Water, an indispensable and scarce resource to produce coffee

Coffee growing & sourcing

Water, an indispensable and scarce resource to produce coffee

| 2018-11-29

Marjorie, our coffee agronomist, is in charge at Belco of the quality improvement at the Origin. She wrote a series of articles around the following thematic:  "producing responsibly". We start the first episode on a major issue for coffee production, the water management.
Let me start with a question that I am often asked: “Marjorie, what are the best coffees in the world?”. Honestly, I do not feel confident to answer such a question that easy. While training our coffee suppliers, there are some quotes we often share with them: “There are no good or bad coffees, but high and low quality coffees”, or “Coffee quality may constantly change, however it will always be there”.
Coffees are all different, especially if we are aware of the origin and by tasting attributes and defects while cupping. The truth is that coffees can be also rated by how responsibly they are produced and processed, this being translated into Added Value. In an environmental context, water plays an important and controversial role, specifically for Washed Coffees.

In Ethiopia, fermentation of the mucilage is always anaerobic, however water volumes are never measured.

Washed Coffee production

According to the article “Coffee and Water Resources at Origin” published in 2012 by Michael Sheridan, millers have never been aware of the water amounts the wet-milling process consumes from natural sources for processing and washing coffees and its impact on water reserves. Likewise, the pollution rate once the process is finished is hardly known by them. Five years on, nothing has changed. In our search for potential coffee suppliers, the most common answer to our questioning regarding the evident water wasting in the wet-milling process is “There is no problem, we have plenty of water in these coffeelands”, which shows the low level of knowledge and awareness in the matter, without taking into account how polluted such water is already, which definitely affects coffee quality. On the other hand, the general scenario is coffee production decreasing year on year due to global warming and to bad or lack of agronomic practices, which makes the exaggerated use of agrochemical products necessary.

Example of channels designed for running higher coffee volumes

The situation above gets worst, since most coffee facilities (equipment, tanks and channels for running water and pulp) suffer from overcapacity, that is to say, the same or higher water volumes are used for processing lower coffee volumes. To use 1 liter per kg of cherries would be the most efficient measure, while the real volumes used are exorbitant.

Water is indispensable for washing coffee after fermentation. If such reaction was not complete, double water and movement are needed.

It is worth mentioning some of the exceptional cases, coffee regions that produce excellent coffees and which are good examples of some initiatives:
  • In Costa Rica, coffee processing has been controlled and limited by the government for almost 15 years, which has enabled the saving of water and other resources.
  • In general, Central America is well-known by diversifying coffee processing types (Honey, Natural, Semi-washed and Washed); coffees produced are balanced and different;
  • Brazil and Colombia are pioneers in developing efficient equipment and technology to save water and resources.

Our contribution as Belco

We often deal with small and large suppliers when sourcing coffees, therefore our technical suggestions are focused on their specific weaknesses and threats. The idea is to show them all the possible alternatives they have to produce excellent coffees without wasting resources, a task that demands a lot of patience and time.

Marjorie was on the fields for three months in Africa end of 2017, to help producers to improve the quality of their coffee.

We try to encourage our producers and millers to start saving water by experimenting with low coffee volumes:
  • Washed vs Double Washed (In some countries the Soaking step is carried out irresponsibly, without any basis);
  • Millers are learning to adjust times to properly ferment the mucilage in the tanks: The better the fermentation, the lower the quantity of water used for washing coffee.
  • It is important for our suppliers to know the advantages and basic differences between washed coffees: Demucilaged by fermentation and demucilaged by a washing machine (mechanically).
  • The restructuring of coffee facilities is being promoted to: reduce the size of running channels and to promote the dry transfer of fresh coffee pulp to the tanks by using endless screws.
  • We are introducing innovative processes, such as Honey Coffee in regions where the cost of water is becoming not affordable and where farmers do not have access to large coffee facilities. We have identified one potential supplier in Kenya, who is willing to produce Naturals and Honeys under our quality parameters, breaking the scheme of the traditional Kenyan Washed Coffees.
  • We are constantly promoting water recycling and treatment to reduce the environmental impact due to water wasting and pollution.
My answer to the main question is Those coffees that are efficiently-produced, that respect quality parameters without compromising the environment and the future of the coffee industry”. The promotion of responsible coffee production and processing goes beyond any certification or advertising. To get familiar with these issues and to demand or consume such coffees, as well as to encourage educational/environmental projects are some fair and direct ways to support farmers and millers who are able to offer high quality coffees, who feel committed to preserving valuable resources and who feel themselves motivated to change for the better. Marjorie for Belco team
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