• Mice in the Wheat Silos (Why Buy Hand-Roasted, Small-Batch Coffee?)

    This morning, I did my usual quality control on the beans once they were cooling.  Occasionally, a green bean or two will get lodged somewhere in the roaster and fall into the roasted beans as you cool them.  I decided to keep what I found today.

    In the foreground are the 5 rocks that I recovered, while in the background, you can see all the green beans that snuck into the roasted beans.  Coffee is picked, processed, milled, and graded largely by hand.  Mechanization has made its way into the industry some ways, yet in other ways it is still a labor-intensive farm crop, like apples or cherries. 

    Years ago, when I was always scrounging to save money for trips to Mexico, I worked for a co-op in eastern Washington running a grain elevator.  Before the wheat was actually dry enough, the summer crew of workers, mostly college students on break, would start cleaning out and servicing the silos and machinery and the various grain elevators.  We had to take precautions against hantavirus, which could be spread by mice.  I didn't think much of it, until I got inside some of the elevators and silos, sweeping up molded piles of leftover wheat peppered with mouse corpses.  The farmers in the area grew soft white wheat, most of which was exported to Asian and Middle-Eastern markets, since western bread products are more commonly made with hard red wheat.  I couldn't help but think of the disconnect between when a customer buys a loaf of bread of a 6-pack of beer.  We don't think of the "dead mouse content" percentage as we munch our toast or sip our brew, yet someone (or, increasingly something) somewhere along the process got the mouse corpse out of our food.  There are notable exceptions (Strange Brew).

    As a hand-picked product, coffee is apt to have many similar taints.  In some Mexican Coffees I've roasted, I've found large "popped" kernals of heirloom corns, as many of the agricultural co-ops process several different types of commodities.  Rocks, in particular, are a nuissance, as they can destroy the burrs on a nice grinder.  Green or blemished beans can also spoil the flavor of a whole pot of coffee.  It is painstaking and time consuming to pick over every batch I roast by hand, but it is part of the benefit of buying small batch coffee that has been roasted manually.  The dirty secret of the industry is that everyone's coffee has it.  The difference is in the methods and degrees to which different producers try to minimize these taints and flaws.  Tedious but necessary work.

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