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From the Fruit to the Cup – Part IV

PART IV – Those Left Behind

In June 2014, a group of Australian coffee-industry workers spent a week in Bali with Five Senses Coffee learning about how the Balinese pick, process & roast their beans. I was lucky enough to be a part of this group, representing a Five Senses wholesale customer in Perth, Australia. We saw the beginning of the process right through to its conclusion, literally from the fruit to the cup. The breadth of coffee knowledge across the group was impressive, and part of our being there was a commitment to sharing this knowledge with the local people and helping them develop their coffee growing practices.

Having now had some time to reflect on what we saw and learned, the inevitable question must be asked: did we make a difference, and if so, to what end?

I overheard a few conversations during my time in Bali, centring on how the Balinese are an incredibly friendly people who are more than happy to say ‘yes’ to whatever is thrown at them. The farmers we met gladly accommodated our group’s desire to join them for a day of picking coffee, and allowed us to take over the processing and roasting too. Knowledge we offered was met with a smile and a nod, but the feeling lingered that perhaps not all of what was being said – language barriers notwithstanding – was sinking in.

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In my last article – From the Fruit to the Cup, Part III – I gave an example from recent history of how this affected the Kintamani region in northern Bali. The French had attempted to unite the region under a single brand, aiming to lift coffee standards and give the farmers the ability to win a much higher price for their exports due to quality and regional name recognition. It is not difficult to imagine the locals smiling and gratefully accepting this help, too – but once the French left, the standards gradually fell until Kintamani was once again a disparate collection of subaks operating independently and without the same level of quality control. The farmers returned to their familiar ways, export prices fell and international sales evaporated.

The key, then, was to emphasise not just the new processes, but also to illustrate why they were necessary. By connecting a little bit of extra work with the prospect of higher prices and increased sales in the future, a clear reward-for-effort pathway would make it much more likely that this knowledge would be applied long after our group left Indonesia.

A good example of this challenge is composting. On our final day in northern Bali, a small group of us travelled back to Tri Karya, Gitgit, to work with the locals on developing a system of recycling the organic coffee pulp and waste water byproduct of the wet coffee processing. The latter can be considered an environmental pollutant if not dealt with properly, though it does have the capacity to be converted to important nutrients that could be recycled back into the soil with a little bit of effort. Such was the task ahead.

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Armed with very little in the way of expertise, we hiked back up to the farm and helped the locals gather the raw materials we were to be working with: chicken manure, coffee pulp, leaves and other organic debris, and two kinds of bacterial additives designed to speed up the composting process and create the perfect environment for material breakdown. We cleared a large space near the temple and set about building a layered pyramid of compost: first a layer of manure, then coffee pulp, then bacteria, then leaves and other organic matter, then pulp, then bacteria, then leaves… and so on. Putting most of the responsibility in the hands of the farmers tested them to consider why things were to be done as they were, and also demanded that they commit the process to memory so that it could be replicated again in the future. After all, the coffee pulp is produced with every batch of fruit processed, and so it is not going anywhere.

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As we worked, we discussed with the famers who spoke good English about how they plan to maintain the heap, and also how they plan to use the compost when it was ready in 3 or 4 months. The general consensus was it would be covered with a large sheet of plastic and turned consistently, and when ready, used to fertilise both existing and new crops of coffee, clove, oranges and more. There were, of course, some hitches – these mostly came down to miscommunications and language difficulties. Sometimes we asked for a coffee pulp layer, only to have more and more leaves piled on. When it was time for a covering of leaves, suddenly there was nothing but rotting cherries in sight. I hoped that these misunderstandings were due to confusion as to the exact intricacies of the process, rather than a failure to comprehend the general goal of the pile we were building. It was, however, difficult to be sure.

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When eventually it was time to leave, we shook hands with the farmers and wished them luck in their future ventures. We hoped they would continue striving to produce the best coffee they could, as that would surely allow them to live in increased comfort and provide solid futures for their children, as well as future generations of Balinese after that. As much as I hoped it would not be so, my mind could not help but picture a time 5 years down the track, where the compost pile we built was still covered and forgotten, plastic sheet crumbling and reclaimed by the overgrown jungle.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that there is something inherently wrong with what these farmers have been doing for decades. Far from it. The Balinese are perfectly content to drink the coffee they make from the ‘reject’ fruits, and to ferment these fruits into wine as well. The reality, however, is that Western coffee tastes demand a particular commitment to consistency of process, and by responding to the changing demands of the market the Balinese can ensure that each cup of their coffee sold halfway across the world puts money in their pockets, and the pockets of their children.

The coffee market is booming, and it is a peculiar product in that it is one that most people can simply not do without – I base this purely on myself, of course, knowing full well that my personal sanity (and the future success of my café) is dependent on the fruits of these farmers’ labour. For their hard work, we should be most grateful. I only hope that they recognise the opportunity that lies before them, and that they grab it with both hands.

This concludes the article series ‘From the Fruit to the Cup’.

Andy owns a Perth café and is the Creative Director of FLINT Magazine.

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