January 13, 2020

Five Useful Tools That Can Make a Difference to Coffee Producers


Producing specialty coffee involves managing variables such as rainfall, sun, humidity, acidity, pH levels, and temperature. Measuring and tracking these variables requires the use of technology and innovation, usually in the form of specialised tools.

Some Colombian coffee producers have started using tools that embody both qualities to measure the above variables, and are using the resulting information to improve the quality of their crop and their farming practices. We spoke to two of them about their experiences, and which tools they use to reduce costs and increase profits on their farms.

Below are five tools that they use that could address farming issues most producers face. Here’s what each one does, and why adopting it could benefit you, no matter where you’re located.

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Rain falls on a coffee farm in Timaná, Huila, Colombia. Credit: Daniel Cortés

How The Right Tools Can Benefit Producers

It’s common knowledge that most coffee producers aren’t being paid enough to maintain profitable farming operations. There are many ways that this issue could be addressed. One of them is to produce higher quality coffee that could potentially fetch higher prices. This could involve transitioning to specialty coffee production, which would require that they constantly evaluate their processes and track production data to replicate results. 

Another option would be to improve efficiency in their existing farming practices. Here, success might involve being open to new technologies which could save them time and improve the quality of their outputs. Both these options will require that producers do something they’ve never done before, and innovate.

I spoke to Daniel Luna Fals, founder of La Venta Estate Coffee, whose family company in Cajibío produces and exports specialty coffee. He says that producers need innovation and technology to improve their product quality, lower costs, and increase profits. 

He also says that improving techniques in the production process will reduce its impact on the environment and optimizes the use of natural resources, and that “producing coffee has a future as long as we can improve our quality standards, and this will allow us to reach competitive and differentiated markets with specialty coffee”.

Wilfredo Ule Vargas is the owner of Finca Alcatraz, a specialty coffee farm in Oporapa, who has over 10 years of production experience. He believes that innovation and technology are important to maintain production quality, saying that “you can produce an excellent coffee, but if you don’t know how and why you got that coffee then it’s pure luck. If you can standardize and control the processes you can replicate it again and again”. 

Findings from 2018’s World Coffee Research Annual Report acknowledge this, by stating that the future of coffee will likely face fewer farmers and less diversity without significant innovation. 

Here are five of the tools that producers like Daniel and Wilfredo are using to facilitate this.

A moisture tester in La Venta Estate Coffee’s dryer. Credit: Daniel Luna

1. Moisture Tester

Drying green beans and coffee at parchment stage is an important part of the production process. Typically, an unprocessed and ripe bean will contain about 45 to 55% moisture after picking, and will reduce its moisture content by 10 to 12% after processing and drying. 

Knowing the moisture content of your beans at any given stage will impact everything from the development of mould and presence of pests, to its roasting and sensory profile. This is where a moisture tester comes in handy. 

Daniel says he is “constantly using the moisture tester, so that when we reach an optimal level of humidity (between 10 and 12%) we bring it out from the dryer. We measure humidity again when we are packing up before transportation”.

He adds that “green coffee buyers always conduct tests on the product we send over. Most of the buyers want coffee humidity to be between 10 and 12%, and there are others that are even more strict and want it between 11 and 12%. This is why measuring and keeping track of humidity is so important”.

La Venta Estate Coffee’s thermo hygrometer (left) and humidity tester (right). Credit: Daniel Luna

2. Thermo Hygrometer

You need to control the humidity and temperature of the environment where your coffee is drying, as if you don’t, it could lead to the coffee drying at different rates and creating unevenly dried coffee, or increase the risk of mould developing. A thermo hygrometer can help prevent this, as it can measure temperature and humidity in the air.

For Wilfredo, using a thermo hygrometer has helped him understand that humidity levels are different in plastic-covered dryers compared to under roof beds: “During this time of year when we experience a lot of rain and low temperatures, the humidity level in plastic dryers is really high in the early morning compared with (other) beds. So depending on the time of the year, I need to be more careful with one dryer or the other.”

Using a thermo hygrometer, Daniel has established a maximum permissible level of temperature and humidity in his dryers: “The optimal temperature inside the dryers cannot exceed 35º C/95 °F, which allows a more homogeneous, prolonged, and uniform drying. This has given us better results both physically and in cup score.”

Many producers cup their coffee, as it can help them improve their production and processing methods, as well as make informed changes to their processes. A thermo hygrometer can help detect issues at drying level that might impact a coffee’s cupping scores.

A refractometer next to coffee cherries at La Venta Estate Coffee’s dryer. Credit: Daniel Luna

3. Refractometer

The ripeness of harvested cherries is a critical variable when determining a coffee’s quality. One way to identify ripeness is by measuring the sugar and dry matter contents of a bean mucilage sample. By measuring and recording its brix levels (the degree of sugar content in an aqueous solution), you can determine how many sugars are present in your coffee.

A refractometer can be used to determine the level of sugar and minerals in brix, helping producers determine the ripeness and sugar content of their cherries in percentage format. 

For Daniel, it’s “allowed us to establish and differentiate sugar levels in the varieties we have on our farm. It’s also helpful in establishing sugar variations in fermentation processes”.

Wilfredo has noticed that the percentage of brix that his cherries contain will vary depending on the time of the year: “During summer and dry seasons, the brix degrees are over 25, which is really high. But during winter and rainy seasons, the brix degrees go down because the cherry stores a lot of water.” 

It’s important that this kind of data is tracked all year long. By recording information like the above, producers can improve or alter the time, place, and environment of their production. It can also help them expand to grow different or more appropriate coffee varieties.

Coffee ferments at a coffee farm in Timaná, Huila, Colombia. Credit: Daniel Cortés

4. Pluviometer

In Colombia, the weather is increasingly becoming unpredictable, and one sign of this has been extreme rainfall patterns, longer and more severe drought periods, and more erosion and landslides due to heavy rains. Collectively, these conditions can impact a coffee’s flowering and fruit cycles. 

Two weather phenomena that also impact coffee production in Colombia are El Niño and La Niña, which occur when the ocean’s surface temperature is 0.5 °C/32.9 °F above its average for three consecutive months (El Niño), and 0.5 °C/32.9 °F below its average for three consecutive months (La Niña). During La Niña, rainfall and humidity increases, and during El Niño, sunlight and temperatures increase.

A pluviometer (or rain gauge) measures how much rainfall an area receives in a specific time period. Knowing how much rain falls in different areas from year to year can help producers prepare for dry or wet seasons, and plan when to sow their crops. It can also help them plan ahead to protect their crops during storms and heavy rains. 

Daniel has witnessed the consequences of climate change first-hand: “This year we had more than three months of intense summer and now we are going [into] a phase of intense rain and even some hail. Those sudden climate changes alter the quality of the coffee beans… Intense rains over-hydrate the cherries, ripening them at irregular intervals and affecting their quality.”

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Various tools in La Venta Estate Coffee’s dryer. Credit: Daniel Luna

5. pH Meter & Thermometer 

Many producers use fermentation to alter their coffee, and when the process is successful, it can enhance a coffee’s best attributes. By understanding and controlling the reactions that occur during fermentation, you could better develop modulate a coffee’s sensory impression. 

When managing fermentation, a pHmeter and a thermometer are useful. PH indicates the acidity in a solution, and during Arabica coffee’s natural fermentation, a decrease in pH has been well documented. During dry fermentation, controlling temperatures can also be a challenge, as temperature affects fermentation rates, and can negatively affect a coffee’s consistency and flavour.

Research undertaken by Cenicafé into the development of controlled fermentation processes and how it adds value to coffee quality, states that “with the same variety and origin of coffee it is possible to obtain different coffee flavours through controlled fermentations”.

Wilfredo has used a pH Meter to establish the right time to wash his coffee, which traditionally uses water to wash off mucilage after the coffee has been fermented over time, and before it is dried. He says, “I now know that when the pH is around 3.7 or 3.9 it’s time to stop the fermentation process and wash the coffee.”

A teenager walks towards a stable in Timaná, Huila, Colombia. Credit: Daniel Cortés

Innovation and applied science can lead to better coffee quality and, therefore, more income for producers. However, investing in some of these tools can often be costly, and some might require training for producers to fully understand their uses and benefits. 

One way that this can be achieved is through assistance from government programs, investments from private institutions, and commitment from international buyers and green coffee importers in coffee producing countries. 

Producers should consider reaching out to the businesses that they partner with to see who’d be willing to support this kind of investment. With such tools offering all the improvements to production quality listed above, it’s something that will benefit everyone. 

Enjoyed this? Then read A Coffee Producer’s Guide to Negotiating

Written by Daniel Cortés. Feature photo caption: A producer uses a moisture tester to check the humidity levels of his coffee. Feature photo credit: Daniel Cortés

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