A Newfound Gratitude

We move to a dim warehouse, walking through the maze of machinery that shakes with ear-numbing racket as it sorts through billions of dried coffee beans. Spencer explains how the beans are jostled across the flat metal surface and eventually sort themselves. Like waves in the ocean, they’re organized by size as they march forward. (And just like that, the women that once sat in the heat of the day and patiently hand-sorted beans are replaced with this noisy effectiveness.)

Outside, the machine spits out a massive pile of husks and bad beans. It will become fire fuel or garden compost. Nothing is wasted. Not even coffee bean waste. Massive bags of beans are loaded onto trucks and shipped out, back down the highway to Managua. This happens all before it’s ever roasted or ground, or poured into a cup. And we’ve not even seen the farming.

We climb into the truck exhausted, passing around a bottle of cool water we nabbed from the office cooler. I watch the women walk back from lunch and into the heat, across the massive yard. The men lug bags on bent shoulders. How much effort is put into my food. And paying a little extra for a cup, knowing it would come from here, it would go to the hard-working people I’ve met today, seems completely inconsequential.

The scale is grand. It’s much larger than anything Spencer’s seen in his Latin America coffee tours. But even trying to picture something smaller, one woman raking coffee, one man lugging bags, it’s mind blowing how much work is put into it (even something as simple as coffee), how much my thankfulness is limited to the barista before me, and how I’ve pretty much taken for granted everything else behind coffee. I promise myself to do a better job when I get home. I promise to stop taking the absolute luxury of my morning coffee for granted. To pause for at least a moment, to remember the people and places that contribute to each cup.

Fair Trade, Trace-ability & Lasers!

When I meet up with the group again, they’re standing in one of the massive warehouses. Giant 200+ pound bags bulging with dry coffee (not yet roasted) stacked on pallets.  A series of colorful skyscrapers, white, red, tan and red, we wander the maze-like pathways between stacks as a sparrow flits in the rafters. Each stack tagged with a wooden plaque with the finca name. There are hundreds of plaques signifying Nica fincas, in the cool room. Every one of the million coffee bags are tagged with a slip of paper carefully tracing the roots of this particular bag: stating name of a region, a finca, and the individual farmer.

Traceability, Spencer points to a single tag, for fair trade.

Of course. It just never dawned on me how they would track massive shipments of coffee, that would leave this facility to be shipped to the states, to the UK, so on. And I think of summers in Eugene, Oregon, on my grandparents tiny ranch, steering a rattling tractor with six-year-old hands, shadowed by my grandpa’s gnarled ones, and each day continues as life for those golden months revolves around that 100 acre parcel of land. This is repeated over and over and over, for generations, and the product of that effort, aggregated here. Right in front of me. Months of work, shared by generations.

As we stand, cool in the relative shade, men in green jumpsuits hoist one massive bag of coffee across their shoulders. Head down, sweat streaming from frowned faces, they carry each burden down the walkway and up, up, up, a rickety 15 stair step “escalerona” in front of a pallet-in-progress. The bag is thrown on the pile, arranged, and the man trots back for another, like sweaty, but inhuman clockwork. I lean in the doorway watching first, gasp or smile to the human drama, and when the time feels right, I jokingly grasp at a bag myself. I’m strong. But my best tug, with all my might, barely moves the bag an inch–forget lifting it above my head. And snap, the grim human machine stops and they stare, and laugh good naturedly, as I flex my muscles and try again.

Por que?! I laugh at myself and ask why I’m not strong like them? Nothing like making an ass of yourself, to make friends. It generally works. And in the dim light, my camera no longer feels like such an intruder, and the strong me pose for shots as they curiously eye our little group as we take in the massive machines.

One de-husks the dry bean, dropping parchment-like tan paper of a single bean into a pile two times higher than me (which will be used as compost or kitchen-fire fuel — nothing is wasted) and we move on to another machine that takes the husked beans (which replaced a line of women picking at beans one at a time) a high-tech sorter that jiggles beans into their appropriate class (A being biggest and best and down the alphabet…). Finally, the sorted beans are shot through the final machine, four tubes review beans, in rapid-fire motion, so that the hundred beans shot through in a single minute look like one (and only my camera is able to slow it down to see, yes, there are really one bean at a time being inspected). Technology finds a bad bean and a thousand little lasers shoot the bean with a thousands tiny holes until it disintegrates into dust, as the good beans continue their march toward the retail world.

It’s insane. Women quietly raking beans, men lugging bags in the absence of a simple dolly
–and a space-age sorter shooting lasers. (I had to look at Spencer’s face 100 times before I trusted he wasn’t pulling my leg.)

The production process complete, it’s amazing how much (human) work it takes for my morning coffee. I will never begrudge a hike in coffee. (In fact, I’d be ready to sign the petition to pay more, if it could go to these people. I’ve always been a fan of fair trade, but it’s never hit home like this.)

The smile on Martina’s face, as we walk and talk to our guide and she procures the bits of free-trade and organic data she needs, is just like the sunshine. I wonder if it’s hitting her too, how tough but amazing the last five years of her life has been, to have struggled to put this all together. I wonder what would have happened if I’d have never taken a day trip to London last summer. I would have missed this. And now we’re laughing, interviewing and photographing for the BBC.

The Sound of a Single Coffee Bean

The afternoon flits by, as we walk slowly through the oven-like intense heat of Nicaragua-heading-into-dry-season. I let the others wander ahead, through fields of drying coffee, and linger behind.

Silent workers shuffle on top of the coffee, through the blasts of dry heat, baggy clothes rippling, the ground shimmering with silver-blue mirage, mirroring an omnipresent deeper-blue sky. In the absence of trees and the minutiae of their work, amassed at their feet,  the workers rise like giants. The only moving creatures on the horizon, against a sea of gold-green beans.

Her head is bent, wrapped in a red and white USA scarf that whips around the gray-brown baseball cap that covers her forehead. She pushes a crude wood rake through the drying beans. Back and forth. And again. (The soothing sound of a million little beans rattling into place.) She never looks up. She will not make eye contact, though I’m squatted only a few feet from her intently concentrating on coffee beans and trying to find some gesture or posture or Spanish word to make friends, to show my sincere interest in her work, her life, her. But she will not glance my way.

The two women huddled at the foot of the coffee bed won’t look at me either. Heads bent, calloused brown fingers pick individual gold beans from the dry, dull grass. I barely make out a staccato plink-plink. As each wayward bean is tossed back on the pile. One bean at a time. Plink-plink.

How much was that one bean actually worth? To me? It wasn’t even enough for a shot of espresso. To them? An afternoon, a livelihood, a paycheck that would aggregate the 1/1000 of a cent that one bean must be worth to someone, eventually.

Plink-plink. Plink-plink. Plink-plink.

And just when I think I’m starting to get it, the context, that I’m starting to find my way in to the connection to these women and the lives they lead and the photo that they might let me take if I can show them all of this in my smile or my eyes, or my own bowed head, studying the texture of a sun-warmed bean–a gong sounds.

It all stops. Immediately.

Rakes drop, beans abandoned. The women walk away from me. And I never get that photo. And only hope I come away with the words to make up for it.

Green-Gold Beans

We pull off the two-lane highway, onto cobbled-dirt roads, weaving through simple cement-block houses, until we stop in front of a large gate, brick walls baking in the sunshine. Massive corrugated metal warehouses shimmer and stretch against the immense blue sky. He walks over to the car, tanned face, a camouflage baseball cap, a full black beard that frames smiling eyes and mouth, the most relaxed demeanor that nearly (but not quite) disguises a completely inquisitive mind. His Spanish is good, much better than mine. His knowledge of coffee and literature much better. His sense of humor stellar. Immediately our dynamic duo expands to three coffee explorers, as the adventure begins in earnest.

While Gustav waits with the truck, hiding in a single pool of shadow on a ridiculously hot day, Martina introduces our party to the manager of the beneficio, the production facility for coffee after the berries have been harvested from various farmers. He’s a kind, well-spoken man who has all the time in the world to show us every facet of coffee production. And the scale is tremendous. Two warehouses store pallet upon pallet of bags of beans. Behind the warehouses sit four Olympic pool sized slabs of of gray concrete bake with rows of coffee beans, in various stages of drying. Beyond that, on top of dry grass, stretch rolls of black plastic and more tan-gold beans, tended to by scarved workers.

Spencer, the Los Angeles kid who is living in Australia roasting coffee with his sister and brother-in-law but taking a break for a self-guided coffees of Central America backpacking tour, tells me the size of this operations is unheard of elsewhere. As Martina interviews our tour guide like a BBC pro, Spencer lifts a handful of beans to his face. “Buttered popcorn”.  I scoop a handful of warm, sundried beans. A deep inhale. I laugh, it is! Just like buttered popcorn. Earthy and sweet. It’s nothing close to the rich intensity of the black-brown beans that make my latte.

As we stand amongst acres of drying, golden beans, Spencer picks a single bean from a row and bites.

“We have fancy equipment back home that helps roasters determine the moisture content of a single bean, within 5 of 10%. When coffee reaches about 30 – 25% moisture it’s ready to be shelled. Earlier or later and you ruin the coffee.”

I sluff off the parchment like paper of a single bean and snap the hard center open, letting the golden husk fall. I bite into the green-gold bean.

It’s moist and tastes like a woodier, raw legume–it’s not horrible. But it’s not my beloved coffee either.

Spencer tells me that in coffee-growing economies, farmers and producers bite into a bean and in that bite can taste the moisture content within 1 or 2 percent. I bite into another bean. It’s impossible to imagine. I toss a handful of beans back into the beach-like expanse. How far does one little bean travel, to finally make my morning a bit brighter.