Guatemala Part II: From Seedling to Bean
Here we are in the land where coffee grows. So how exactly does it get from a seedling plant to the wonderful bean we love to drink? This is how it's done, Guatemala-style.
I'd rather be in Filadelfia
Two farms that provided a nice introduction to local growing and processing methods were Finca Filadelfia and Finca Candelaria. First planted with coffee in 1864, Finca Filadelfia also encompasses a nature preserve and a hotel. I was able to tour the nursery and taste some of their coffees here. Candelaria is a large farm which sits in the shadow of Volcan de Fuego. While coffee from Filadelfia is not currently on our offer list, we will have a limited supply of coffee from Candelaria to arrive in late April or early May.
Grafting for tenacity
In last week's blog we learned that the volcanic soil in the Antigua area is a great advantage for coffee growers. Unfortunately this otherwise exceptional set of soil conditions has a serious drawback: certain species of roundworms, or nematodes, are quite prevalent, and they love to attack arabica coffee plants. A widely-used solution to this problem is to graft the root of the robusta (C. canephora) coffee plant onto the upper part of the arabica plant. This produces a plant with a sturdy root system more resistant to nematode attack while preserving the superior flavor characteristics of arabica coffee.
The white node midway up the stem of this young shoot is the intersection where the robusta rootstock was grafted onto the arabica plant. This very labor-intensive process is done by carefully slicing the stems of both an arabica and robusta plant and wrapping or bandaging the two together. The plant takes many weeks to re-join and continue growing. The hybridized nursery stock is then planted. As soon as four years later it can start producing arabica coffee cherries.
Picking and processing
Once the coffee is mature, the cherries are picked by hand and sent to the processing area to separate the fruit from the bean within. The method used mostly in this region is called washed or wet processing, and involves removal of the fruit before the bean is dried. This is different from the dry, or natural, process used in regions like Ethiopia where the whole cherry is dried and then the bean is separated out afterwards.
In the washed process the beans are sorted by floating them in large tanks; ripe fruit sinks and unripe cherries will float. The good cherries then go through the depulpers, where much of the pulp is removed by pressing the fruit through rough screens. Next they move to the fermentation tanks. The remaining pulp is removed by breaking down the cellulose with microbial fermentation, and then washing the beans clean. Now the beans are ready for drying. The coffee harvest runs from December until April, so depending on the weather the beans may dry in the sun or by mechanical means.
Soaking in the sun
Drying is a crucial part of bean processing. The rows of beans must be carefully tended. They are raked out and turned to ensure that all surfaces are uniformly exposed to the heat. Any beans that sit in a damp spot may rot or develop fungi, which can taint the area around them. At this point the beans are still covered by a thin hull, called parchment, or pergamino. This is removed in a separate process by running them through a machine called a huller. If you see coffee sold en pergamino, this hulling process has not been done. The remnants of this parchment can become the light brown chaff you sometimes see when you grind beans. The parchment waste from the hullers is used as fertilizer.
Just the right sort
After drying and hulling, the beans are cleaned and may be polished to remove any last remnants of pulp or parchment left. They are then sorted and sifted to remove any debris that may have mixed in with the beans during processing, as well as to sort beans by density and size. Graduated sieves split out the smallest from the larger beans, which then move on to gravity separators: vibrating tables that send the densest, heaviest beans to one side and the lightest to the other. Finally, the beans are sorted by color to remove any defective ones from the lot. This last bit is done by hand. There are color-sensing machines to do this work, but they represent a major capital investment and thus are usually only present in larger, wealthier farms.
On the road
After the final drying, cleaning, and sorting, the coffee is tested and tasted for quality control. Because there is only one harvest season each year, weather conditions or other setbacks can make or break an entire year's crop. Once it's determined to be its usual outstanding self, the beans are packaged into 150 lb. jute bags and shipped by sea to Oakland where they then have a short ride up Interstate 5 to us.
Based on the region and the varietal, and even sometimes on characteristics for a particular harvest, the Roastmaster will develop a roasting profile to best present the characteristics of a given coffee. From there, the beans are roasted on demand and sent out to fill your mugs and energize your days.
Check out Part 1 of the Guatemala excursion from last week, and stay tuned for more!