I Saw the Light (Roast)

Coffee berries turn red when they are ripe and ready to pick.
Coffee berries turn red when they are ripe and ready to pick.

Turns out all these years I’ve been drinking the wrong coffee. I always liked dark, dark, dark roast, erroneously thinking that was giving me more caffeine bang for my buck. Now I’m a light roast gal who also really appreciates the labor that went into my cuppa joe.

As part of a recent Costa Rica trip, I took a tour of the Don Juan Coffee Plantation in Monteverde. One of the many particulars conveyed by our knowledgeable guide, Enervy, was that roasting imparts that characteristic coffee flavor to beans, but decreases the caffeine level. Also, a very heavy roast will remove most of the original flavors – think terroir, like winegrapes – of the bean, so it really wouldn’t matter if you were drinking coffee from Costa Rica or Ethiopia.

The tour also included a lot of information about the production of coffee – to be filed under “How Did Anyone Ever Figure All That Out?” The summary takeaway is that we all better appreciate how much effort goes into each cup, especially when it comes to picking the coffee.

The green wooden box is the cahuela used for picking coffee berries
The green wooden box is the cahuela used for picking coffee berries

Coffee berries ripen at various times, so for a quality harvest, the pickers need to go through each plant and only pluck the ripe, red berries. Those will go into a harvest box called a “cahuela,” which holds about 30 pounds of berries. Top notch pickers can get about 6-7 cahuelas a day, about 180-210 pounds of berries, but … they’re paid anywhere from $1.50-10.00 USD per cahuela. For the sake of easy math, let’s assume that we’re talking about the best picker working for the best pay (the latter not the typical situation) – that picker would still only make $70 USD a day.

What are you paying for a pound of coffee?

There’s also the nature of the fruit itself to consider. The red part of the berry is essentially a husk that typically holds two coffee beans (when the husk only holds one, that bean is called a “peaberry” and is a prized commodity commanding a higher price). After removing the husks, the beans then have to be dried, so they lose even more of their volume. When all is said and done, each cahuela ends up yielding only about six pounds of beans, about 20% of the original weight. Remember, however — that top notch picker still only got paid $10 USD for that cahuela.

What are you paying for a pound of coffee?

Why does a pound of coffee cost so much by the time it gets to you? Usually to a lot of middlemen – there’s the guy that buys the berries from the plantation and sells them to the guy that strips off the husks and dries the beans that will go a centralized broker that will sell them to a roaster in the U.S. who will sell the roasted beans to the coffee company that will bag them and put them on grocery shelves. That’s a lotta hands in the coffee pot!

Though it has its drawbacks (fodder for another time), Fair Trade certified coffee strives to alleviate the monetary disparity between the coffee picker and the end consumer. Long story short, the certification guarantees the price paid to the growers and pickers and helps ensure that they keep more of the money.

Better yet are roasters (Stumptown, Joebella) that are engaging in Direct Trade practices – buying directly from the coffee growers, often small family farmers. Best of all, as our guide Envery pointed out, is for consumers to purchase from enterprises that have developed a vertical system – keeping the growing, drying, and roasting all under the same business roof.

All that said, however, we’d all better get ready to pay even more for high quality coffee. A fungus called “roya” that attacks the leaves is sweeping through Central America. It’s proving very stubborn to treatment with fungicides, and – though it won’t kill the plant outright – if the plant has to be cut all the way back, it takes three years to start producing a viable crop again.

This outbreak has already affected far more than the morning routines of java junkies. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, this little fungus has caused nearly $1 billion in economic damage to the region since the latest outbreak in 2012. Put that in your pot and perk it!

Various roasts of coffee beans.
Various roasts of coffee beans.

 

3 thoughts on “I Saw the Light (Roast)

  1. SLORoasted used to have two kinds of fair trade coffee, but now it’s gone. Do you know why? Let’s pressure them to bring it back.

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