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.