Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Honduran Hooky - Part 2, Coffee Plantation Tour

Carlos had a special surprise in store for us on our way to Copan; a tour of a local coffee plantation, or Finca. As we drove there, he pointed out the coffee plants growing all round us which were made easier to spot because of their ripe red beans. All of the plants were shaded by nearby trees or shrubs. We were at a pretty high altitude in a relatively mountainous area of Western Honduras, which is supposedly ideal for coffee growing.

We rounded a large turn on mountain, and there we saw on a large plateau the Finca Santa Isabel, or Plantation Santa Isabel, where Welchez’ family brand Coffee is grown. There were several large white cinder block structures, some large flat cement drying areas covered with coffee beans and some wooden shanties behind chain link fencing. Children, aged 6 to 12, who had apparently finished picking coffee for the day were milling about looking for things to occupy themselves with.

We got out of the van and were met by the lighter colored Hispanic owners of the Finca, all relatives of the Welchez. The tour began.

We climbed up into the unsafe looking mill to see the wet process that is used for the Arabica coffee beans. There were no guard rails to prevent falling into the open water canals or into the machinery. First the beans are washed by soaking in a canal of moving water, which was right next to where we were walking. There was a large blue hopper that the beans were dumped into for the washing. Men were making sure with their bare hands that the beans fell into it without obstruction.

In the second phase of the wet process, the coffee beans are put into large water containers so they may ferment. A man was standing in the huge rectangular cement sump raking the beans around. According to the literature, “The fermentation process eliminates not only the impurities, but also the viscous layer that wraps the grains and doesn’t dissolve with water. This part of the process, lasts from one to two days, and is what gives coffee its great aroma and its special taste.” The drying area was just beyond the bath.

Once the fermentation process is over, the beans are washed again. Around the beans there is still the folded skin that resembles a parchment, and that’s why this coffee is also called parchment coffee or "café pergamino".

The washed parchment coffee gets spread over terraces or drying tables so it will dry under the sun. The beans are turned many times a day so they dry evenly.

Then the beans go through a conveyor belt, where very specialized personnel separate the perfect beans from the visually flawed beans, for instance the ones that are pierced or have a different color.

Carlos told us that whole families live on the Finca in the shanties behind the processing plant. The fathers work at the mill, the females work sorting, bagging, roasting, and the children pick the beans.

After undergoing the additional processes of drying, peeling, shelling, cleaning and quality control, the coffee is ready for roasting. We went into another house to see this process. We saw the large roasters and could smell the coffee which was sitting in bags ready for sale. Both beans and ground coffee were there. Plus, a fresh pot of coffee was ready for us to taste. Of course we did!

It was way past my nap time. I require a nap around noon each day ever since my brain surgery and if I don’t get one, I feel really, really tired. All brain function tends to cease. So, I really needed a cup of java. (Though I had sworn off of caffeine, I decided to make an exception.) My god, it was the best damn coffee any of us had ever tasted, so we all bought bags of it. Sean and I bought 10 lbs of the dark roast beans. You can buy it online here.

The whole way through the tour, all I could think of was how unsafe the plantation was compared to an American company. There was exposed moving equipment, numerous trip hazards, fall hazards, slip hazards; the place was an accident waiting to happen. It reminded me of unsafe sidewalks in Singapore. Then there was the children working issue. Deplorable. Just deplorable. But, that was a third world country for you. None of us discussed these issues when we got back into the van, however. Everyone was just really quiet as we drove on towards Copan.


Shaney said...

It is a shame about the working conditions in many countries Sue...But while we may not like what we see...I have to give credit to the hard working families that bust their ass everyday for a small wage.
And they do it - without pause for thought. A real shame!

Sue said...

You are so right Shaney. They work their asses off and deserve lots of credit for it.