Saturday, October 16, 2010

Coffee: from field to cup

I am headed back to the coffee plantation this week with some friends.  I brought back to Seattle the photos from my and Alan’s shoot out there in June during the harvest but I never got around to posting them.  Here is a quick look at the 2010 coffee harvest in Zambia.  The arty photos that we set out to get are interspersed with the nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes-pictures to give you an idea of goes into coffee at this stage in the game.  

As our hostess lamented, she can do everything at the farm to get the best beans but once they are picked it can only go down-hill.  They start with a great product and do everything in their power to ensure that the cup you drink at the coffee shop is up to her standards.  Every step along the way from picking and transporting to fermenting, drying and roasting to storage, packaging and of course preparation can support the quality of the initial product or....not.  

Like many things, when you look closely at all the things that go into getting a product to a customer, it’s pretty amazing you can get a decent cup of coffee anywhere!  Here is some insight into to process:

The operation here starts with the cultivation/nursery center.  They grow several strains --one short and bushy sun-loving and another really tall and planted with tall shadey trees.  Clearly I was paying more attention to lighting and framing and not to Marika's technical science lesson.... All their beans are Coffea arabica.
Alan and Marika checking out the some experimental plots.  More impressive that the health of this cultivar was the gigantic spiders that were stringing their webs between the rows.  I was nearly an arachnid appetizer.

Above, Ripe beans.  They have an almost cranberry-like tartness and texture.  The coffee bean in inside there somewhere.

At this farm beans are hand-picked.  The farm employs a few hundred people but at harvest there can be 1,000 people working.  Harvest in Zambia is June-August.  
Machine picking is possible but because the beans grow not at the end of the branches, but tucked inside along the trunk, the mechanical harvesters are really hard on the plants.  Also, the machines cannot discriminate as to which beans get picked (e.g. not yet ripe or overly ripe), they just strip the plants.

(Above) The result of hand-picking -- all the beans are ripe and ready and delivered straight to the processing staging area only as the processing area is ready to receive them.

The processing area is situated on top of the farm's highest hill to take advantage of gravity to move the beans from cleaning, hulling and fermenting to drying.  The farm also has a milling operation and alternates growing soy and wheat.  They had a go at Ostrich farming but the birds are so unruly that they gave it up.  There are a few remaining "free-range" birds who wander the property and torment everyone at the farm, especially Marika who is a strong long-distance runner but who found out the hard way she can't outrun them!
Imported from Columbia, the initial sorting machines serve to clean and strip the beans of the tough outer skin

A giant chalkboard shows the daily harvest numbers

(Above) The fermentation tanks where the pulp/mucilage is removed.  The beans require constant stirring to ensure equal/even fermentation.  If a bean gets stuck in the corner and goes bad it can spoil the whole tank.

Beans floating in the tanks (above) and (below) being coaxed 'downstream' to the drying racks.

Alan, perched atop the last row of fermentation tanks, looking down to the drying racks
 Raking the beans under cover.  The drying is done under a mesh canopy and over a ventilated mesh grate.

The light was so great in this warehouse I had to take some pictures....but it's barley from the milling operation and not coffee that's pictured above.

After the beans are dried to a moisture content of 12% they are ready for further processing.  At this stage there is an outer husk that is removed.  The resulting product is called "parchment."

 (above) A gorgeous old roaster.  The beans are roasted at the farm for tasting and grading.  A roaster in Lusaka handles the commercial roasting process for the farm's three lines of coffee.

Having a familiarity with the chocolate tasting process I was surprised to see a similar array of tools for coffee testing/tasting, called "cupping."  It is fascinating to watch the pros at this stage.  I won't go into the details here b/c it's quite complex.  (A quick google search for 'coffee cupping' will give you more information than you will ever need, I promise).  I will say that the samples of the different blends (green beans and roasted beans) are prepared and tested/compared side by side.  The standard preparation 2 tablespoons of freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee in a 6 oz cup.

There is an elaborate process for warming the spoons and cups, preparing the water, judging the grounds, waiting for the coffee to brew (to the precisely right point), smelling, scooping, spooning, slurping (to take into your palate air and coffee), spitting and repeating.....

 Marika's expertly-trained tasters left my novice taste buds in the dust.  "lemony, fresh, fruity, sour, bitter, floral"....but all I could muster was 'oh, that's nice....that is also nice....that one is only OK (but why, I had no clue)...hey, I like this one....."  Chocolate is much more up my alley apparently. (If only it WERE up my alley!)

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