The journey from bean to cup
Ireland’s coffee culture scene is booming But how does the bean get to your cup?
Colombian Coffee farmer Jorge Garcés
Four o’clock on a sunny November afternoon and we are high up in the western range of the Cauca Valley in Colombia on a small farm, getting a rudimentary gardening lesson. As recently as seven years ago this region, known for its lush, verdant beauty, abundant natural resources (and great footballers) was a no-go zone due to guerrilla activity and drug trafficking.
Today, however, the roads are open and only the occasional military checkpoint and barred windows are evidence of a more violent, uneasy past. Except for the clamour of a vociferous parrot and a meandering flock of geese, all is quiet on this finca called Agua Bonita (Sweet Water), as owner César Augusto Garzón, cattleman turned coffee farmer, along with his teenage son Andres, demonstrates how to bed down a three-month-old coffee plant.
The healthy plantlet, a disease resistant castillo variety now snug in the soil, will start to produce fruit (called cherries from which two beans are extracted) in four to five years time, reaching its maximum potential in seven. After that it will generate three more crops before being cut down, when a new plant will sprout from the old.
The average yield per plant per year is around 500grams though in recent years, leaf rust in susceptible varieties like caturro has decimated plantations in the area due to climate change.
Garzón has already sown 25,000 castillos this year and 11,000 last year, explaining how perfect the land is for growth with its right mix of altitude, temperature and rainfall. His latest harvest, sorted and washed, is now drying in the sun, and will be raked at regular intervals for four days, before being transported for sale to the local co-operative.
Coffee growing is the only source of income for more than half a million families in Colombia, most of whom live on small farms and pick the beans themselves. Like other small farmers, dependent for their livelihood on fluctuating coffee prices set far away on the New York stock exchange, Garzón has additional crops, in his case avocados (as big as footballs), bananas which provide shade for the coffee trees, and one Simmental cow.
Though he and his wife and family live in the nearby town of Sevilla (known as the coffee capital of Colombia), he visits Agua Bonita daily and is clearly passionate about “la café cultura”. It is hard work and he admits that with coffee prices so low at the moment, he is only breaking even. The small government subsidy farmers receive “is absolutely vital” to their livelihood, he stresses.
Agrarian unrest reached a height in March when coffee farmers took to the streets to protest over prices, followed by other agricultural workers, bringing the country almost to a halt.
Colombia, bigger than France and Spain combined, with a population of 49 million people, is famous for its coffee and is the biggest producer in Latin America of the high end arabica beans so prized by connoisseurs. Brazil grows the harsher and stronger tasting robusta, mostly used in instant coffee, which thrives at lower altitudes, is more disease resistant, cheaper to produce and harvested mechanically.