1 October 2018

The story of a fair trade cup of coffee!

It's international coffee day, which of course means, we need to talk about coffee! Until I started working, I didn't think much of coffee, did rate it but also didn't know enough about it to slate it. But when you're working lates or early mornings, coffee is pretty much a must and so much cheaper than energy drinks. Soz, Redbull! To celebrate today, I have a guest post I'd love to share with you about what goes into making a fair trade cup of coffee, which I had no idea about. Let me know if you enjoy this post and let me know in the comments what your thoughts are on coffee. Oh and if you enjoy this post, I previously wrote a post about 5 ways to enjoy coffee.

If we Brits are married to our cups of tea, then coffee is our secret love affair. Recent figures revealed by the British Coffee Association, paint Britain less as a nation of tea-drinkers and more as coffee connoisseurs, with our coffee consumption increasing from 70 million cups a day in 2008 to 95 million cups a day in 2018. Obviously, coffee beans don't grow in the UK, so here is the story of how they get from beans to your cup. And, if you’re a fan of drinking fair trade coffee, that journey is all the more wonderful and varied. You see, the journey of a coffee bean depends on which farm it came from, the grower of the bean, and how it was processed.

Obviously, a large-scale coffee plantation will operate a lot differently from a simple (and much smaller) fair trade coffee farm. Sure, you know about the ethics surrounding fair trade coffee, the issues of pay and the treatment of workers, but it goes far beyond that. The number of workers, the use of wastewater, the difference in fair trade coffee production can't be understated. The process is more eco-friendly and more worker-friendly! As an example, CIPAC's fair trade honey and coffee co-operative in Guatemala has in excess of 140 members working for them. It may be a remote area, but it's a fantastic area to grow coffee all the same. Numerous farmers here are performing a trade inherited from many family generations. There is lots for CIPAC’s farmers to do before the beans are ready to be made into the delicious coffee we know and love. So what exactly happens on the journey from bush to mug? Let’s follow some of CIPAC’s fair trade coffee growers to find out.

Harvesting coffee beans:
Winter is typically coffee-harvesting season for many farmers. On family-owned farms, the whole family might get involved. Coffee ripens at a slightly different time within this period, depending on the climate, the altitude, the type of soil and the variety of coffee. Some farmers even live in areas with their own microclimate, which means the coffee they produce has its own particular and quality flavour! Throughout the season, the same coffee plant can be harvested up to two or three times over. This is because only the ripe cherries are hand-plucked from the bush to guarantee a high-quality coffee. On large coffee farms, the harvesters must travel up steep hills and down into valleys to collect the cherries in a basket — which can be exhausting.

The de-pulping process:
Once the coffee has been harvested, it is moved on to the farmers. This involves the harvesters often having to travel up and down hills and across rickety bridges to reach the end destination, where the cherries are de-pulped within 24 hours. While large-scale plantations use heavy machinery to quickly take off the coffee-cherry skins, farmers at CIPAC either use a small electric de-pulping machine (where the cherries are poured in the top and emerge de-pulped from the bottom) or their own energy. The coffee beans are closely inspected as they’re poured into the machine, and any beans that don’t look quite ripe enough or are too ripe are taken out.

Cleaning the cherries:
Once the coffee cherries are de-pulped, they are submerged in unique water pools for a full day in order to clean them and remove any remaining layers. Some beans will float in the water and these beans are always removed. After washing, the leftover water will contain some toxic elements that mean it can’t just be thrown onto the plants in their backyard. But farmers at CIPAC know what to do – they re-use the dirty water and skins to make an eco-friendly compost to use around their coffee plants!

Drying each coffee bean:
After cleaning, the beans are laid out to allow the sun to dry them naturally. The farmer chooses an area that’s wide, flat, and clean, and spreads the beans out with a rake. They turn the beans with this rake while the sun shines, and then hurry to cover them with a huge sheet if there’s a hint of rain or moisture about. As well as this, they also cover the beans every night, to keep off the dew. This process can take several days, or much longer if there’s rain!

Transporting the beans:
Once the coffee has dried, parchment beans are formed. The farmers take the sacks of parchment beans to the nearest road, where they’ll be collected by a van sent by the coffee co-operative. Farmers in the most remote areas must make their way along dangerous winding mountain paths and encounter huge cliff drops. Can you imagine having to walk along a cliff-edge while carrying a 30kg bag of coffee beans? If there are no co-operatives to sell their products to, farmers often have to make longer, more dangerous journeys to find a trader. Once the beans reach the co-operative storage site safely, they’re then weighed, checked for quality, and stored.

Transforming the beans:
Once the parchment beans arrive at a fair trade cooperative, they are then turned into green beans. This is the most important quality milestone yet and involves the beans being judged by their weight and appearance, to make sure they’re of the best quality. Finally, the beans are ‘polished’, which removes the last layer of skin covering the coffee beans. The beans are then sampled by buyers for quality in a process known as ‘coffee cupping’, which involves them slurping coffee in an attempt to accurately taste all the subtle flavours of the coffee, especially for the special varieties grown in areas with their own microclimates. These samples are sent to the co-operative, so they can easily vouch for the quality of the coffee to buyers! Finally, the finished beans are bagged and sold to an exporter.

CIPAC sells the coffee beans to Cafesca, a fair trade operator based in Mexico. From there, some of the beans are sent to another Mexican fair trade operator, Descamex, who is the only facility in the world to use the Mountain Water Method to produce decaf coffee. Descamex sends the decaffeinated beans back to Cafesca, who transform all the coffee beans into instant coffee and instant decaf. Once the finished coffee is sealed in jars, they’re loaded onto a container, then onto a ship, and then transported to the UK to be sold by retailers such as TraidcraftThe journey has now reached its conclusion and it’s clear to see that coffee beans go on quite the adventure before making it into your mug! And while the huge coffee plantations use lots of workers and modern equipment, the fair trade farmers at CIPAC like to keep it simple. Family-run farms. Hand-picking only the ripest cherries. Drying the beans naturally under the heat of the sun. Fewer chemicals, and far more character.

Who knew that so much went into making a fair trade cup of coffee?

*This is a paid guest post, however, I had full editorial rights over it and I hope you enjoyed the article as much as I did! 


  1. Oh wow, I never knew so much went into it! When my husband and I went to Hawaii for our honeymoon we went to a coffee farm and saw the cherries, before then I didn't even know that's how beans started!

  2. This is such an interesting read. I never knew what a huge journey little coffee beans went on! I'm a tea drinker myself though x

  3. It is fascinating the coffee tours I went on when traveling in Central America were so informative and the history of road build in those areas is completely intertwined also.

  4. It’s really interesting how coffee becomes .. coffee .. I know that sounds strange but we usually just drink it while having a chat, but to know the ins and out as to how it gets to our cups is amazing,

  5. It’s amazing how much goes into coffee! I love coffee and practically live on it haha

  6. I never realised how much goes into coffee! You never really think about the process!

  7. Oh wow, I had no idea coffee beans went through such a journey to make it in to each cup! I'm definitely a tea girl but do like an occasional cup of coffee now and again.

  8. What an interesting story! I never knew all this about fair trade coffee:-)

  9. Such an interesting story behind the journey of a coffee bean! This is such an educational post.

  10. This is a really interesting process, thanks for breaking it down into the steps! I like a cup myself, but never knew what actually went into making it. Even the fact that some areas have their own microclimates, creating their own flavour.
    Thanks for sharing Olivia!