A Virtual Coffee Tour
Have you ever wondered how that coffee came to be in your mug this morning? Come along with us as we show you the entire process, from bean to cup. Make sure you're wearing sturdy boots and a pair of jeans that you don't mind getting muddy, because where we're going we'll be getting a little dirty.
We leave the mountain town of Santa Rosa de Copan and the Cafe Copan offices at sunup after a hearty Honduran breakfast of beans, eggs, tortillas, and - of course - plenty of fresh coffee. Our destination: Las Granadinas, one of hundreds of small coffee farms dotting the mountainsides of western Honduras. Las Granadinas is high in the mountains at 1,400 meters (4,500 feet), an excellent altitude for coffee growing. We seem to drive upward forever through pine forest and past mountain villages seemingly trapped in time.
We are met at the farm gate by a curious Don Luis, the overseer. He wasn't expecting us - Las Granadinas is a long way from telephones, radio, or electricity - but is pleased to show off his finca, or coffee farm. "It's my life," he says with obvious pride. He and his workers are planting coffee seed in the finca nursery. After planting, the nursery will be covered with a thatch roof to protect the young plants from the sun while allowing rain to enter. Once sprouted, the plants are cared for until they are mature enough to be transplanted. Transplanting takes place with much care during the May rains that moisten the soil and stimulate further growth.
The timing and quantity of the rain is important, and is the subject of much speculation every year by local farmers. Too soon, and the plants in the nursery are unready for the shock of transplanting. Too late, and the plants get a late start and will produce a meager harvest. Too little rain, and the transplants produce shallow roots that stunt growth later. Too much rain, and the young plants can drown in waterlogged soil.
For three years Don Luis and his workers care for the coffee plants growing under the protective shade of the tropical forest. Finally, in October of the third year, the slowly maturing green cherries begin to redden. The entire population of the countryside takes to the hills to assist in the harvest. Only a few of each plant's many cherries ripen at the same time, so it is necessary to pick selectively and return time and again to the same plant. A typical harvest will begin in October and not end until March or April.
The harvesters must work fast because every day a few more cherries ripen, and an overripe cherry is as unacceptable as an unripe one. Overripe cherries produce an inferior grade coffee. Unripe green cherries produce café perico (parrot coffee, in reference to the green plumage of the bird) and is tasteless. Yet the harvesters must work carefully as well, because each cherry is attached to a branch of the plant by a delicate stem. If the stem is damaged, that part of the branch will no longer produce beans. The annual harvest is thus labor intensive, and indeed the Honduran school calendar's annual vacation (November through January) revolves around it. More than one village shopkeeper finds himself without employees at harvest time as the staff quits en masse to join the harvest.
The harvesters bring the picked cherries (café galoneado) to the finca's depulping machine, where the skin and pulp of the cherry is removed and the inner bean is revealed. Covering the beans is a sticky honey-like substance remaining from the pulp and must be removed by soaking in tubs of water. The tubs are left in direct sunlight for a day, warming the water, after which the honey is easily washed away with spring water. Free at last, the beans separate into their characteristic halves.
Waterlogged, the beans are set to dry in patios set aside for this purpose. During a harvest it is impossible to find a country home or hut, however humble, that does not have beans - called café pergamino mojado at this stage - spread to dry in the sun. In good weather the beans may dry in three days. Without strong, direct sunlight, not only is the drying process prolonged but the beans do not dry evenly. If not spread out, wet beans will ferment in two days and be ruined.
Once sun dried, the beans are called café pergamino húmedo and are ready to be sold to a beneficio (coffee brokerage). The beneficio takes a random sample of beans and checks humidity (40% is normal) and quality. Good quality beans should be well formed, neither over ripe nor under ripe, unbroken, clean, and free of foreign matter. The beans are machine dried by the beneficio to achieve a stable 13% moisture content. At this stage the beans are called café pergamino seco. "Pergamino" refers to a paper like coating that surrounds the bean, and the beneficio must next remove the pergamino with a special machine for that purpose. Once cleaned of its pergamino, the bean is referred to as café verde no clasificado - unclassified green coffee. "Green" here means unroasted rather than unripe, and indeed unroasted coffee with the pergamino removed has a faintly green tint.
The next step, then, is to classify the beans; that is, sort them by quality. Even the best finca will produce a few bad beans: malformed, black, broken, fermented, or unripe. Modern beneficios use mechanical and optical sorting to remove the obviously bad beans, but the final classification in any good beneficio can only be made by hand by experienced workers. The beans - now called café verde clasificado - are bagged and shipped to buyers, usually green coffee brokers in Germany, Finland, France, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States.
At Beneficio Maya, the very best grades of green coffee are retained for making Cafe Copan and Cafe San Marcos Supremo. A random sample of the selected beans are cupped. Cupping is the coffee roaster's equivalent of wine tasting: green beans from different sources are roasted and brewed, and the resulting coffee is compared. Cupping samples is time consuming, but is the only sure way to insure quality.
Upon receipt of a customer's order, and not before, the best beans are then roasted to order in Beneficio Maya's Probat roaster. Cafe Copan uses only High Grown (HG) beans, grown at an altitude of at least 900 meters (3,000 feet). Cafe San Marcos Supremo uses only Strictly High Grown (SHG) beans, grown at greater than 1,350 meters (4,500 feet). The roasting is supervised to insure that the beans are done to your preference (regular or dark roast), are quickly ground (if desired), and packaged the same day in airtight bags or cans to insure freshness. The order is then shipped that or the next day, again to insure that you receives the freshest coffee possible.
Curious to try one of our fine coffees? Click here to find out how.