A snap shot view of what happens to coffee after it leaves its origin and is ready for distribution.
by Slow Food USA staffer Julia De Martini Day
Last week I traveled to Newark, New Jersey to participate in the unloading of 20 tons of green coffee beans just off the boat from approximately 600 small farmers in the Mount Elgon highlands region of Uganda. This was the second shipment for Crop to Cup, a small, very young coffee business, and everyone was anxious to see whether the washed Arabica Grade A beans had become moldy or infested with bugs during the month long boat ride and New Jersey customs inspection.
The director of the terminal walked us through the aisles of the humid warehouse, which smelled sweet from the 50-foot columns of jute/burlap sacks lining the wide, dark walkways. The warehouse is certified organic, stores up to 750,000 bags of coffee at a time (each bag weighing over 130lbs), and is 1 of 4 the company operates along the east coast.
As we walked to the container we had to jump to the sides of the aisles a few times to avoid being hit by speeding forklifts transferring coffee. Larry, a worker opening the container, broke the wires holding the metal doors shut, letting bags of coffee spill onto the cement floor. Quickly he and another man began to “palletize” the bags – organize them into small pyramids the forklifts could pick-up, weigh, and put in storage before they are trucked and delivered to NYC roasters and markets.
While the bags were unloaded, the terminal director showed us how to take a sample of the green beans and ensure they are not rotten or damaged. Using a metal tool that looked like a narrow funnel, but that could be inserted into the burlap bag without tearing a hole in the side, he pulled out green beans from an assortment of sacks and put them in a Ziploc bag for us to examine back in the fluorescently lit office.
Looking consistently green, beautiful and healthy (no holes in the beans, not too many brown/black spots or cracks), we moved on to Phase II of the know-how-your-coffee-gets-to-your-cup daylong adventure: Roasting.
With 2 jute bags loaded into the trunk we drove to Raus Coffee, an even younger company than Crop to Cup that currently operates a roaster out of a home basement (shhh). The Raus Coffee roaster takes about 14 minutes to roast 4 pounds of coffee. Using this machine and a small counter top roaster, we roasted the coffee 5 different ways, altering the temperature and timing slightly to get darker or lighter, dryer or oilier, roasts.
The Coffee Cupping and small scale roasting atmosphere is vastly different at first glance than the coffee terminal/storage environment – in one the coffee appears to be a commodity and in the other a precious, specialty item. Instead of throwing bags of coffee around we now delicately measured and weighed green beans out for roasting. In a bright, ventilated room, we sat around a wooden table with small glasses and spit cups in front of us, smelling, tasting, and taking notes on the different roasts. Raus Coffee was experimenting with what worked best, and Crop to Cup was searching for the perfect roast (something they can take to a bigger roaster to be replicated).
That day we didn’t completely and directly follow the coffee’s path from farmer to co-producer, but we tried to get as close as possible to doing so without traveling to the equator.
To read profiles that the farmers who exported the coffee have written about themselves, click here.