by Alejandro Cadena, Managing Director, Virmax Café
Every stage of coffee production is important to guaranteeing a high-quality product. What starts with good seed selection, and continues with careful picking, can end very badly at the last stage: processing, or post-harvest (wet milling and drying). Independent of the size of the producer, be it a micro-scale farmer with just one hectare of land, or a big estate with over 100 hectares, the challenges faced by coffee producers are largely the same.
Weather is perhaps the coffee grower’s biggest enemy. Besides the obvious effect that weather has on the growth of deleterious fungi, or pests and diseases such as borer beetles or rust—frequent and/or heavy rainfall during the harvest complicates the lives of producers in other ways. Most of the specialty coffee produced these days is still sun-dried, so rainfall during the harvesting season makes it harder for producers to dry their coffee, especially if they do not have the proper infrastructure in place. High moisture content (i.e. above 12 percent) and uneven drying are by far the biggest reasons for crop rejections we see every year in Colombia, accounting for about half the lots we reject. Lack of money to pay for pickers, especially among small producers, is the main reason why most growers look to speed up the drying process and don’t wait until coffee is dried below the maximum moisture level to deliver it. Sometimes even coffees that are dried below 12 percent don’t hold up very well and end up fading fast. This happens because parchment coffee is not evenly dried, or because growers blend different day-lots with differing moisture levels, leading to a decline in shelf life and cup quality due to accelerated chemical deterioration caused by moisture diffusing between beans.
The opposite occurs in Central America, where there is usually is too much sun during the harvest season and coffee is generally dried on cement or brick patios. The high temperatures under which coffee is dried on those patios, and lack of even airflow during the drying stage, can greatly affect cup quality and longevity. In the past few years, some Central American countries have begun to experience higher rainfall levels during the harvesting season, making it very hard for farmers to properly dry their coffee, as most are used to using uncovered cement patios.
Dry weather during the harvest in some coffee-producing countries can also complicate the washing process, as this can make water scarce. It is very common to see such things as producers moving water tanks in their pickups, or huge water tanks at wet mills in East Africa or Central America collecting water during the rainy season to use during the harvest period. Fortunately, there is an alternative: ecological wet-mills (also known as aqua-pulpers or mechanical demucilagers), which these days are more frequently used in East Africa and Brazil and other parts of Latin America, often with good results in the cup.
Another challenge that coffee growers everywhere increasingly face is shortage of labor. Producing coffee is particularly labor-intensive at all stages, with labor accounting for up to 50 percent of total production costs. Aging populations and younger people preferring to move to the city in search of better options, are among the factors making it extremely difficult to find pickers during the harvest—which drives labor costs up.
But perhaps the biggest challenge the specialty coffee industry faces is lack of knowledge on the part of farmers about how to process high-quality coffee. Coffee production has long been a tradition passed on from generation to generation, and when the older generations learned how to process coffee there was very little focus on quality. While the specialty coffee industry at the consumption level has evolved very quickly in the last decade, at the producing level there is still much to learn. Coffee buyers and consumers are becoming increasingly discerning about quality, looking for cleaner, complex, brighter, and sweeter coffees. However, most producers still do not know how to deliver the coffee that today’s specialty roasters demand.
To overcome this huge challenge, it is crucial to educate producers on better processing techniques, and to encourage them to experiment and learn by trying out new methods—what works in one farm doesn’t always work on all farms. That is why, in Virmax, we have developed a technical advisory program called the Coffee Grower Education Program (PECA in Spanish), which we currently have in place in Colombia, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The program educates a select number of coffee producers on best practices. They can then return to the farm to share their knowledge and educate their neighbors and friends, thereby increasing the volume of high-quality coffee available.
But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned over the years is that if a grower does not have a passion for coffee, not even the best varieties, the best infrastructure, or the best growing conditions are sufficient to help them produce quality coffee. There are producers located in very remote areas who don’t have the best infrastructure, and yet their coffees consistently outshine the biggest farms around. One of the best farmers we work with in Colombia doesn’t even have a tank to ferment and wash his coffee. Instead, he uses plastic bags to ferment and a wooden canoe for washing. Still, his coffee is one of the best and most consistent we taste year after year. What makes the difference is that he is a passionate coffee producer who has been able to solve his challenges with ingenious ideas. When he asked me if he should build a tank, I told him not to. Why fix something if it ain’t broken?
If we want the specialty coffee industry to continue to grow without sacrificing quality, we collectively need to help foster a new culture among the passionate coffee producers out there. To achieve this, it is crucial to facilitate growers’ access to information on the implementation of best practices, while developing new technologies to address the challenges that they increasingly face. And at the same time, we should not be afraid to properly reward those farmers for their hard work, so that they and their children can make a real living as coffee producers, and we can continue to drink amazing-tasting coffee.
Alejandro Cadena is the managing director of Virmax Café. He oversees export operations in eight Latin American countries and import operations (Caravela Coffee) in North America, Australia, and Europe. He started his professional career in London and New York doing M&A and project finance for a top investment bank. In 2002 he retired from banking to dedicate his life to specialty coffee. He currently resides in Bogota with his wife and son—but he mostly lives on airplanes (according to his wife), as he travels extensively every year to develop long-term relationships with coffee farmers in Latin America and roasters around the world.