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Guatemala: Coffee is life

February 18, 2010
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Like so many birders out there, I’m an avid coffee drinker.  In my mind there’s scarcely a better way to deal with the early mornings that so many of us feather fanatics share than a hot, black cup o’ joe.  But in our highly industrialized culture, there’s a lot we don’t know about food produced here in the United States, let alone the seed of a tropical plant largely cultivated in places far away.  Because of that I’d wager that most of us, even self-described coffee enthusiasts, don’t consider coffee beyond the dirt-like substance or the black bean neatly packaged by the pound in bags lining the shelves of a supermarket or our favorite specialty shop.  Our interaction goes no further than the cup, even for those of us who consider coffee to be an essential part of our day to day.

It’s shocking to me each time I find out how many people are largely unaware of how coffee is grown and how it gets to the shelf in the first place.  This thing we take as self-evident is the end of a long process that we, as birders, should really be taking an interest in because it directly affects those birds we love.  Because the coffee we consume in the United States is primarily grown in the neotropics, and mostly in precisely the same places that the birds we consider to be ours, the migrants that brighten our world in the spring and summer, spend the vast majority of their time, the decisions we make regarding the coffee we choose to consume not only has a direct impact on how the land on which the birds winter is cultivated but on the financial impetus the growers have to use that land sustainably.  This is especially true in countries like Guatemala where coffee is a significant export and source of income for thousands of people.

I’m not going to go into the direct effects of all of this, as there are people and blogs that handle this sort of stuff far better than I could.  I highly recommend Coffee and Conservation if you’re interested.  But that short of it is that coffee grown on shade-grown plantations, that is, on plots where the forest canopy is preserved and coffee is grown in the low and mid-story, are exponentially more conducive for preserving biodiversity than massive clear-cut sun grown plantations.  I can speak to this from personal experience from my time in Guatemala, where shade-grown plots at Los Tarrales and around Lake Atitlan were absolutely crawling with neotropic migrants including several species of warblers, vireos, tanagers and orioles that would be shortly returning to the United States and Canada.  I would go so far as to say that about a third of my total species list for the trip consisted of birds I would see in North Carolina in a matter of weeks.  If that doesn’t impart to you the importance of sustainable shade-grown coffee, I don’t know what to tell you.

But it occurs to me that many people with an interest in responsibly enjoying their coffee probably don’t even have an idea of what a shade-grown plantation looks like.  I sure didn’t, so here you go.  Imagine lots of birds in those trees.

On the tree, coffee is a berry, not unlike a cherry, with a red pulpy outside surrounding a small white seed in the center.  When coffee is ready for harvesting the berry turns bright red.

The coffee is then harvested, generally by hand, by day laborers contracted by the owner of the plot.  Beans are sorted by color and ripeness and the flesh of the berry is removed, typically by machine, at which point the beans are washed and dried.  There are several ways to accomplish this depending on the humidity of the coffee-growing region, but in Guatemala where most of the coffee is grown in rich volcanic soil at high altitude, where it is drier, the beans can simply be spread out on a cement patio and raked every few hours until the beans are sufficiently dry and ready to be roasted.

The bean-drying patio is a central structure at Los Tarrales, and I had no idea what was going on here until I saw some of the workers carefully spreading the white beans on the cement and leaving them there for a few hours before raking them up into a pile and re-spreading them again.  It’s fascinating to see so much careful attention paid by actual people to a product that is rarely considered as deeply at the point where it’s consumed.

When sufficiently dry the coffee is then roasted until it turns that deep brown shade we’re all familiar with then bagged and distributed. Los Tarrales coffee, as best as I was able to discover, is primarily sold locally as part of a co-op that includes several nearby growers.  These specific beans are unlikely to make it to the American market, but the Guatemalan coffee from the area that does is well-known as being of exceptionally high quality due to the volcanic soil and the drier highland climate, and I can speak from some experience as both my wife and I have really enjoyed the stuff I brought home.

Additionally, Guatemalan coffee is nearly exclusively produced using shade-grown methods making it exceptionally bird-friendly and all of the coffee plantations we saw during our trip were always full of birds.  So if you’re interested in making a responsible choice with your coffee, consider Guatemala.  You really can’t go wrong.

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8 Comments
  1. February 18, 2010 9:33 am

    Does shade-grown tea exist?
    If not, we’d finally have a winning argument for coffee’s supremacy.

  2. Nate permalink*
    February 18, 2010 9:48 am

    @Jochen- Apparently tea can be grown in partial shade, but it prefers full sun. So yes, we coffee drinkers are far superior.

  3. Thornius permalink
    February 18, 2010 10:34 am

    My friends in the U.K. drink more coffee than we do when they are not drinking tea. They have one or two cups of tea a day per person but seem to drink a liter or more of coffee during the day followed by a few glasses of red wine at night. My son-in-law is from Scotland and he tells me they drink much more coffee in the U.K. than they do tea.

  4. February 18, 2010 1:05 pm

    There is at least one finca in Guatemala that claims to grow tea in the shade–but it didn’t look very shady to me when I saw it.

  5. February 18, 2010 6:22 pm

    Thanks for this post! I think that allot of people are unaware of Why shade grown coffee is better all the way around…

    I will tweet this one out to twitter..
    But sure would be easier if you had Retweet button.:)
    Not meant to annoy you by that comment..just letting you know..still wont prevent me from tweeting out a post I feel is worthy!
    Cheers!

  6. Nate permalink*
    February 18, 2010 6:24 pm

    @Dawn- I wish I could add a RT button. I looked into it but I’m a wordpress.com blog and the plug-in isn’t available to me. At some point I’ll probably upgrade but until then I’m stuck without one.

  7. February 19, 2010 4:10 pm

    Wow, I didn’t know about that. Did you get to visit a coffee farm?

  8. Nate permalink*
    February 19, 2010 9:21 pm

    @Ali- Not officially, but pretty much everywhere we were had plots of coffee trees growing here and there in the forest. There was excellent birding throughout.

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