Its a yearly event, me and Roland sit down and go through our favourite coffees of 2017. This years its no different, we ramble we talk, we decide. Hope you enjoy
I’ve really been enjoying writing recently, and its been great starting to publish things on the blog again. I’ve also started write a book (have I told you about my book http://coffeeography.co.uk ). I never realised writing a book could be so time consuming, so it means the flow of things here is not as prolific as I might hope.
Child labour and coffee harvesting
By Alejandro Martinez
The other day I went with my family to pick coffee at the farm. A few days later, my sister-in-law and I got into an argument about the topic of kids picking coffee. Apparently, she saw a picture that my wife posted of Lucas, my son, with a basket of coffee. It seems he did not look too happy, despite my counter claims that he had a blast. You can judge for yourself, since I am attaching the picture to this post.
I feel that not everyone understands the complexity of the issue, and I thought about writing a little bit about it in order to shed some perspective from the field.
First, I do want to emphasize that it is preferable for children not to do any work. I do believe that kids should have fun and play as much as they can in their childhood. I empathize given that at my age and many years of hard work and pent-up bitterness, those days when you are young and without a worry were the best ones.
However, here is the hard reality of the rural farm worker and his family. Most workers get paid a low wage, which tends to be not sufficient to cover all basic needs. Furthermore, consider that work is often intermittent and there are times that a worker is unable to find work, sometimes for up to two or three months.
Now, consider the following factors:
School year is in sync with the coffee harvest: the school year usually ends about the time that the coffee harvest begins. Public schools are on vacation for the three or four months of the coffee harvest. It is not by coincidence but probably by design given how important coffee used to be in El Salvador. So, during the harvest, parents usually have no one to leave their children with given that both parents go out to pick coffee.
Children are usually not registered as workers. Kids normally are around, accompanying their parents. Heck, once I even saw an 8-month-old baby inside a basket next to her mom in the estate. I remember it vividly since he was the same age as my kid at the time. Thus, some kids will help their parents by combining their pickings with their parents. It is a way to contribute to the family income.
Picking coffee is not hazardous. No one is exposed to pesticides or toxic chemicals. The climate is mild and shade trees provide cover from the sun. There is one issue though, the weight of the coffee bag. Now, kids usually carry the amount that they can lift. In the case of my son, no more than twenty pounds…he is really skinny.
Finally, no one is forced to pick a minimum amount of coffee. At harvest, the coffee is paid by weight, so the more a worker picks the more he gets paid. Children are not able to pick the same amount as an adult, but it does not matter, since payment is done by weight.
So, I had a hard time explaining all this to my sister-in-law. It is easy to judge from the outside, but each family has their own unique situation. It is not popular to talk about this and I know it is a touchy subject, but I feel that we may do more harm than good if we preclude children from helping their parents around harvest time. We may even impact a child’s health if the kid goes hungry because his parents have no money to sustain him. So, why not allow them to contribute and make a better future for themselves?
So I did a blog post a few weeks ago about how much I hate barista competition and why it sucks (mainly because I didn’t win).
For the sake of balance I thought it was important to share why as a company Has Bean still continues to be involved with enthusiasm in barista competition.
Dale Harris has been with Has Bean now for 7 years (your average manslaughter kind of sentence). When I first met Dale he was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar (that much is true). But it was at a barista competition I really got to speak with him and I realised that I had to have him as part of my team.
Dale since that time has become one of my closest friends and confidents at Has Bean and instrumental in the success we have had. Think all the good things are down to him and most of the mistakes down to me.
Also since that day both me and Dale have been on many barista competition adventures, most of them ending in us also not winning (some very close scrapes though and bullets dodged). But it has given us some focus and some great times along the way.
Most importantly it has pushed us both to think about coffee in different ways, year on year. Before going to Central America this January, Dale charged me with finding him a coffee for this years UKBC competition. Sounds easy right ? But with Dale there has always had to be an element of learning or understanding about the coffee industry and sourcing in a different way. This makes the task harder, delicious and tasty coffee with a twist.
Towards the end of the trip I had found many tasty coffees that were good, but nothing that really fitted his complicated brief. Then in a cupping room in Nicaragua I was presented with something special, that blew my mind and made me challenge a lot of preconceptions of coffee sorting and separation.
The coffee was from Finca Limoncillo and was the amazing Yellow Pacamara. Nothing new here I hear you cry, its a coffee we have worked with for nearly 4 years now. The yields of this coffee are low, and the demand is high. We jump to the front of the queue for this coffee because we bought it in the first auction of it, and have been big cheerleaders, but still theres not enough for how much of it you all demand.
So when cupping with Eleane, (part of the Miresch family who own the farm) she suggested I tried the petits. Petits are whats left over after the coffee has gone through screen sorting sieves to find just the biggest beans. Screen sorting is something thats left over from commodity days, mainly to ensure some kind of consistency in times where picking and processing details had no resemblance to the highly skilled and attention to detail coffee farming of today. The larger beans stay in the top of the screens, and the smaller ones fall through to their death. The industry has have found new ways to maintain consistency, but still we sieve them through the screens and normally throw these petits into commodity coffee to be sold on the C market or to fill lower quality blends.
In these times of speciality coffee becoming more scarce, lowering yields and environmental challenges. this seems crazy. Why remove good coffee to become commodity when there can be eqaually (or maybe even better) coffee there. Its something we tried last year with Finca Argentina in El Salvador with great success, so when someone like Eleane suggested I try them I jumped at the chance.
It cupped amazingly and I had found my special coffee with a unique and interesting twist on it for Dales Competition.
Dale competed with this coffee the weekend just gone, and made me incredibly proud of what he presented, you can watch his performance at the video window below, and we’ll be watching things closely at the London heat, crossing fingers that Dale will be able to take this forward to the finals.
So why is competition important for Has Bean? Mainly to keep Dale off the streets between January and the summer months, but also for us to push the boundaries of what we do as a coffee roastery and give us things to get excited about. It gives us focus, and to see how we can improve not just barista skills but to keep coffee buyers like me on my toes, making sure we do the best job we can.
We should have some of this coffee later in the year for you to try, but for now Dale has some areas to improve on and practice with for what is a much more technically demanding competition to the brewers cup, and I expect to sit through many more run throughs of his perforce in coming weeks.
Do expect another blog post about rules and how the competition sucks and how it isn’t a coffee sourcing competition (I understand fully the contradictory tone of these two posts) later in the year. But for now this isn’t my performance and isn’t my message, Dale is his own man, with his own ideas and interpretation of the competition scene.
I think this is a great example on how competitions can be used to push yourself to get better not just as a barista, but as a company and industry. Its an excellent way to showcase your thinking and present to the world whats on your mind.
I’m incredibly proud (as I always am) of Dales performance and what an amazing job he did, and look forwards to where he takes his competition this year, and sometimes (like the brewers cup competition this year) theres more than just winning to be gained. But come on, wouldn’t it be nice for once !
I’ve always gone along with the idea that the C price in coffee is nothing to do with me. But I’ve started to change that opinion of late
So what is the C price ? The C price is the price paid for traded commodity coffees at the New York financial exchange. This is a two-fold market of current prices and also a futures market for purchase of contracts for coffee for a later date.
The prices are dictated by a few things, but in a stable market these main things are weather conditions at origin which will have an effect on yield for that year. There is a saying if Brazil sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold, and this stems from this kind of thing. Markets are heavily influenced by statements from coffee-producing countries’ organisations, regarding dropping yields or a lack of supply of coffee in the market. Like anything supply and demand are very important factors.
Coffee that we buy have no resemblance to this price and I’ve worked hard over the years to make producers ignore the “c” and focus on things like cost of production and then the rewards they deserve for the coffee. Cost of production can vary from varietal to varietal and reward can fluctuate depending on rarity and demand.
Its been a clean easy mechanism to work out what price we should pay for a coffee, well so I thought.
So why the change of heart and the focus on watching the “c” price? Every farm that produces specialty coffee will have some commodity coffee, the stuff that doesn’t taste so good, the smaller beans, and broken / black beans. These beans have to find a home, and its often on the commodity market that they are sold.
I’m not even going to touch differentials if you want to learn about them go here http://www.hasblog.co.uk/coffee-prices-differentials-and-premium-quality-coffee-relationships. But for now lets keep the numbers simple
The fluctuation in the market means that the profits of a farm can fluctuate with them. These numbers are very complicated unless your talking about a real farm, and I’ve yet to have this conversation. So I’m going to use some very basic numbers to prove the point.
So say a farm that produces 450 bags. 60% of the coffee sells at $4.50 a lb FOB to the speciality market. The remaining 40% is subject to the commodity prices at the time. The fixed income is the relatively good at $184824.59 for the 270 bags of specialty. But what does the market do to the other prices
Well lets look at some dates in April. If the commodity coffee was sold on the 1st of April 2011 then the producer would have received $82,144.26 for their 180 commodity bags, giving them a total turnover of $266,968.85. Fast forward to the 1st of April 2014 and that same commodity coffee would have sold for $55,584.28 giving them a total of $240408.87 a drop of $26,559.98. Fast forward further to the 1st of April 2017 and that same coffee would have sold for $37997.20 a total of £222821.79 a drop from 2011 of $44,147.06.
Now say this imaginary farm has outgoing costs including a wage for the producer of $240,000.00 In 2011 they made an amazing profit of $26,968.85, winner winner chicken dinner. But in 2014 that profit would be $408.87. 2017 was even worse where they made an imaginary loss of $17178.21 nearly wiping out all the profit of 2011 (not to mention costs will have all gone up by then).
Now these figures are probably way off, but they do demonstrate how much effect a swing in the New York ‘c’ can have on the life of a producer in an imaginary world.
The ‘c’ in 2011 was a freak occurrence that doesn’t happen very often. Stock markets were down, currencies unstable and commodities were really targeted by the rich as a place to put their money. The market was being manipulated by very wealthy banks and hedge funds to keep making money in the tough times. Prices at the moment are low, and in many cases lower than production (this is where differentials come in places like Kenya compared to say Brazil have very different harvesting costs).
So lets set a mid price of $1.60 for the C to be a healthy market. This would mean that a good profit for the imaginary farm being set at $228634.86. My proposal would be to set a sliding scale of payment on that $4.50 a lb coffee and when the market rises, that price would drop to the producer and when it drop the “specialty” coffee rise. For instance the coffee on the 1st of April 2017 would be $37997.20. So if you set the price at $4.64 in stead of the static $4.50 you cover the loses of the producer in the specialty price.
But if April 2011 ever happened again then then that “speciality” price would drop for instance $3.57 meaning the producer still got the $228634.86 which involves profit and wages but the roaster is protected against what would be a rising market. You see when the market rises and spot purchases from importers and negotiations with new suppliers are always much higher than when the market is down even if we pretend to ignore it. I kind of see it as hedging the market both ways for producer and roaster.
DATE C PRICE
1/4/2011 299.38 $82144.26 for 27381.42 lb
1/4/2014 203.05 $55584.28 for 27381.42 lb
1/4/2017 138.77 $37997.20 for 27381.42 lb
450.00 184824.59 for 41072.13 lb
Now these sums are very basic, and I’d love to sit down with a coffee producer and give them some real meaning but there has to be some milage in this idea, so a farmer can plan for the year knowing exactly what they will bring in, and roasters can plan and not be adversely hurt by a changing market. Its also easier to put raises in costs of production again, sitting down year on year and working out the best price to pay depending on the market.
How do you continue to motivate the farmer to produce quality. I don’t think this model would fit every producer and very country (and I don’t know if it would even work. But I think the majority of producers we work with are not motivated by money, but by producing great coffee and having some stability in pricing. I’ve had some of our farmers approached by other roasters wanting the coffee and offering more money, but our team tend to know that I’ll be back every year, and thats a motivator in itself.
But I think some guidelines like
– we’ll buy XX lbs of coffee of coffee next year provided they are available and cup at 85+
– We will guarantee a premium on this quantity of coffee,
– we will raise/lower this premium to factor any financial impact incurred by changes in the C-market on any coffee produced that cups below 85 to ensure stable profits
– we will invest x% of profit from this years coffee into future innovation on your farm
These are just muses, and stuff I’ve been thinking about, but I will approach someone and get the real figures and see if we can do something on one farm see if its even possible and if it is just to trial this out. I’m sure theres another blog post in the future about this too.
Ok so first off, a huge congratulations to the amazing David Cullen of Clifton coffee who won this weekends UK Brewers cup competition, and an even bigger shout to Mat North who runs the competitions like a don, an organisational god.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I love the country and the coffee of Bolivia. If you’re not sure, check out this video below I delivered on the tamper tantrum tour of Asia presented in Taiwan:
The potential and the quality of the coffee is undeniable, but the quantity of the coffee has been on the decline for years.
Despite this, we have been working hard with the Rodriguez family to promote and increase production. Bolivia’s past is interesting although it’s a commercially viable coffee exporting country, it’s production has always been small. The conditions, although challenging, are exceptional for growing coffee, and this produces a very rich agriculture built on a long history of farming on a very difficult and difficult terrain. In 1991, there was a government led initiative to encourage the endogenous population to participate in coffee farming, which led to a fractured system counter-intuitive to quality. The arrival of the Cup of Excellence Program in 2004 allowed buyers to find the quality coffee for which Bolivia was already known, but that had become difficult to source.
The main problem for producers was (and, to some extent, still is) that they are unable to make enough money to be sustainable. To subsidize their income, they looked to other crops, mainly coca (the crop that is used to produce cocaine, legal in Bolivia). Encouraged by the government, coca is four times more profitable and is much easier to grow than coffee, and this sadly led to coffee producers turning their back on coffee or, even worse, abandoning their farms.
Coca farming involves a lot of chemicals and fertilisers that are not good to the soil and land, so farming coca leads to the soil being infertile and overworked. Over time, coca-farmed land is unusable for any crop. Bolivian governmental support for growing coca has led to a break-down of relations with the USA, who had previously supported Bolivian agriculture and economy in the early 2000s. The resulting war on drugs in Bolivia has since led to many initiatives to help coffee farmers, with things like the Cup of Excellence being financially supported by USAID.
As if these difficulties weren’t enough to overcome, the arrival of leaf rust in 2013 (a fungus that attacks the leaves of a coffee tree and makes it impossible photosynthesize) meant that the country lost over 50% of its production that year alone. The combination of both government policy and leaf rust means that Bolivia’s coffee production has dropped by over 70 % in the past ten years, leaving the county a minor player in the world of coffee.
This means that to find the very best coffees from Bolivia, we have to pay a much higher than normal price compared to other coffee producing countries—but this isn’t a bad thing. The small volumes available and current demand for great coffees mean that, for once, coffee producers are on the front foot.
The Rodriguez family own their own mills, processing and exporting coffee for farmers in the Caranarvi and Sud Yungas region. The family have been sourcing coffee from small coffee producers for three decades, but the steady decline of coffee production has put the sustainability of their export business in jeopardy. Without the intervention of people like the Rodriguez family, however, the future of coffee production in Bolivia is at risk of disappearing.
In 2014, the Rodriguez family bought a number of farms in Caranavi region to showcase their practices and educate other producers in sustainable farming, as well as increasing the overall volume at their mills. One of the farms is La Linda and there are a number of varietal and processing experiments going on.
Bolivia La Linda Experimental Washed Caturra (£7.50)
This is a wonderfully sweet and fruity coffee, raspberry Starburst meets sweet orange with red apple on the finish. Super delicious and a shining example of the wonderful things a bit of experimentation can do.
Bolivia La Linda Washed Caturra (£7.50)
Think sparkling white wine with some candied lemon around the edge of the glass, then on the aftertaste pineapple cubes. A deliciously fruity and bright coffee.
Bolivia La Linda Pulped Natural Longberry (£10.00)
Those candied lemon pieces that are covered in white sugar with a clean and delicate finish of rosewater and floral notes.
Bolivia La Linda Natural Caturra (£8.00)
This is a liquid rhubarb and custard sweet, with a bit of dark rum thrown in for fun! A really creamy and boozy coffee.
And some old favorties return too, and many more to come over the coming weeks!
Bolivia Teodocio Mamani Washed (£7.00)
Expect a lovely fruit sweetness, with orange jelly wobble mid-palate that finishes with peach juice.