Shortly after the processional ended, Luis Pedro took us back to visit his farm and wet processing mill. He is a fourth generation farmer, however during his lifetime he was able to go from sourcing 95% of his coffee to Starbucks to mainly selling to specialty coffee shops. Luis Pedro was able to greatly improve the quality of his lots by following more advanced and strict production techniques.
COFFEE NERD ALERT: WET PROCCESSING MILL
I should preface with the notion that processing details such as time and method are very specific to each mill. There are some absolutes, but the details change based on availability of water, elevation, space lay out, humidity, etc. This is specifically what Bella Vista found to work for them given their climate and conditions.
The ripe freshly picked coffee cherries are delivered by huge trucks and quickly emptied into massive thirty-foot deep tanks. Water is used the move the cherries into tubes which transfer them into the pulping machines. The pulping machine removes all the “floaters” or under-ripe cherries, which instead of sinking, float to the top of the water. The fruit is then removed from the coffee bean and the now green beans (still covered in parchment) are moved to fermentation tanks. Dried coffee cherries, also known as cascara, have recently been popularized into a tea beverage, which you can try at our midtown K street location! The wet or washed process requires a lot of water, which is why it is not viable for some more small remote mills mainly throughout Africa. In order to try and conserve water at Bella Vista, the water that is used to move the coffee beans is also used during the soaking or fermentation.
Green coffee has about twenty-four hours that it can be soaked before it starts losing its integrity. This gives producers a grace period while they make room for the coffee to be dried. Because the water is being reused, and there are already organic materials in it, the fermentation process is actually sped up. At Bella Vista in particular this process takes about fourteen hours. Fermentation time is also dependent on elevation and climate.
The coffee is then moved using clean water to be dried. Previous to Luis Pedro taking over production, when they mainly sourced to Starbucks, the coffee was dried using massive drums that act similar to a clothes dryer. All individual lots and varieties were blended and heat was used to dry the moisture out of the bean. Now that their coffee is specialty grade, they keep all the lots separate and use either a patio or raised beds. The patio is a huge cement slab that takes advantage of the sun heat to dry the coffee bean. Patio drying requires quite a bit of manual labor as the coffee is constantly moved in stacks then laid flat to make sure the drying is even.
The most quality drying method however is using raised beds. Instead of using heat in a dryer or even the sun’s heat, raised beds use airflow to dry the bean. The moisture level goes initially from sixty percent at the beginning to the goal amount which is right around eleven percent. At this point the parchment (or shell surrounding the green bean) is removed, and the beans are sent through a vigorous grading process to remove any defects, separating sizes, and color differences. This specific mill and distribution center is one of the biggest in the Hunapu region.
Not only was Luis Pedro committed to improving the quality of his farm and mill, but he was also committed to keeping high standards in his cafe. Multiple times throughout the week when I was working, he would come in with materials to try out new drinks or food. For instance, one morning he brought in three different varietals of cascara (the dried coffee cherry) to taste test possible new tea options. He also brought in tonic water to create a new unique espresso beverage.
The girls that worked at the Bella Vista café were from all different places in life. Some were young, and had only worked there for a couple months, while others had worked there for years and were supporting multiple kids. Even though the first couple of days were difficult trying to remember my Spanish, I was committed to getting to know them. The encouraging thing I found was that the baristas wanted to be there. They saw coffee as a career and were very excited to ask questions and share their own experience and knowledge. Getting to know these tremendously hard working girls (usually working ten to twelve hour days) that were just as passionate about serving quality coffee on the other side of the world was really uplifting.