We visited someplace completely different a couple of days ago: the home turf of Capulin Coffee. (www.capulin.com Bookmark It, NOW, so you don’t forget!) We’d been buying whole-bean Capulin coffee for several years, primarily because we knew it to be locally grown, and we’ve always been in favor of keeping business as local as possible. Daniel and his wife, Marta, usually have a table at the Sunday Market in the nearby town of Aticama, where they sell fresh-brewed coffee as well as whole-bean and ground coffee, and over this past winter, Paul, surprisingly enough, struck up a casual friendship with Daniel, due in part to Paul’s interest in roasting our own coffee at home, and, of course, Daniel’s extensive knowledge of all things coffee.
This past Sunday, Daniel mentioned to Paul that he was going to host a tour of his facility in nearby Tecuitata, about 30 minutes from our house, if we wanted to swing by on Tuesday. We arrived about noon, and were treated to an experience that we simply were not anticipating. We have only a couple of “must-see” places that we nearly insist our guests visit while we’re here. This has just made that list.
Daniel & Marta’s company, Capulin Coffee, is made the real, old-school way. The coffee bushes are carefully picked by hand, and Capulin only buys top quality, fully-ripened coffee cherries. Most other companies simply strip off all the cherries, regardless of stage of ripeness, leading to a poorer quality product in the end. The cherries (and they really are cherries; taste one and you’ll agree that while it’s not a big old fat Bing, it’s not bad) are sun-dried on a large concrete patio. The various piles of cherries have small wooden tags that identify which pile is which. Every night, the spread-out cherries are gathered into a pile and covered to prevent dew from slowing down the drying process. Then, each morning, the piles are spread out again, being turned by hand with a plastic snow shovel several times a day.
The collection of the ripe cherries is one of the many ways that Capulin exercises true “Fair Trade” and socially active business practices. Because Capulin demands only truly ripe cherries, they are willing to pay more for them than other buyers. This year, most coffee was sold at 4 pesos per kilo; Capulin paid 12 pesos, fully three times the prevailing rate. This is partially to compensate for the additional time required to hand-pick only ripe cherries, but also to provide a living wage to coffee pickers. At 4 pesos a kilo (about 13.5 cents a pound), workers can barely survive and may have to pull their children out of school to help with the picking. At a buck a kilo, a worker can actually afford to put food on his table and keep his kids in school.
The sun-drying process is another way Capulin practices environmentally friendly business, while providing a superior product at the same time. Most commercially produced coffee is “wet processed”, which means the cherries have their skins removed with a whip-stripper (sounds painful, but we’re told they don’t feel a thing!) The beans are fermented in a water bath for a couple of days, and the fermentation process metabolizes the natural sugars into alcohol. This alcohol causes the naturally sticky cherries not be sticky, and the bad beans (more about bad beans later) float to the top, while the good beans remain submerged. Following fermentation and separation, the water is wasted, and the remaining sludge containing a mixture of cherry flesh and beans is then dried for further processing. This wet-processing requires hundreds of thousands of gallons of water for even a medium-sized coffee operation, and, because the water is contaminated, it’s not suitable for domestic use, and ends up polluting local waterways.
Additionally, the sugars used by the fermentation come not just from the flesh of the cherry; some is leached out of the bean itself, increasing the bitterness of wet-processed coffee, and some of natural caffeine is also leached out, as caffeine dissolves quite readily in water, hot or cold.
Anyway, getting back to the Capulin tour, following a couple weeks of drying, the cherries are ready to be husked by a rotary beater that knocks the dried cherry husk off the inner bean. This process looks to be about 80% efficient, and cherries can sometimes make several passes through this process before finally getting properly husked out. In the old days, this process was performed by men beating the dried cherries with sticks to break them apart. The use of a motorized rotary beater speeds up the process dramatically, keeps the process affordable and allows Capulin to process enough coffee through to make it worthwhile.
The next step towards becoming coffee is winnowing. In the old days, the mix of beans and cherry husks was tossed up in to the air, allowing the wind to carry away the lighter chaff, and the more dense beans would drop close by. Today, because production has to occur every day, regardless of weather conditions, fans are used to provide the air currents needed to separate the beans from unhusked cherries from chaff. Beans fall straight down, unhusked cherries fall a little farther away and chaff flies farther off. The unhusked cherries are returned to the beater for another trip through. Winnowing is about 95% efficient, and unhusked cherries and the chaff are both sent through a second time for further efficiencies of separation.
The separated chaff, consisting primarily of the dried cherry husks, as well as a certain amount of broken beans, is sent to a composting operation, for distribution in the village. I would imagine that plants grown with the aid of this compost would tend to grow quickly and all night, be nervous, and easily distracted. (HA! I kill myself!)
The beans collected through the winnowing process are then taken to a sorting screen. Three different screen sizes separate most of the remaining unhusked cherries on the top screen; larger, #1 size beans sort out on the second screen, and smaller, #2 size beans end up on the 3rd screen. Broken beans fall through to the bottom. The unhusked cherries are returned back to the beater again. The sorting of the large, small and broken beans is performed in order to provide a uniform roast, as larger beans take longer to roast than smaller beans or chips. The bean fragments are used only for coffee that will be sold as ground coffee. The large and small beans are kept separate until they are roasted, after which there is no further distinction.
The screened green beans are then taken to the sorting station, where women pick through them, looking for bad beans. Remember, these would be the beans that would have been removed by the alternative “wet-processing” operation used by many commercial producers. “Bad” might mean with a bit of discoloration (which implies mold or disease), broken, or otherwise less than nearly perfect. Also, the so-called “pearls” are pulled out and set aside. Pearls are the beans that can grow at the very tip of a flowering branch, and tend to provide a naturally sweeter coffee. Any remaining bits of husk are pulled out, leaving only top quality beans. Some women working at Capulin have been there for 20 years. A top producer can provide quality sorting up at a rate of up to 75 kilograms (more than 150 pounds) in a single day, and because the sorters are paid by weight, many women who work here make more in a day’s work than the village men earn for a day’s work. Thus, a seat at one of Capulin’s sorting tables typically has a waiting list. To see these sorters work is very interesting. They chat away mightily (I imagine the caffeine absorbed through their finger tips may have something to do with this) and their fingers fairly fly over the beans, picking, flicking, pulling, putting, and a steady stream of the finished product cascading off the table into a collection pan in their laps.
The coffee is then either placed in air-tight plastic 5-gallon food-grade buckets for storage until shipping, or it is roasted and packaged for local marketing. Bucket storage is preferred over burlap bags because of two things: dried coffee beans stored in burlap will tend to absorb moisture from the air, given the humid climate, and start to deteriorate. Also, exposure to air causes the beans to lose some of their essential oils, so storage in air-tight buckets ensures the beans stay dry and away from the deteriorating effects of oxygen on the stored product. However, due to export regulations, the coffee must be bagged into burlap bags of 69 kilograms prior to shipment to the US. Beans were being transferred into the burlap bags at the time of our visit, as an shipment to the US will be occurring within a couple of weeks.
Capulin has a contract roasting, packaging and shipping operation in Tucson, AZ to meet the growing demands of US and worldwide markets.
At the end of the tour, as we were asking Daniel questions, we were treated to cold coffee. It’s made from a mixture of regular brewed (albeit, somewhat of a strong brew), milk and sugar. The mix is chilled and served without ice. It was refreshing and amazing! Paul had about 4 or 5 cups, and as we were walking to the car, he said “Dang, I feel like I’m tripping from that coffee!” Now, that’s some coffee with zing!
So, what we learned is that coffee is the second largest single item economic factor in the world, following petroleum. Its economic impact surpasses by far every other food item and non-food item in the world. It represents 17% of Mexico’s economy. However, due to the demands of the large-scale coffee producers, most coffee is produced by environmentally damaging methods, by workers being paid slave wages. Areas that have been turned into coffee-producing regions typically have been denuded of nearly all native birds, except for sparrows, finches and buzzards, and mammals of any larger size (bigger than a raccoon) have been rendered virtually extinct. Water supplies have been compromised and polluted and once vibrant village economies have been strangled by continuing downward wage pressure.
You can help, and it’s super easy. Plus, you’ll be glad you did. Just go to www.capulin.com and order your coffee from them. It’s not any more expensive than buying from Starbucks and we can tell you, it’s WAY better. It’s better for the economy, it’s better for the environment, and it’s better for your mouth. You’ll get that nice, warm “feel-good” moment, knowing you did a good thing, and if you have more than a cup or two, you’ll end up buzzing your ass off, like Paul!