For those who choose to remember last summer, you may recall a very special release from Caravan last year: the El Fenix Pink Bourbon. Our friends at Raw Material Colombia, a social enterprise importer and partner of Caravan since 2016, had at the time just celebrated the completion of their community wet mill: a coffee processing station serving small farmers in the community of Santo Domingo Alto. The El Fenix project has been ongoing since 2014 and encompasses many functions, the wet mill being only one of them. This summer, we’re celebrating another side of the project: their role as an educational centre for rare coffee varieties and advanced processing techniques.
Processing is a vague word, used in food and beverage contexts to mean hundreds of different things. In coffee, when we speak of processing, we are typically discussing the methods used to take the product from its original form – a seed inside a cherry – to dried, export-ready beans which can survive the long journey to their final destination. To do this, farmers and mill workers turn to many different forms of technology, often based on the terroir of the region where they are located, their access to resources such as fresh water and electricity, and the cultural contexts in which they live.
In Colombia, the traditional and most common processing method is what we call the ‘washed’ method. In this method, after harvesting the coffee cherries are depulped, meaning the outer skin of the fruit is removed (on a hand powered or electric pulping machine) and the sticky beans with some of the gooey fruit still attached are placed in a fermentation tank, usually concrete or tile. The beans are then allowed to naturally ferment, either in water or without, using naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria to break down the remaining fruit pulp so that the coffee beans can be, quite literally, washed afterwards. The beans are then laid to dry on a patio or on raised drying beds for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, before they are of a low enough moisture content to be bagged and shipped to the dry mill (another stage of processing we will get to later).
Though this sounds like step-by-step instructions, processing can be incredibly precise, sensitive, and frustratingly difficult. The climates in which coffees are grown usually have higher daytime temperatures and cool, moist evenings – a swinging pendulum of environmental conditions that makes the timing of each step critical. Too long in one, and the coffee could lose some of the innate qualities that the farmer spent all year cultivating. Or worse, the entire batch could be ruined by mould or over-fermentation. Done well, however, processing can add complexity, increase the intensity of certain flavours, and helps farmers achieve higher prices for their coffee.
Knowing this, it is no surprise that part of their mission at Raw Material has been focussed on processing as a critical step to create additional value for farmers. At Finca El Fenix, the team starts with the basics – executing the traditional Colombian washed method with care and precision. From there, the technical staff at El Fenix have added new processing methods and technologies which allow the farm itself and the producers delivering cherries there to explore new flavours and, ultimately, to sell their coffee for more. The other two main methods performed at El Fenix are called honey and natural processing, which we will explore more in Part 2 of this blog, to coincide with the release of our latest El Fenix coffees (plural!) along with some exciting updates from the project itself.