Article: My Life As a Bean

Written by Cafe Campesino on Jan 1, 2003 in Article, NEWSLETTER |
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by Kopi (Bahasa Indonesian word for coffee), as told to Nate Wayman

So, you drink a dark liquid made by infusing hot water with a ground version of me but you don’t know much about how I came to be? Well, that’s no good! Let me tell you a story about my life so you can appreciate me more fully.

Some folks say I was discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi sometime in the sixth century in Ethiopia, when he noticed his goats were dancing around after eating the cherries from a particular type of bush. Whether you believe that version of my origins or not, I do grow inside of a cherry on a bush, and I imagine if goats ate enough of me, they would begin to dance!

Where do I come from these days? I’m pretty fussy about where I want to grow up, so I stick to hilly areas between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn that are warm during the day and cool at night. I also think I taste much better (and equally importantly, do not require pesticides or artificial fertilizers) when I am grown in the shade of other trees rather than in huge sunny tracts of land. Each of my bushes has big beautiful leaves and can keep producing for up to 30 years!

You probably know that coffee can be classified into two types: robusta (a hardier species, not known for its finer taste) and arabica (a tastier species used almost exclusively by specialty roasters). You may not know that the bushes, or “trees”, of these two types can look pretty different. Robusta bushes tend to be higher, sometimes reaching 32 feet, and the cherries are usually round. Arabica bushes, on the other hand, are usually less than 20 feet in height and bear oval cherries.

Now why do I keep referring to cherries on the coffee bushes, when we all know I am a bean? Good question. As you can see in this picture the fruit of a coffee bush is indeed a cherry, and they turn red when ripe and ready to be picked. But where am I? The seed of the coffee cherry, as you may have guessed by now, consists of a pair of coffee beans — me and my sister! But, we’re not quite ready for brewing. I heard that you read about the roasting process in an earlier issue of Fair Grounds, but we’re not even ready for that stage yet. So what’s next? Read on my caffeinated beverage friends!

It’s now fall or winter, the rainy season is over, I’ve finished growing into my full size inside the coffee cherry, and my outer skin is turning red. My owner comes along and picks all of us off the branch — by hand! — and puts us into a bag. Taking us to the processing area, there are then a few choices for me. I can be dry or wet processed (or even semi-wet, but there are only so many details I can give you before you cry out, “Enough already!”). If dry, it’s pretty simple – they throw all of us out over a concrete or other large hard surface, rake us around quite a bit and let the sun dry us out until our hulls are ready to fall off (usually a few weeks).

In the wet process, they put all of us into a big machine that pushes us against screens with holes just large enough for the beans inside of the cherry casing. Pressure is applied so the cherry fruit is broken open and we are free to go through the screens. Then we’re put into a fermentation tank for a little while to remove the excess fruit sticking to us and put out to dry (which should only take a week at this point).

And now I’m ready, right? No, not quite. I’ve still got a layer of skin surrounding both of us beans, which needs to be removed during the hulling stage. Then we’re graded and sorted, to make sure that only the best quality beans make it into the hands of roasters like Café Campesino. Since I’m one of the best ones (but of course!), I make it into the bag with the other excellent green beans and head on out to be roasted.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention one of the funniest parts of the process — well, funny to watch anyway! They call it cupping, and it consists of these coffee experts coming in, roasting up little batches of us green beans and brewing us directly in cups of hot water. Then they really noisily slurp us into their mouths, get this really serious and pensive look on their faces and spit us out! Yup, pretty funny to watch. I know you appreciate their work, however, as that helps them determine which of us are good enough to make it into your cup of coffee, and which will end up in, shall we say, a lesser cup of joe.

So what do you think? Now that you know how much work it takes for me to arrive in your kitchen, do you love me all the more? I sure hope so! I know my farmer appreciated you buying fair trade coffee so he could have a livable wage instead of working for a big estate or selling to a coyote reseller for a cheap price. I hope you enjoy the perk I bring to your life, and thanks for reading about me this month!

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Nate Wayman is a caffeine addict who’s currently studying non-profit management in southern Vermont, and can be reached at nate@ifairtrade.net.

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