Coffee is not only a staple of North American pantries, it's become part of its culture, woven into the very fabric of life in the United States.
What started out as just a plain ol' cup of joe, taken either black or with a little sugar and milk, has now become a bajillion dollar industry. There's frappaccinos, mochaccinos, capaccinos, macchiatos, lattes, frappes and chocolatinos (OK, it's possible I made that last one up!) We infuse our coffees with artificially flavored syrups, artificially flavored creamers and artificial sweeteners. By the time Americans are through with their coffees, it bares little resemblance to the "cup o' joe" it started out as.
But where does all that coffee come from? Well, yes, it comes from a bean, but where do the BEANS come from?
We were thrilled at the chance join a group tour and drive a few hours to our west to visit a little town called Marcala, where coffee is the bread and butter of the community. Join us on our little adventure....
Marcala is located in the La Paz department (similar to a "state" in the U.S.). Like most of Honduras, the terrain here is mountainous and beautiful.
We rode down skinny dirt roads to reach a Finca de Cafe or Coffee Farm. The plants that look like bushes are where your java comes from. Banana trees are placed intermittently to provide a bit of shade to the growing fruit.
Arabica coffee is the variety that is predominately grown in Honduras (and all over the world). We were told that the altitude is what gives the beans here such robust flavor. Coffee grown closer to sea level is considered inferior, at least by the mountain growers!
This is the coffee fruit. The berries are hand-picked when they are bright, cherry red.
Coffee plants don't last forever. After about three years, they bear less and less fruit. Consequently, there is a nursery full of young plants ready to replace the old ones.
Once the berries are dry, they look like this...
Now they are ready to be processed at the factory!
We drove back down those skinny, bumpy dirt roads to go a few miles down the paved, main street to a factory in Marcala where much of the coffee is initially processed.
Machines break open the dried fruit to release the coffee bean. In actuality, what we call a "bean" is the "seed" inside the berry. But I guess "coffee seeds" doesn't sound quite as cool.
The beans are sent down two conveyor belts. As you can see in the above photo, the women sitting on either side of these conveyor belts analyze the beans as they slide by, and remove the "bad" ones.
What constitutes a "bad bean?" If they are the wrong size, color or malformed. How different can a batch of "bad beans" taste? I have no idea. But we were told that one (ONE!) "bad bean" can ruin the flavor of the whole batch.
Still, you don't think they'd do something as silly as throw out all those bad beans, do you? The factory still bags up these banished beans and sells them to lesser (read: "cheap") coffee brands where they are blended with better beans to create a decently flavored cup.
The factory only hires women for this work. Men, they told us, do not have the discerning eye to spot all of the "bad beans."
We took this tour on a Saturday. Which means that most of the women you see here work other jobs, probably full-time, during the week, then work an additional 8-12 hour shift on the weekends.
The raw coffee beans are then put into large bags. Roasting does not happen in this factory. Some of these bags will be exported to other countries, most likely the United States. Others will remain in Honduras, transported to another facility to be roasted and packaged for retail sale.
I managed to pick a couple of "good beans" during our tour. They might be small, but they are mighty sweet!
Thanks for joining us on our Marcala Coffee Tour. I look forward to seeing you on our next adventure!