Ships in the Processing Night

Pital de San Luis communal receiver heading for communal Costa Rican mill
Pital de San Luis communal receiver heading for communal Costa Rican mill

There is no single method by which to process coffee. In fact, the only limit to the number of ways to process coffee comes from the limits of one’s creativity and patience.

Coffee is processed differently in different countries, and those differences come from differences in infrastructure, culture, climate, geography, and a host of other factors. People have been processing coffee certain ways in a given country usually for as long as any coffee has been grown there. But recently it seems as though the grass is always greener in someone else’s coffee processing yard.

In Costa Rica coffee is traditionally processed in large communal mills known as beneficios. Producers arrive to the beneficios (or trucks go out to collect coffee cherries from the producers and then arrive to the beneficios) with truckloads of freshly picked cherries. The giant mills then depulp hundreds of thousands of pounds of coffee cherries. In recent years Costa Rica has abandoned any fermentation time in favor of washing the slimy mucilage off the coffee as soon as it’s depulped. The washed coffee beans are then dried on patios or in mechanical dryers. Most beneficios also have storage silos and hulling machinery, so that the dried coffee beans can be stored in their natural protective parchment paper until they are ready to be hulled and packed for export. In Costa Rica, once the ripe cherries leave producers’ hands they can stay in the beneficios’ hands until export–  if the mill has an export license (if not the mill will sell them to an exporter). There is no distinction between producers’ cherries once they dump them in the same receiving bin. The quality of producers’ cherries is assessed visually (number of green) and sometimes by dumping a sample in water to see how many float (to identify those with defects).

In Colombia, the process is basically inverted. Producers harvest their ripe cherries and process them right on their own fincas. Pretty much all fincas are equipped with a small motorized depulper and cement canals where the coffee ferments for 12-24 hours before being washed by hand with a long wooden paddle. The coffee is then laid on patios or pieces of plastic to dry. Then, once it’s dried and shrinks slightly to reveal its natural protective parchment paper seed casing, producers bring it into points of purchase (co-ops or middlemen), where a sample is hulled and defects are sorted out, and the producer is paid based on his or her precise quality.

When I first arrived in Colombia one of my hosts was excited to show me a type of processing that he described as “very new.” He was so excited to show me this special processing plant that he drove me three hours (each way) on a moto to get there.

When we arrived we were at a mill with giant machinery capable of depulping  hundreds of thousands of pounds of coffee cherries and then washing them without any fermentation. We watched as producers arrived in jeeps packed with sacks of bright red cherries. My host was in awe, saying, “Isn’t this amazing?!” To me it just looked like Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, back in Costa Rica, land of the giant communal beneficios, growers were starting to buy smaller units of depulping machinery and set up little “micro” beneficios right on their farms, where they would depulp the coffee, wash it, and then spread it out to dry on patios or raised beds. Their neighbors called them crazy, saying, “That’s not how coffee is processed!” Looking back at those revolutionary farms in Costa Rica, they have a lot in common with the majority of Colombian farms.

So in a country where coffee is traditionally processed communally there’s a trend towards processing on individual farms, and in a country where coffee is traditionally processed on individual farms there’s a trend toward building new communal processing facilities. Costa Rica and Colombia seem to be passing each other in the murky waters of coffee processing like two ships in the night, unaware that the other is headed directly towards whence came the first.

So what makes each shore so attractive that producers are willing to drift out into uncharted waters? Is it just the universal allure of greener grass, or are there things about each process that are in fact worth striving towards? Conversely, what elements of their respective traditional processes are growers trying to get away from? Because if there is something worthwhile in each process, maybe both countries can just tap into the good stuff in what they’re already doing versus setting sail for something so new.

What do Costa Ricans see as attractive about individual processing; what’s wrong with the traditional communal method? In Costa Rica as in all coffee growing regions there is a great variety between different farms. One might have rich soil and optimal rainfall, while the next farm over might have dry, micronutrient deficient soil. One farmer might pick only ripe cherries, while his neighbor has a habit of slipping a bunch of green ones in the mix. Yet, when they get to the communal mill, both producers are paid essentially the same price. For producers who are hard-working and know there is something inherently special about their lands, this is very frustrating. They want to see returns for their coffee, not returns based on the average quality of the coffee in their region.

They are also working towards a change in processing in order to see the profits from selling green coffee versus coffee cherries. The farther upstream you go, the more valuable coffee gets. A prepared beverage is the most expensive form in which to buy coffee (where you can often pay $3 for a shot of espresso made with 4oz of coffee) and buying coffee in cherries is the cheapest. Growers in Costa Rica want to get away from selling their coffee in its cheapest state.

Colombian coffee farmers already sell their coffee in dried parchment paper, which is a more valuable state that fresh-picked cherries. So why the move toward big, communal mills? Here, the impetus comes more from buyers than from sellers. Large communal mills might not recognize differences in superior quality from a certain hillside, but they do produce hundreds of thousands of pounds of a consistent product. For large commercial roasters, this consistency is attractive. Currently, all those Colombian producers with their own depulping machinery are turning out a bunch of coffees of varying grades. Some are fermented longer than others while some are depulped with one machine and some with another. All this individual work makes for overall variation when all that coffee makes it to the dry mill.

So the element of Costa Rican processing that Colombians are hoping to repeat is consistency. And the element of Colombian processing that Costa Ricans are hoping to repeat is individuality. But, even though Colombians process their coffee individually, most never sell it as such. Like Costa Rican coffee cherries, Colombian coffee still gets pooled with all the coffee in the area, just as beans in parchment rather than as fresh cherries. Pursuing consistency is certainly a valid goal, but Colombian growers are already in a position to sell their unique coffees directly. They don’t need to invest in building new micro mills; they already have them. Costa Ricans would be elated if they woke up one morning and saw that they had their own depulping and drying set-ups. They wouldn’t waste a second in finding buyers to purchase their individual coffees. Because the FNC and large exporting interests have had such control for so long, direct trade models are emerging more sparsely in Colombia than in Costa Rica and other Central American countries.

It doesn’t look like communal Costa Rica will wind up like individual Colombia, and it doesn’t look like individual Colombia will end up like communal Costa Rica. Rather, it looks like both will end up with two systems: one that affords the consistency attractive to big buyers and one that affords the unique and specific taste profiles attractive to smaller buyers.

There is no one way to process and commercialize coffee, and every model has its perks and works for someone.

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