High Mountain Honduran Coffee
by Kathryn Worley
25 enero 97
What a day! We had a marvelous experience.
After a breakfast of pancakes and fruit we loaded the pick-up with a few supplies and ourselves. Four people managed to fit in the cab while seven of us scrunched in the bed. Not being as adventurous as Honduran workers, we sat. The road leaving San Marcos de Ocotepeque was a major highway (at least two paved lanes). The air was crisp. The mountains were exquisite, yet peaceful. Our destination was atop the mountains--to the best of the coffee grown in Honduras. Somehow, we were able to leave all thoughts behind and become a part of a beautiful story somewhat akin to Juan Valdez and the mountains of Colombia. It was as if he could appear at any moment, and we'd be a part of that coffee commercial.
Once we left the open highway to a dirt road and begin to climb rapidly, it was rather evident why we'd left the van at the house and opted for a pick up. We began to become a part of the surroundings--pine trees, wildflowers, banana trees and coffee bushes. At the site of a small peasant home, we disembarked. After a quick hello to the family, we backtracked, descending, until we came upon the coffee pickers. Each picker had his own turf, so we had to be given our boundaries.
Ripe coffee berries are bright red, closely resembling cranberries. They grow in clusters along the branch. Each 6-7ft bush yields three pickings. One must only pick the ripe berries and leave the green ones behind. Hey. This was fun! And if the whole branch was ripe, one could just slide the berries off the branch. Around our waists we attached picking baskets. Each basket held 12 pounds of berries. Once filled, we dumped our gatherings into a large sack. It took our crew about an hour to pick 110 pounds. At 8 lempira per 25 pounds, we had earned, collectively, 35 lempiras or approximately $2.70. With the dollar being devalued weekly, our spending power would be less today. Coffee pickers are among the highest paid workers in Honduras. Many can pick 400 pounds a day which would yield approximately $30.00. Because picking season is not year long, pickers must conserve the weekly earnings. Even so, the weekends in towns and villages can become rather raucous during the late night and wee hours of the morning.
Once we finished our picking, we were ready to have lunch and witness the rest of the process in hand. So, still chewing on the raw coffee bean after eating the sweet flesh, we walked back up to the peasant home.
First, one must remove the flesh from the bean. This is done by the company, not individually. To me, the open air removal was like a giant home cherry picker. The flesh went in one direction and the beans another. Only this time, we were saving the pits. The flesh was put into piles and later used for mulch. Fermentation, in the warm air, took little time.
Now, the beans. Just pretend you are an average citizen and have a sackful of raw beans. By or near almost every home in the mountains is a level slab or piece of ground--sometimes it is the shoulder along the highway. On these slabs, coffee beans are laid out to dry. When dried, the beans can be stored for later.
Each bean, like peanuts or pecans, has a shell. A log, hollowed out about 8 - 12 inches, stands upright on the porch. A few of the beans are put into the log. One takes another tool, which has a similarity to a bell bar, except the ends are a part of the same limb and longer and with more circumference than the middle. With one hand on the middle and the other supporting the end, one begins his/her own rhythm and beats the beans by plunging the 'beater' into the cavity filled with beans. After a half dozen of us took our turn, it was time to be rid of the shells. A plastic laundry basket does the trick. Emptying the contents of our log into the basket, we simply throw the beans up and the shells blow away or fly threw the open slats of the basket. Since all the shells didn't get cracked, we had to sort out those out by hand.
One of the key aspects to perfect coffee, other than being grown in the hills of Honduras, is the roasting. This is where companies really ruin the product. They will take the beans (shelled and those that didn't quite get shelled), mix them all up and roast them in ovens. It's those pesky shells that really cause bitterness (in addition to the quick oven drying and roasting). Back to natural roasting. On the stove in our home (open fire under metal griddle), beans are spread on the griddle. With a special utensil, looking somewhat like a hoe with a short handle, our hostess stirs until dark brown. It was at that time I knew that I should not be a part of the process any longer. The fragrance of roasted coffee beans gives me headaches, and I can pass out if the odor is quite intense. Beans for one pot of coffee just gave me a light headache.
Once roasted, the beans are boiled, strained, and the liquid is FRESH coffee. And I did, just to say I did, had a sip. It wasn't bitter, and although I would prefer boiled water, I could, if there was no other choice, drink fresh Honduran coffee--maybe.
While we had been in the process of our lunch and coffee preparation, we had had a small local shower. It was warm and gentle, yet my thoughts were of the dirt road that led up the mountain. Perhaps, there would be no problem. But then, just before we were ready to leave, another shower came. It stayed a little longer. By this time, all of our minds were on the road. It had been a wonderful day--sharing with a family sharing with us. But then, I really don't like mud.
We loaded the pick-up. The first short leg was fine, but then we had to turn...and why did we go right and not left? Oh, we needed to see someone before leaving the coffee groves. Mistake. We got to another turn and were able to reverse the truck and head back downhill. By this time we were out of the pick up, with just a few of us on the back for weight. Our host driver's wife may be the brother of the owner, but his back hill country driving was lacking. We kept going. And then the truck went a little too far to the left. O.K., time to reassess our situation. While we were doing that, we heard a major warhoop coming closer to us. Another pickup--filled with Hondurans standing in the bed of the truck. Immediate thought--I hope they can stop. The truck stopped. Men and boys jumped out, and the driver--our brother-in-law, exited the cab with the biggest (fantastic photo op--if ready) grin and look of glee on his face. We all shared laughter.
So, the truck went on with two drivers, and we walked for a couple miles or so, wondering at times if the next step would land us on our bottoms. The opportunity for stops to view the adjoining mountains and valleys in the distance was worth every slip. The flowers along the roadside became distinct and not a blur of red or blue or yellow. The warmth of the moist air was one I had grown accustomed to, and I didn't want to think of the below zero temperatures I would re-enter in another week.
A day to be a coffee picker and a part of a process we Americans take for granted. It was a day for several real pickers to be a part of our lives. It was a day for a peasant family to share with pride, their simple way of life. It had only been the day before that they had been asked if they would share their porch with a bunch of gringos, so that they could have a place to eat lunch. Our host had never met them before. They shared, we shared, we became a part of each other.
For us, the day was romantic. Even the ending developed into an exciting finale. Our spirits were high as we climbed back into the truck. We got back to the highway, let the wind blow through our hair and silently reflected on our own personal experience. We were a part of something that none of us would want to do for a living. But one day was nice. And even another in the future would be nice, too.
return to the LIES #14 page page.
return to the LIES home page.
return to the A&A home page.