coffee grows in the tropics within the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Fine coffees grow at altitudes of about 3,000 feet to slightly over 6,000 feet. Some rare exceptions exist: Hawaiian Kona is so far north of the equator that coffee there cannot be grown higher than 2,000 feet; it is simply too cold. Imagine Garden of Eden conditions with year-round moderate average temperatures between 68 °F and 75 °F; this is where you will find happy coffee plants. Freezing will kill the coffee plant and temperatures over 90 °F will affect quality and even productivity negatively.
Altitude can have a powerful effect on a coffee’s flavor profile. At lower levels coffee plants are subject to greater heat, less ventilation, and less diurnal temperature contrast. Coffee beans and their surrounding fruit ripen more quickly and develop smooth, duller, sometimes earthier, flavor tones than coffees grown at higher elevations. Very high altitude environments are subject to greater, rainier cloud cover interspersed with very intense periods of sun and high diurnal temperature contrast within an ideal range of 50 °F to 85 °F.
There are eight classifications according to elevation in Guatemala, for example, starting at Good Washed at 2,300 feet, to the highest, Strictly Hard Bean (SHB), at over 5,250 feet. Beans growing at lower levels tend to be softer and less dense; in storage, they lose their flavor more quickly than harder higher grown coffees. As a general rule, traditionally, the higher the elevation, the better is the potential premium paid to the farmer. Higher grown coffees exhibit greater floral and bright fruit flavors, with greater liveliness, or acidity, a positive term. High altitude usually also means more difficult access and maintenance of roads and greater difficulty planting, maintaining, and harvesting plants as well as less yield per tree. The highest grown coffees are not necessarily always superior to those grown at moderately high altitudes. Latitude is also a factor, the most famous example being Kona, Hawaii, which is very far from the equator and where 2,000 feet elevation is the highest one can grow coffee, barely. Most Kona coffee grows far below this threshold. Many very fine and delicate Brazils are also far from the equator. Bill McAlpin of La Minita in Costa Rica chooses very carefully hand-selected beans from a moderate to high altitude to give his coffee extra smoothness. Other factors are in play as well; although the finest Ethiopian Yirgacheffes are grown in the vicinity of 6,000 feet and have extraordinary floral aromatics, they generally do not have the intense acidity of the great blackberry-laden, high altitude Kenyas , Ethiopia’s neighbor to the south. This may be due to climate and soil differences and/or the radically different varieties of Arabica coffee grown in these two countries.
Farming - What, the second quality decision
Two commercial species of coffee
The farmer decides next, or in tandem, what kind of coffee plant(s) she will grow. The first step regards species and the second variety—or cultivar. These choices have long-term consequences regarding production and quality.
The genus Coffea belongs to a family of flowering plants called Rubiaceae. Two other well-known plants in this family are the gardenia and the cinchona, whose bark contains quinine.
Variety and Cultivar: Bourbon and Typica are the two universally recognized varieties of Arabica coffee. Forty to fifty Arabica cultivars exist, produced by natural mutation or crosses from these two varieties and their cultivars. Only in the twentieth century would new blood from Africa be introduced into the very narrow genetic base of Arabica plants that had by then covered tropical Asia and the New World, grinding Ethiopia’s and Yemen’s production into commercial insignificance.
The industry of coffee versus the quality of coffee: The Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers, which represents all Colombian growers, the vast majority of whom are small, has recently announced a plan to dramatically increase Colombia’s coffee production by introducing a new high-production, disease-resistant Arabica-Robusta hybrid coffee with, hopefully, improved quality over previous efforts. This would catapult Colombia to being, potentially, the undisputed number two volume seller of coffee in the world by 2015. Farmers are being encouraged to pull out their old plants in favor of this one, a considerable investment for people who have little to start with. My concern—and that of my associates in the specialty field—is that though Colombia may well increase production, small farmers and their environments will not necessarily be better off because of it, nor will the growing number of quality consumers be thrilled with the results. Colombia is a treasure house of potentially great coffees that has hardly been tapped. Stressing higher quality standards, properly valued, over productivity could reinvigorate the quality of life for many small as well as large farmers. We will revisit this issue when we focus on farming.
Two other Typica mutant cultivars are San Bernardo (or Sao Bernardo in Brazil) and San Ramon. Both arose in Brazil and are dwarf plants. They are found in small pockets throughout Latin America. The compactness of dwarfs allows closer spacing of trees and easier picking of fruit during harvest. These coffees are rarely seen nowadays, passed over in preference for similar dwarfs, mainly Caturra, from the Bourbon variety. La Esperanza Farm, which won first place in the 2006 Colombia Cup of Excellence and which Terroir Coffee sells, has many San Bernardo coffee trees. Dwarf mutants from Typica originating in Central America are Pache and Villalobos.
New Varieties of Arabica
Now that a part of the specialty coffee world is focusing with real interest on fine single origin coffees, naming the variety of coffee has become quite important, as it is in wine. There is no doubt that the variety of coffee used is critical to the makeup of that coffee’s flavor profile. Most of the varieties, cultivars and hybrids presented here have only begun to emerge and more time will be required to properly grasp the range and potentials of many of them. We have just started to taste exemplary coffees! There is no greater proof that variety matters than the last Arabica we will present here: Gesha or Geisha. Here is a plant that was plucked out of the wilds of Ethiopia in the early twentieth century and which, after some meandering, found its way to Central America by the mid 1950’s as a coffee tree with promising resistance to certain blights. Its yield was very disappointing and soon Gesha became a neglected castaway. Then came the Panama coffee competition of 2004. Hacienda La Esmeralda, responding to the growing search for ever-finer coffees, presented a small lot of a unique, single varietal coffee from their farm. Their strictly Gesha variety coffee took the international jury by storm. Here were flavors the jurors never imagined existed in the Americas! Is this a variety, a cultivar? I have no idea. To read more about Gesha click here. It is being planted all over the Americas right now, the results of which we should be seeing in another three to four years. Will we see other exotic Arabicas step over the oceans? Care has to be taken not to export new blights carried in the seeds themselves along with the riches we enjoy as consumers.
Farming - How, the third quality decision
Overview of Coffee Growing
Coffee farmers around the tropical world share much the same problems as well as face challenges unique to their environment and to their market niche. Farmers competing on the mass market will have a completely different set of objectives than those catering to the socially conscious market, the ecological-minded market or the gourmet market which, in varying degrees, increasingly overlap.
Growing starts and ends with propagation. Besides purity of variety (and species), which we have reviewed, plant vigor is critical. It is not sufficient to just plant any seed. Coffee nurseriesare a constant concern for the ongoing health and renewal of all coffee farms. Coffee seedlings are usually transplanted at least once to their final growing place and great care has to be taken doing this.
Farming is a partnership with nature. Cycles and careful timing are part of a farm’s existential fabric. When to plant, when to prune or fertilize, when to weed etc. – these form the activities calendar by which farms live. No date on this calendar is fixed, just as nature never behaves the same way twice.
An increasing concern for many farmers is how the farm interacts with its overall environment. The use of shade trees is critical in many but not all environments for maximizing production, to say nothing about ecological concerns. What kinds of shade trees should be used, to what degree and how dense? Each shade tree requires its special maintenance as well.
Coffee trees often require regular pruning, both for long term structure and for starting over once they reach a certain size. To what degree - and how - is typically determined by the set of values, usually market-determined, and means a farmer has. Even the shade trees must be pruned – some seasonally. Also, what spacing between coffee plants should be adopted?
Management of weeds, plants in competition for limited nutrition and water, not necessarily native anymore, must be maintained. Herbicides are coming increasingly into question, particularly in mountainous regions where erosion control is an emergency. Pest management is also critical and in the tropics everything seems to be accelerated! Controlling myriad insects that use the coffee plant in ways harmful to the interests of the farmer, a host of different fungi, all evolving as farmers evolve in response, are the concern of farmers everywhere.
Then there is the nutrition of the plant. Agriculturally productive coffee trees take out a lot of nutrients and minerals from the soil. Each must be replenished in the proper measure. One part of a farm may have different imbalances than another. There is making sure that the soil has the proper pH balance as well.
Developing and maintaining infrastructure are essential farm activities. These assure efficiencies which empower a farm to produce quality consistently at the lowest cost. Infrastructure is also necessary to provide a robust link to the vital marketplace for a farm’s economic survival.
Finally, there is the roulette wheel of nature’s cycles and surprises, pure luck. We will cover each of these topics in a little more detail in the coming newsletters.
Arabica plants are self-fertilizing and this allows for relatively stable varieties and cultivars that can simply be propagated by seed. An individual plant can be selected within a field of Arabica coffees for particular desired traits such as quality, hardiness and/or productivity. This single plant can, in turn, produce a new self-replicating cultivar within a few generations. Such is not the case for the cross-fertilizing Robusta species of coffee, on the other hand; plants have to be propagated in laboratory conditions from cell cultures to maintain pure lines. This is rarely done.
Farmers must be very careful when choosing seeds or seedlings for new growth. They should come only from those plants which fully exhibit or improve upon the desired traits of a particular cultivar or variety. The Catuai (ka-tu-ah-ee) cultivarís special traits and quality is said to have been diluted in much of Central America due to imperfect selection.
Coffee nurseries require great preparation, attention to detail and care. The soil must be specially prepared and cleansed of all pests while an overhead structure protects the young plants from the sun. Germinating seeds are extremely sensitive to water: too much or too little can severely affect results. A traditional nursery will stay in one place for only about two years before it is moved to another virginal plot or is rested for the next year. It takes about one to two months for a plant to germinate. The healthiest are then often transplanted to polybags which contain unused specially prepared soils free of diseases and pests. Polybags allow for gentler transporting over larger distances for final planting. On the other hand these weigh far more than less protected bare-root seedlings which can be transported without heavy equipment. If a seedlingís final destination is to be highly exposed to the sun it should be weaned from the shade over a period of two to three months before being transplanted. Some more modern more expensive nurseries raise seedlings in special narrow cones which are raised a few feet above the ground and gently sprayed at precise intervals. High intensity farms replace their trees every 15 years. Smallholder farms can have trees that are many decades old.
Seedlings are sometimes grafted onto another coffee speciesí rootstock: in Guatemala, for example, Arabica plants grown in wet soils are sometimes grafted onto Robusta rootstock to protect against nematodes.
The coffee trees are transplanted at the beginning of the rainy season into the field at about one year of age or older depending on the variety. Holes of between one to two feet in each dimension, depending on soil texture, are created about four weeks before transplanting to aerate the earth. Topsoil from a wider diameter is then used to fill the hole after transplant. During each transplant care must be taken that the plantís taproot be straight, otherwise the tree will fail to be productive. Mulching during the first two years is extremely helpful, protecting the as yet undeveloped roots from excess heat and drying as well as from weeds.
The next section will cover layout and culture of coffee farms.
Foundations of a functioning farm
Access to labor is the first necessity for almost all but the smallest or most mechanized coffee farms; small farmers in Colombia will harvest rotationally from one farm to another and back again. As farms grow in size, reaching twenty acres or more, they gain improved efficiencies, but also become dependent on seasonal labor for the harvest, which can no longer be supplied by neighboring farmers. Social networks and labor pools that have worked for many decades have been crumbling in the early twenty-first century due to chronic below-cost prices for coffee, leading to entire valleys being depopulated of the crucial hands required to service the surrounding, and now dwindling, coffee farms. This has led to importing pickers, often inexperienced, from further distances and to lower standards in picking ripe coffees because of labor shortages. Coffee farmers and their employees have formed a substantial percentage of the mass immigration into the US coming through Mexico.
A farm’s economic and quality sustainability is dependent upon access to transportation. The larger the farm the more dependent it is on a good road system within it. All farms need access to key nodal points, such as processing centers, agricultural supply centers, banks, storage facilities and ports. Transportation is particularly critical during the harvest when coffee cherries must be rushed within hours to a depulping center (to be covered in the post-harvest section). Smaller farms are often isolated and very poorly connected to regional grids. Indeed, many producing countries, poor in resources, have not invested in infrastructure sufficiently to properly support their farmers. Connecting Worlds - The Coffee Trail is a beautiful, almost hallucinogenic, photographic chronicle shot in Peru which dramatically illustrates the immense hurdles facing many small coffee farmers today. This problem often extends well beyond the farms: some great quality producers, like Rwanda and Ethiopia, are landlocked, making transportation of high quality raw coffee to port more expensive and logistically problematic at best; other countries have primitive ports under increasing strain to provide timely shipping (more on this further on).
Maintenanceof infrastructure is a yearly struggle in coffee farm country, given that the vast majority of coffee farmers live on mountainsides; farm roads are made of dirt and quickly turn into mud traps every rainy season. Large trucks, heavily laden with ripe fruit or coffee in parchment, tear these roads apart during the harvest season, often in rainy weather. The farms themselves are in danger of landslides, destroying crops, roads and sometimes lives. Additionally, too many farms are losing all their topsoil from run-off regularly caused by heavy tropical downpours. It is all too common to see steep mountainsides planted with coffee without undergrowth, thanks to herbicides and, just as bad, without contouring.
Contour planting involves creating parallel ridges, often with ditches, at right angles to the slopes, a laborious effort. Even slopes of more than five degrees should be contoured. In most coffee-producing countries contouring is almost non-existent. Villa Flor, in the state of Nariño, Colombia is one of the rare farms I have seen with contour planting in Colombia. Costa Rica’s La Minita, pictured here, below right, is contour planted.
Origin of Arabica determines its requirements
The natural habitat of Arabica coffee is the understory of the southwestern Ethiopian highland forests, at four to six thousand feet above sea level, very close to the Equator. An Arabica coffee tree can grow up to twenty feet in height when not pruned.
Roots of the coffee tree
The root system loosely reflects the tree’s natural conical branch development above. There is a thick rapidly tapering tap root which descends no more than eighteen inches, from which a web of lateral feeder roots spread horizontally four to six feet out, and downwards as far as fourteen feet. It is not clear whether roots from old trees might penetrate still further. The feeder roots are most densely packed in the first two feet of soil, gradually diminishing the next two feet and becoming sparse after that. The roots, so concentrated near the surface, are therefore quite sensitive to ground temperatures and moisture. They grow deeper down during dry seasons. Continuously watered trees, on the other hand, will have roots that are 90% concentrated in the first two feet of soil.
Ideal soil temperature should range from 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the day to 68 at night. Unprotected soil, however, can reach far higher temperatures than the surrounding air, rising from 50°F to 160°F in a day. High temperatures do serious harm to the coffee plant’s surface root system. Several factors can moderate the sun’s radiant effects. Ground cover is very helpful for this and for erosion control, but since most plants compete for water and nutrients, they can limit productivity, especially where distribution of rainfall is poor and/or where not enough fertilizer is available – often the case with small farmers who have fewer resources. Mulch is excellent for keeping soil temperatures stable as well as retaining moisture during dry spells and soil erosion for coffee trees. It is far more rarely used nowadays because of its high labor requirements. I have seen mulching applied consistently in Rwanda (photo above).
Self –Shading, die-back and shade trees
Closely spaced coffee trees shade their own roots but require far greater inputs on the farmer’s part, which, if done correctly, can lead to large increases in the production of coffee cherry per tree. Without the extra nutrients the plants will be highly stressed and produce small harvests of poor quality. The adjoining two photos show the same variety of coffee plants (Caturra) on the same farm having received no fertilizer for the year; the shaded trees are healthy and relatively productive while the ones in complete sun have few leaves, which are yellowed, and many fruits which are passing directly from unripe to over-ripe. The Arabica coffee tree will not release its fruit even when nutrition is drastically insufficient; this can result in die-back of many branches, as seen in the photo, as well as to the roots.
The use of shade:
The circumstances and goals of the farmer determine what use, if any, he makes of shade trees. Most of the many millions of coffee farmers in the world have tiny plots of land; they rarely have the resources to weather market downturns, particularly severe ones, and so can be heavily challenged to invest in fertilizer for their coffee plants, which may only “harvest” very low prices in the year to come. Many remain in debt even in good times, which have been all too few since the early 1990’s. As the saying goes, like small boats in the sea, they are easily capsized.
Shade trees, often supplemented with crop diversification, can help stabilize a small farm family from the oft destructive gyrations of the commodity coffee market, which, until very recently, was the only market available (it is still the only reality for the vast majority of coffee farmers). Well chosen shade trees provide soil nutrients, wood – for construction, paper, furniture – and even structural support for other crops, such as pepper vines, common on coffee farms in India. Determining type and distribution of shade is further complicated by the environment of the farm; temperatures, rainfall patterns, distribution of sun, orientation of the farm towards the sun – all these are factors for optimizing use and quantity of shade. Some areas are so cloud-covered throughout the year that shade would be of no possible benefit. On the other hand, a shade tree is used in Papua New Guinea to absorb excess moisture from the swampy soils there.
Many kinds of trees are used to shade coffee plants, but some are far preferable to others. Banana trees can often be seen growing with coffee, providing farmers with food and shade, but they aggressively compete for water and certain nutrients, especially potash, critical for coffee fruit development. Shade trees should be evergreens with deep roots that do not compete with the coffee plants’ more superficial feeder root system. They should be vigorous, resistant to pests and easily pruned. Pruning should be done yearly just before the rainy season, to allow for ventilation and maximum sunlight to the coffee tree, reducing the danger of mold and fungus (the photo on right shows pruned shade trees at La Minita. Part of their forest reserve is in the background); this is labor intensive. Certain leguminous shade trees, such as Inga, popular in Latin America, and varieties from the Leucaena genus, fulfill these requirements and provide the added benefit of nitrogen, gathered from the atmosphere and necessary for growth and good crop yield, from their falling leaves and from nodes within their root systems (photo on left).
Shade is typically eliminated when the goal is high production; the coffee trees themselves, tightly spaced together, become self-shading with only a small proportion of the trees’ leaves actually exposed to full sun. This approach, frequently referred to as technified coffee, requires regular costly inputs of nutrients and constant monitoring of the soil’s depletions and changing imbalances. Weeds are a greater problem as well because of lack of shade. Sun-grown, tightly spaced, high production, often dwarf cultivar coffees became popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Many countries dramatically increased coffee production on less land, allowing more of it to be used for other crops. Efficiency-oriented farmers in Brazil, for example, have more than
quadrupled the number of trees per acre and increased coffee yield per acre more than five-fold since the 1960’s. The long term environmental sustainability of these intensive practices has been brought into question and is hotly debated these days.
Perhaps the most “practical,” broadest organization in the US for environmental and social sustainability in coffee is Rainforest Alliance. They are active in many coffee countries, offering certification that provides farmers with a gradual but specific, detailed transition program towards a more natural, shaded and protected environment. Farms without shade can get certified as long as they adhere to a strict plan of forest reintroduction and social programs. Terroir Coffee’s Daterra Farm, which has a huge reserve of protected wild habitat, in Brazil and El Descanso in Colombia are certified.