From Bean to Brew

So how does that morning Cup ‘O Joe, so prized in Europe and North America, go from being a red berry that is a parrot’s favourite treat, grown on a steep rainforest slope, to the dark brown sludge that forms the basis of a heavenly morning treat??? Follow along and I’ll explain…

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Coffee, made the Peruvian way, has hot water poured slowly over fine coffee grounds, held in a very fine metal strainer. The thick, dark, highly aromatic liquid is then topped up with more hot water, cooled and heavily sweetened (Peruvians have a definite sweet tooth).

Hiking through this particular tropical rainforest area of Peru on our fourth day, we found ourselves in an area of the jungle where coffee was the main farming industry.

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Even in this area, our trekking route still took us up the ancient stone steps of the Inca trails that connected settlements throughout Peru. The rain-forested slopes were often relatively dark places, giving us welcome shade from the intensity of the sun during the heat of the day.

With valley bottoms at 2100-2400m, it was an area with incredibly steep slopes and lots of tree growth, creating just the right conditions for coffee to thrive.

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If you look carefully on the right hand side of this picture, you can see the tracks of little trails switchbacking up the hillsides to coffee plots.

Days are warm enough and humid enough for the plants to grow well, but not too hot, or too wet, so that the coffee fruits retain their alkaloids.

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This is the valley we were hiking in on that day, seen from a viewpoint high above the river.
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First discovered in Ethiopia, coffee was brought by the Spaniards to Peru in the late 1400s, so it was a relative late-comer to the South American agricultural scene. Rather unexpectedly,  coffee comes from a bright red berry.
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Even hiking early in the morning on our fourth day, just at sunrise, we passed quite a few coffee pickers who were up even before us, already bringing down full sacks of beans to the coffee collective.
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In this region, we had passed many scenes like this where tarps were laid out in the sun and covered with white coffee beans.
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We tried our hand at picking coffee. You pick just the coffee berry off the bush and not its stem, because the next season’s fruit grows from that stem.

Growing on small, bushy plants that produce for about 15 years, Arabica coffee beans are the best quality beans grown in Peru. Each plant can grow 3 kilos worth of coffee per year.

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This is an arabica coffee plot. The small, dark green plants are the coffee plants.
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One square kilometre of coffee plantation takes 5-10 men, women and children 3 days to harvest using these pallannos (baskets).

According to our guide, the Caturra coffee that is grown a lot in Costa Rica and Colombia has yellow beans and grows on a much taller plant that produces far more berries (about 6-8 kilos/plant/year). But it is the kind of coffee that Nescafé is made from and as he put it, “Nescafé is no es café” (Nescafé is not coffee). Ha ha!

Parrots LOVE coffee beans. Just listen to this video clip. You can hear them throughout the forest the entire time you’re in the coffee growing areas. They are such pests that the farmers set off air bangers that sound like the air canons we use here in Canada to keep the geese from eating the wheat in the fields when they are freshly planted in the spring.

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The white seeds inside the coffee berries are what we are after. Here they are lying out on a tarp in the sun to dry.

Our trekking adventure passed right through this area during the harvest season, so we saw coffee picking, soaking, drying and roasting in progress as we hiked through. Our timing was impeccable, so it was a very, very neat experience.

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Coffee beans are soaked in water to ease the removal of their red skins and then passed through a separator like this. It is cranked slowly by hand. The stone basin behind the separator contains water diverted from a stream and the freshly picked coffee berries.
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The skins are composted and put back into the soil to provide nutrients for the next crop. The white seeds are the coffee beans we know, and yet they have absolutely no aroma at this point. They are set aside for the next step in the process.
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Next, the white beans are soaked in water again, but this time the goal is fermentation. They are fermented for 3 days and become quite slimy in the process. On the 4th day they are washed to remove both the slimy berry pulp and the berries that float, and then spread out on plastic tarps in the sun and dried for 6 to 7 days. Once dry, they simply smell like straw. The husks around the seeds are removed by hand to make the semi circular, half-bean seed shapes with which we are familiar.
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Next, the seeds are roasted slowly in a heavy iron pot over a small fire.
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I loved the wooden sticks they used to stir the beans. The beans have to be stirred constantly during this brief process so they don’t burn.
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We saw pots like this being used, trail-side, throughout our hiking in this region of Peru.
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I loved trying my hand at this process!
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It was smoky work, but I loved it.
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When you were done, you were left with beans that looked like this.
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They pass the roasted beans through a hand-cranked, meat grinder contraption.
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Freshly ground, they smell heavenly!
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They are put into the top filter-strainer of a metal pot and have boiling water passed over them. The resulting coffee that we tried was very strong and very floral. In Peru, they like to drink their coffee COLD and sweetened with brown sugar or honey, but not served over ice.
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We brought back two bags of the artisanal coffee from here (purchased at the Lucmabamba Collective) so that we could re-live a little of that day back here at home & re-experience its fantastic flavours (of the day, of the experience, and of the coffee!).
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Perhaps coffee is so wonderful because it comes from such a dramatic landscape.

Sadly, we had only one day in this beautiful place, but it left a lasting impression on me. Hiking out of this valley, we were heading up and over the mountain and into Machu Picchu’s dramatic valley. More on that part of the adventure in the next post…

3 Comments on “From Bean to Brew

  1. Pingback: Jungle Stories – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

  2. Pingback: Peruvian Food & The Mercato San Pedro, Part 1 – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

  3. Pingback: An Overview of the Salkantay Trek – Trail to Peak: The Adventurous Path

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