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

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.

Arabica is hand picked at the optimum stage of maturation, making it more labour intensive and expensive. Experienced pickers can gather 13 kilos a day and are paid a pittance, around 22 cent a kilo. We watched one wiry old picker, his skin leathered from the sun and fingers blackened from work, deftly strip one tree into the yellow bucket at his waist.Garzón is typical of the many small farmers we met over the course of a few days located in out of the way mountainous areas where landslides and rough, uneven surfaces make roads difficult and slow to negotiate.

The previous day at the Trujillo nursery, agronomists from the FNC (National Coffee Growers’ Federation) explained an initiative by Nestlé to help farmers like Garzón become more productive by providing over four million free plants in the region. Some 6,000 farmers have already signed up and at the nursery 600,000 plantlets, worth US$900,000, were awaiting collection by locals. The Swiss giant Nestlé is the world’s largest coffee brand with a presence in Colombia – often controversial on many fronts – for nearly 70 years. It buys about 13 per cent of the country’s total coffee production. Its global initiative, launched in 2010, called the Nestlé Plan, based on Michael Porter’s concept of shared value, aims to help coffee farmers become more productive and thus guarantee the company’s long term supply.

In Colombia it is working with the FNC, the Rainforest Alliance and the 4C Association – an alliance of farmers and representatives of the coffee industry. 4C has developed the Common Code for the Coffee Community, regarded by Iseal, a global leader in good practice, as the best guideline for sustainable farming. Farmers accredited by 4C receive better prices.

Wilson Elias Avila, an agronomist from the FNC travels around in his 4 x 4 looking after 192 fincas in the area and says the most gratifying part of his job is helping coffee growers improve and get better prices.

“When I need anything” says farmer Francisco Gutierrez, “I call Wilson”. Washing the beans, for example, can necessitate large quantities of water. In the traditional method 40 litres of water are needed to wash a kilo of beans; with Gutierrez’s new machine only one litre is used. “The benefit to the environment is huge,” he says.

At the local co-op, in Sevilla, harvested beans, called parchment, go through quality control. We watched as a long metal tube was inserted into each bag to extract 400g samples, which were then tested. It is here that the farmer gets his price and the beans are sorted, graded, stored and sold on to exporters, coffee roasters or middlemen and finally end up in your coffee cup. The price that day for an aroja (12.5 kilos) was 58,547 pesos, roughly €22.50, which includes the premium for 4C, along with the government subsidy (around €6). One of the farmers said his production costs for an aroja was around €13; others cited more.

Surprisingly, only a few of the farms roast beans for their own consumption. One who does is Don Jorge Garces, a former hairdresser and champion cyclist who now runs a model organic farm of just 2.8 hectares with his wife and sons. “This is a family business which depends on a lot of work,” he says, ducking through the tall coffee plants. The same could be said for the only female coffee farmer we encountered, a woman in her thirties called Dora Nancy Arboleda who runs a tiny two-hectare farm 1,600 metres above sea level at the end of a tortuous, precipitous, potholed track. Illness forced her to move from the town to the country, and now healthy and vigorous, she can think of no other life. “We do everything here ourselves,” she says proudly.

With an average age of 55, coffee growers are getting older, and many young people don’t want to do the work. Some, however, have other ideas. Garzón’s 15- year-old son Andres wants to continue running the coffee farm like his father.

Elsewhere, new thinking is also sowing the idea of another kind of crop – tourism. Farmers are waking up to the potential of supplementing their income by showing visitors how the food is produced. In the meantime, it will be four more years before that little coffee plant tucked into the earth this month will produce the beans for a cup of coffee somewhere in the world.

Deirdre McQuillan was a guest of Nestlé. A limited edition Nescafe Gold made with the first harvest from the company’s plant initiative in Colombia will go on sale in Ireland next spring

Facts about coffee
l The best coffee is arabica; robusta is the one used in most instant coffees.
l Coffee is the most widely traded agricultural product
l An estimated 1.6 billion cups of coffee are drunk worldwide every day
l Global consumption has almost doubled in the past 40 years
l In the UK, 9 out of 10 drink coffee with milk
l Five coffee companies control half the global retail coffee market – Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, Sara Lee and Tchibo.
l Coffee growers receive 7-10 per cent of the retail price of coffee

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