From the Fruit to the Cup – Part II
PART II – Picking and Processing
For much of the world, coffee farming is an exact science. Communities are built on it, and the people involved make their living on the back of knowledge that has been passed down for hundreds of years. In rural Bali, however, this is not always so. Though coffee farming is not new to the region, the majority of Indonesian coffee farmers are still inexperienced and are therefore going through a process of developing knowledge and practices to enable them to improve the product they harvest. This will guarantee the future occurrence (and improved price) of their coffee sales in seasons to come.
Five Senses, an Australian coffee wholesaler and educator, work very closely with local farmers in Bali (and elsewhere around the world) to help them grow their knowledge and skill bases. These producer-buyer relationships are essential to the success of the coffee industry, as some of the biggest Western markets – like Australia – do not have the requisite environmental and geological conditions for coffee growing. I was lucky enough to be invited to tag along and observe this relationship between producer and buyer, learning about the origins of coffee in the process.
My previous article (From the Fruit to the Cup – Part 1) gave my basic impression of the coffee supply chain, focusing in on some of the systemic unfairness and corruption in experienced coffee producing nations. I will now shift my focus to an examination of some of the physical processes that transform the coffee cherry into the cup of coffee you buy in a café.
We dropped into the supply chain, so to speak, in northern Bali at a point where the coffee trees had already been planted several years ago. These plants had matured and were now ready to be harvested, and it was our privilege to be taken along to help. The group hiked up to the mountains of Tri Karya, subak abian of Gitgit, in the north of Bali. A subak is a group of farmers working together as a co-op, banding together under one banner in order to get their stock levels up high enough to sell to big buyers. In Tri Karya, 31 farmers work parcels of land that are roughly 150 – 250 square meters in size and used mainly for cattle, chickens, clove, oranges and coffee. The locals we met were incredibly welcoming, and immediately offered us coffee brewed using traditional methods, as well as a type of dense potato they grow along the path for ease of harvesting.
The trees we were picking were planted in a fairly ad hoc fashion, on the side of the mountain facing the valley we had hiked through to reach the farm. Baskets were strapped to our waists and away we went, picking the ripe red berries in bunches. Green means underripe, and a dark purple means overripe – only the ripe berries are desirable, as they produce the best, most consistent flavour. Indonesian pickers work at a good pace, but only for short periods of 2-3 hours at a time.
Once the designated area was picked, the farmers tipped our baskets of cherries into large sacks and carried them down the jungle path to their processing area near the Tri Karya temple. This subak has only recently started wet processing, which is the method by which the green coffee bean is extricated from the fruit picked off the coffee tree. This method of processing requires large quantities of water, but allows many of the defective fruits to be removed from the harvest, yielding a more consistent batch of green which will fetch a higher price and produce a finer flavour when roasted and extracted. Wet processing is also considerably faster than dry processing, which can take upwards of 4 weeks, as all drying and fermenting takes place in the sun and without water.
Wet processing works like this: firstly, all of the picked cherries are spread out on a large wire bed where the obviously over or underripe fruits can be discarded. The cherries are then moved into a large strainer and dunked in barrels of water – the fruits that float are discarded, as this is evidence of gas or other defects inside the fruit that will affect the flavour of the coffee. Once these defective fruits are removed from the batch, the remaining cherries are put through a pulper which cuts into the flesh of the cherry and separates it from the green bean inside. Finally, the green beans are immersed in water again (with any stray fruits that made it through the pulper removed), washed and left to ferment for 12-24 hours depending on the level of acidity desired in the final flavour profile.
Once the fermentation is complete, the process continues – the beans are laid out on the large wire beds again and left to dry in the sun to remove as much moisture as possible, as excess moisture will negatively affect the roasting process and the eventual flavour of the coffee. Finally, the dried beans are packed in large sacks and transported to be sold all over the world.
The process of turning the fruit into the saleable green bean is a labour-intensive one, and for every 5 kilograms of fruit picked, only 1 kilogram of green results. A further 16% of weight is lost in the hulling phase, and another 16% through moisture in the roasting phase (both of which I will cover in Part III). Given that coffee beans are bought and sold by weight, this is a very significant figure which demonstrates clearly how much work goes into the production of even a single kilogram of coffee, which would yield roughly 70-90 cups of coffee once it makes it to your local café.
The picking and wet processing were fascinating to take part in, and gave me a serious level of appreciation for a farming practice I had never thought that much about. Considering the fact that some cafés can be going through upwards of 15-20 kilograms of coffee a day, the sheer vastness of the production necessary to satisfy this demand is mind-boggling. Every day, all over the world, farmers are hiking into their mountain plantations and filling countless baskets with ripe cherries. These cherries are then washed, sorted, pulped, processed, fermented, dried, hulled, bagged, sold, shipped, roasted, packaged, ground, extracted and served to the customer for somewhere around $4.00 a cup. Amazing.
The partnership between Five Senses and Bali farmers is doing amazing things for these local communities, as it is empowering them with the knowledge they need to take control of their destinies. These essential processes and practices put the power back into the hands of the farmers, allowing them to produce a better quality product and demand a higher price for its sale. Aside from the obvious benefits to the farmers, their families and the local economy as a whole, we as consumers also benefit from a diverse world of coffee flavours available to the wholesalers and cafés we buy from.
Truly, the coffee has never tasted sweeter.
Part III of this series will focus in on the next step of the production chain: the hulling and roasting of the beans.
Andy owns a Perth café and is the Creative Director at FLINT Magazine.