Thursday, April 25, 2013

The coffee is picked – now what?

April in La Unión marks the end of the coffee harvest, as farmers gather the last coffee cherries from the trees. At UMF’s processing and training facility (beneficio), we’ve finished processing coffee for the season, and we’ve bought and received at the warehouse more than 67,000 lbs. of dried coffee. What happens to the coffee beans after they are processed and dried? How did we determine which coffees to buy? And what are the next steps for getting the delicious beans to roasters and coffee drinkers in the U.S.? This blog post will give an overview of the process of getting coffee from a farmer to a coffee cup.

Coffee sampling

Gilberto and Pedro take a coffee sample.
After farmers have processed and dried their coffee, they can request Unión MicroFinanza to take a sample. This is an important part of the process: from a 2-lb. sample, we determine the quality of a coffee, decide if we will offer to buy it, and determine what price we will offer. So, the sample must accurately represent that particular coffee.

To get this accuracy, a UMF field officer (Gilberto, Martir or Pedro) goes to the farmer’s house to personally take the sample. They use a hand-made tool to take a small sample from each sack of dried coffee, and they collect it in a gallon-sized sealable bag. That way, if even one sack contains damaged coffee, it will be apparent from the sample. The field officers code each sample and mark down identifying information for the farmer and field. Then, they bring the sample to the office for roasting preparation.

Sample preparation

Yoshi prepares a coffee sample for roasting.
Before we can roast a coffee sample, it must go through a process of sorting and removing of the parchment, or papery shell, that covers the bean. This is not a quick task: To take off the parchment, we pass the coffee through a simple bean mill (molino). The mill must be carefully adjusted so that the bean inside the parchment isn’t chipped or broken by the mill.

The beans now have had the papery shell removed, and are a green-blue color (thus it is referred to as green coffee at this stage). The next step is to sort (manually) the good beans from damaged beans. Once sorted, we can determine how much would be lost due to defects, and how much green coffee we would end up with to sell after the parchment is removed (during export preparation). If you’d like to read more about this process, visit this blog post

We take additional measurements, such as the humidity of the parchment and green coffee, to ensure that the coffee has been properly dried and prepared. Finally, the good green beans are sealed in an air-tight plastic bag and are ready for roasting.

Coffee roasting

In order to taste the coffee, it must be carefully roasted. We use a light roast for samples because it reveals the most flavors present in the coffee. All of the roasts must be consistent in time and temperature to ensure that any taste differences come from the coffee itself, and not because of how it was roasted.
UMF has a small roaster that we use for roasting the samples. Before, we would have to travel two hours away on a bus to get the samples roasted. By having a small roaster in La Unión, we are able to taste the samples and reply to farmers much sooner.

Cupping samples

Multiple cups are used to test taste consistency. 
The roasted coffee must sit for a minimum of 8 hours to allow the flavors to fully develop. After this comes the fun part. The coffee is ready to be “cupped” – a way to blind-taste-test coffees to determine their quality. UMF President Patrick Hughes cups the coffee samples to decide whether we will offer to buy the coffee. Each sample is rated on a 0-100 scale on a variety of different components including flavor, acidity, balance, and overall appeal of the coffee. We use this score, along with information we gathered during the sorting process, to calculate the price we offer the farmer.

Purchasing and Receiving

Yoshi weighs incoming coffee at the warehouse.
Once we have determined an offer price, we inform the farmer and they bring their coffee to our warehouse. We weigh the coffee, and the farmer and a UMF representative sign a purchase contract. We then pay the farmer directly (which means we know exactly how much the farmer was paid for their coffee). We pay a small amount in cash to help farmers pay any production costs, and pay the rest of the contract directly into their bank account to promote good savings habits.

Non-purchased Coffees

Although we would like to purchase coffee from every farmer we work with, we can only buy the best coffees since we are paying a premium price. UMF does not purchase coffee that receives a cupping score below 85. If a coffee is not purchased, we make sure to tell the farmer the reason for our decision – maybe they fermented the coffee too long, or did not sort out overripe beans – so that they can work to improve the quality in future harvests. Some farmers who are dedicated to producing quality coffee, but are just starting with new picking and processing techniques, have brought us samples for three years before meeting our quality standards.

Export Preparation and Export

Beneficio Santa Rosa
Now the coffee is ready to start its journey to the U.S. Its first stop after leaving La Unión is Beneficio Santa Rosa, which prepares coffees for export. Here, the parchment is removed (this time using machines instead of a hand mill) and the green coffee is sealed for export. From Santa Rosa, the coffee travels to Puerto Cortes on the northern coast of Honduras. A container ship will take the coffee by sea to the U.S., ultimately landing in New York. For the final leg of the journey, the coffee travels by train to Indiana, where it is stored in a warehouse and is ready for purchasing and roasting.

Roasting and packaging

This coffee has traveled from La Unión, Honduras, to Indiana, and from there it is distributed to coffee roasters, coffee shops, restaurants, churches and homes in the U.S. We sell a portion of the coffee in its green form to coffee roasters, and we also sell roasted coffee. (See this link to get some delivered to your house!) Coffee from this year’s harvest has already begun its journey to the U.S. – we can’t wait to share it with you!