Hand Sorting

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Hand Sorting

Postby Alistair Durie on Wed Jun 18, 2008 10:57 pm

Image

http://www.flickr.com/photos/elysian/24 ... 2/sizes/o/

This was a mesmerizing experience, I wanted to stay here the whole day. The rushing sound of green coffee moving, the intense speed of the hands pecking out seemingly invisible little defect beans, the intense focus of the women. Coffee by hand. Its a powerful situation.

Hand sorting is an enormously important chapter of the specialty coffee journey. In our own training sessions, images of hand sorting generate strong emotional reactions and help to connect people with coffee as a human experience.

Woman working at these tables, or on hot patios, parking lots, warehouses, or in homes, so many hours staring at little green pebbles go by. I have so many questions about this process, the conditions, the effects on their brain and body. This is repetitive factory work with an intense form of concentration. Research will show this has some effect. There are kids doing this work, yes? Are there men doing this work?

Would love to hear some stories. Have you talked to these woman? Have you tried this work? What are the costs and benefits?

To share some pictures, I have started a flickr group, please add your pictures or video: http://www.flickr.com/groups/coffeebyhand/
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby SL28ave on Thu Jun 19, 2008 11:22 am

I've spent hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of hours hand sorting in a variety of ways, because the benefits are immense. I haven't spent enough time amongst farms and mills to speak about their hand sorting, other than to say it's an important topic. I look forward to learning about it.
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby phaelon56 on Thu Jun 19, 2008 11:55 am

Alistair wrote:Woman working at these tables, or on hot patios, parking lots, warehouses, or in homes, so many hours staring at little green pebbles go by. I have so many questions about this process, the conditions, the effects on their brain and body. This is repetitive factory work with an intense form of concentration. Research will show this has some effect. There are kids doing this work, yes? Are there men doing this work?



You ask questions that I lack the experience to answer. But somewhat pertinent is my experience working on a California Central Valley tomato ranch in 1976 (5,000 acres of tomatoes). The owners were a test site that year for an automated sorting device that would mount above the conveyor belt on the side of the harvesters - where the human sorters usually worked. It worked based on the color of the properly ripe tomatoes and was supposed to flick the overripe, underripe, detritus etc. off the belt with mechanical fingers. Granted... technology has improved since then... but it did not come remotely close to the speed and accuracy of the women who worked on harvesters to do the sorting manually.

It's my recollection that women - at least at that time and among the pool of available employees - had proven to have a better eye for color, more patience for withstanding the repetition and notably better speed than the men who they had tried using for those jobs.

It was hardly a representative sampling as this was just one farm and the entire potential employee pool was comprised of Mexican women who either lived in the area or were related to workers already living there.

Is manual sorting for defects still done in areas such as Brazil where there is automated technology available to perform this process? There are devices that scan a single stream of beans for color density etc. and blow out the bad ones - but is that still supplemented by manual labor and the trained human eye?

I have even seen reference to a place that does sorting for defects after the roasting process. It is Flavor Coffee in Japan - and they also appear to have women employees for this process.

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=47774&view=findpost&p=707893

If you scroll back up a bit in that thread once you reach the link there's some interesting discussion on the super-heated steam roasting technique that Flavor uses.
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby Wendy De Jong on Thu Jun 19, 2008 4:32 pm

Hi Alistair, I find this topic very interesting myself. I posted a few pics to your flickr group. you can't miss the social and community aspect of coffee sorting. I have been some places where coffee sorting seems a cheerful way to spend the day, and some places where it seems a health threatening factory nightmare.
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby Tim Dominick on Thu Jun 19, 2008 9:32 pm

I've done a fair bit of assembly line agricultural work. Weeks on end of long days processing dried flowers. Taking them off the stalks, trimming excess leaf matter, sorting/grading and removing defects. The pay is good and it is a social event in rural communities that cannot be completely explained, however the toll on the body is real and it is truly a younger person's endeavor. Tedious work with aches and pains from the shoulders to the fingertips. After a few days your muscle memory for the task doesn't allow you to simply walk away and forget about what you have done all day. You are mentally and physically drained.

After seeing the process in coffee mills, I agree with Wendy. Sometimes there is a true community effort, almost as if the sorting table is a social hub. Other places seem a bit more sweatshop-ish, as if the people are doing it as a last resort.

I've seen micro-mills where it is a family affair, this is the only place I have seen men sorting alongside women and kids. Cooperative mills appear to have the best working conditions, good lighting, fresh air and supportive chairs. Some of the private mills don't look like a good place to do that kind of work, people on concrete sorting thru piles.

Image
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby Sean Starke on Fri Jun 20, 2008 4:46 am

Owen, I can't recall the last time I was in a mill in Brazil that used manual sorting. I freely confess that I usually visit only the larger-scale exporters, however, and as the electronic sorters are very expensive I'm sure there are still places doing it. But the machines have gotten very very good, and the capacity they can handle is amazing.
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby phaelon56 on Fri Jun 20, 2008 7:12 am

I think Daterra may use limited hand sorting in the final stages of the defect elimination process for their Penta product but that's a guess as those final stages are sort of behind closed doors - correct?

Here's a link to the page Tom put on the Sweetmarias site and it included this text along with a picture of the mysterious wood box.

Now, take that lab setting and build a huge green coffee sorting system around it. That is the Penta system that Luis initiated at Daterra. Housed in a big mysterious wood box, we were not able to view it directly, nor photograph it.
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby Jim Saborio on Thu Jul 03, 2008 11:03 pm

As I mentioned elsewhere, I had a similar job where I did this sort of conveyor sorting work 12-16 hours a day, 7 days a week, for over two months straight. At the time I was 21, and it was pretty challenging...

Is hand sorting seasonal work or something done year round? I couldn't imagine anyone doing work like this year-round. They'd OD on ibuprofen on the sixth month.
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby Peter G on Fri Jul 04, 2008 12:15 pm

Over the years, I've spent quite a lot of time in these sorting rooms. As Wendy said, some are filled with joyful work and camaraderie, others seem like sweatshops.

My favorite experience was when I walked into the MAO Horse sorting room, in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. It was a normal sorting room, not unlike the room in the header image, although it was much more crowded with lots more women, each of them wearing the colorful, spangled head wraps and shoulder wraps common in Eastern Ethiopia. There may have been 200 women, maybe more. As I watched, a single woman at one of the tables started to sing, loudly and clearly. As she got to the second line of the song, EVERY WOMAN in the room began to sing along, filling the room with pure, intense song. It was thrilling- I was covered in goosebumps. At the end of the song, the women all laughed and trilled, and waited for another woman to begin another song. I stayed there for hours, listening to songs, which never seemed to repeat. As we finished our visit and got into the car to leave the place, I could still hear the women singing, and the swish of the coffee as it swept by them.

In Medan, Sumatra, women at the Volkopi mill hand sort (they call it "pick" there) while sitting on the floor. They sit on a polished concrete floor, on a covered terrace adjacent to where the coffee dries. It is here the women hand sort the now famous super-clean, immaculately sorted Volkopi Indonesia coffees: Lake Tawar, Dolok Sanggul, Blue Batak, etc. Each woman has a little pile of coffee on the floor they are working, and a round, flat basket for the rejects. These women chatter and gossip- it is a big deal when a coffee buyer comes, they all cheer hello and laugh girlishly if you sit down with them. Over the years i have visited, many of the same women are working here. They are cheerful and bright, and don't seem a bit beaten down by their hard work.

I have visited the Solcafe mill in Matagalpa, Nicaragua more frequently over the years than any other. The first year I visited, the women sat on wooden benches while they sorted the coffee as it went by. I sat down beside them, and spent a good while hand sorting alongside. The next year, some concerned visitor from the United States had replaced the wooden benches with ergonomic office chairs. The next year, the women were wearing uniforms, hair control hats, and surgical masks. It's gotten to be a more clinical setting, although they still listen to the radio. It's probably safer and healthier than it used to be, but I have to say that it seems a little less fun. At least, it doesn't fit the romantic ideal anymore.

In Rwanda, women sort coffee as it dries in the sun on raised mesh drying tables. All day, they lean over these tables, looking for defective spots in the parchment that may indicate insect or fungus damage. Here is a video. Recently, as I was visiting Nyakizu in southern Rwanda with Watts, we instinctively reached out to touch the coffee as it dried. The women there grabbed our hands and refused to let us touch the parchment. We'd need to wash our hands first. Awesome. Later that day, in a meeting with the cooperative, a young woman who represented the coffee sorters stood up when we asked for open dialogue between the buyers (us) and the cooperative. She declared her pride in working at the mill, even though because of financial troubles within the co-op she hadn't been paid in weeks. If she could ask for one thing, it would be uniforms the women could wear to express their unity and the importance of their job. Finally, she promised that they would work constantly, through the night if necessary, to make sure that their cooperative's coffee was the best in Rwanda and in the world. I had tears in my eyes when she finished that speech.

***

There are a lot of positive things to say about hand sorting in coffee. The work is often highly sought after; it can be relatively well paid, light work. The environment can be conducive to community building and cultural exchange. And the coffee that comes from these tables can be picture-perfect; absolutely free from any visible defect.

On the other side, it can certainly be hard, intense work; "agricultural production work" sums it up well. And, there are machines which are increasingly good at sorting, using specific light wavelengths and air jets to sort coffee extremely well. Better than by hand?

Still, hand sorting is sought after by specialty buyers. Why? While I think that hand-sorting will produce better coffee than machine-sorting, is it because of a perceived "hand-crafted"-ness which has no real impact on quality? I have had some really great coffees that were machine sorted. I know that many of the defects that the women's hands remove are shape related (misshapen beans) that don't really have an impact on the cup.

However, I am not personally inclined to mechanize jobs that provide income in impoverished places.

Anyway, interesting topic....

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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby mnasce on Sun Jul 06, 2008 10:09 pm

Peter G wrote:
Still, hand sorting is sought after by specialty buyers. Why? While I think that hand-sorting will produce better coffee than machine-sorting, is it because of a perceived "hand-crafted"-ness which has no real impact on quality? I have had some really great coffees that were machine sorted. I know that many of the defects that the women's hands remove are shape related (misshapen beans) that don't really have an impact on the cup.

However, I am not personally inclined to mechanize jobs that provide income in impoverished places.

Anyway, interesting topic....

Peter G


There's some overlap but it's never been machine vs. hand. Sortex is plently used at origin, though much to some's chagrin, it's not the panacea that it's claimed to be...
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby Sandy on Mon Jul 07, 2008 7:19 am

Peter,
I always enjoy reading your posts. You have such an eloquent way with words that i feel like i'm right there experiencing the same sights and sounds as you. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby Peter G on Tue Jul 08, 2008 2:27 pm

There's some overlap but it's never been machine vs. hand. Sortex is plently used at origin, though much to some's chagrin, it's not the panacea that it's claimed to be...


I'm not sure what you are getting at here, mnasce. There are, of course, many mills which use only hand sorting, others which use only machine sorting, and many which use both. In mills that use both, usually the top qualities from the mill are machine sorted first, then are finished by hand.

Mills with newer Sortex or Xeltron equipment, which are running at a manageable pace, can turn out very very clean coffee. Remaining defects, in my experience, seem to be shape-related in nature (shells/elephant ears, etc.) rather than the cup-affecting blacks, moldy beans, etc. Much depends on the adjustment and maintenance of the equipment, and coffee going in that is relatively free from invisible defects (underripes, overferment, etc.)

I know many dry mills which have not purchased mechanical sorters because hand labor is easily available and traditional, and plus buyers seem to like hand-sorted coffee. Many seem to accept the conventional wisdom: "hand sorted is better" as an article of faith, rather than an actual rational choice. It is a really difficult choice for the mill manager....

Mnasce, you appear to be in the coffee exporting business. What is your personal experience? Care to go into more detail?

Peter G

p.s. Thanks, Sandy, for your kind words.
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby Tim Dominick on Tue Jul 08, 2008 3:24 pm

Optical sorters require calibration and a trained person to set the tolerances. If something breaks it is not as simple as going down to town to buy parts and downtime is not an attractive option if you have orders to fill.

The low tech solution is often the best option for smaller, isolated estates and cooperatives that have to balance the need to put dollars back into the community against the long term savings a piece of equipment might bring.

Why do I keep singing John Henry was a steel driving man?
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby sweetmarias on Tue Jul 08, 2008 4:37 pm

Tim Dominick wrote:Optical sorters require calibration and a trained person to set the tolerances. If something breaks it is not as simple as going down to town to buy parts and downtime is not an attractive option if you have orders to fill.

The low tech solution is often the best option for smaller, isolated estates and cooperatives that have to balance the need to put dollars back into the community against the long term savings a piece of equipment might bring.

Why do I keep singing John Henry was a steel driving man?


I can't answer your question, but hey, hand sorting employs a lot of people. In so many places I have been, it's not just a necessity for getting better prices for coffee, it's tied to local politics. It's unthinkable in some areas to retire 50 or 100 jobs for a machine - you would have a local riot on your hands. It has it's own rigors, but not like picking, or hauling cherry, or raking on the patio all day. Sorting parchment coffee on raised beds is also a different job then sorting cherry or sorting green. In Hodeida Yemen they don't grow any coffee, all they do is sort the milled coffee brought down from Sana'a. It's terrible for the coffee, any delay in sending off the coffee from this hot humid port. But there is a huge pool of afro-muslim women who are experts and hand sorting, and moving the job to Sana'a or replacing them with machines would be considered morally wrong. I asked Mohamed Sowaid if he could move the work to Sana'a at 5000 feet and send containers to port that were ready to load on ship. He just laughed, because you are part of a large human machine there, and if you simply decide to "do it your way" then nobody will work with you. In Guatemala I am sure we have all seen the full gamut of final preparation, all-Sortex - Sortex then hand-sort on conveyor, hand sort on conveyor, hand sort at desks. Some of the last group think the high velocity pneumatics of the optical sorters can damage coffee. I dunno - there are great coffees from any of the above methods, like Peter mentions. One thing we all know for sure; better picking of ripe cherry would make a lot of the secondary clean-up work in the wet mill, on drying beds or in green form, not so critical to cup quality. It's so shocking to realize that many many small producers in Colombia don't even float cherry. it could be so simple, just a rubbermaid tub would do. Geez- i'm rambling.

By the way, Mnascé Zewdu - is this a roasting shop and cafe in Addis? Would love to come visit will be there in late August/ early Sept.
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby mnasce on Fri Jul 11, 2008 11:45 am

Peter G wrote:
There's some overlap but it's never been machine vs. hand. Sortex is plently used at origin, though much to some's chagrin, it's not the panacea that it's claimed to be...


I'm not sure what you are getting at here, mnasce. There are, of course, many mills which use only hand sorting, others which use only machine sorting, and many which use both. In mills that use both, usually the top qualities from the mill are machine sorted first, then are finished by hand.

Mills with newer Sortex or Xeltron equipment, which are running at a manageable pace, can turn out very very clean coffee. Remaining defects, in my experience, seem to be shape-related in nature (shells/elephant ears, etc.) rather than the cup-affecting blacks, moldy beans, etc. Much depends on the adjustment and maintenance of the equipment, and coffee going in that is relatively free from invisible defects (underripes, overferment, etc.)

I know many dry mills which have not purchased mechanical sorters because hand labor is easily available and traditional, and plus buyers seem to like hand-sorted coffee. Many seem to accept the conventional wisdom: "hand sorted is better" as an article of faith, rather than an actual rational choice. It is a really difficult choice for the mill manager....

Mnasce, you appear to be in the coffee exporting business. What is your personal experience? Care to go into more detail?

Peter G

p.s. Thanks, Sandy, for your kind words.


My point is that both suppliers at origin and buyers need to invest more than just mechanical sorters. Ethiopian exporters have 10 containers of coffee sitting at the Yokohama port blocked from entering by the Japanese government "due to high level chemical contamination." http://en.ethiopianreporter.com/content/view/749/36/

Mnasce, you appear to be in the coffee exporting business. What is your personal experience? Care to go into more detail?


Nope, I'm a roaster. I run a small shop that's been around since the 1940s, using the same equipment the original owners used (wood-fired Officine Vittoria Classic Roaster, Fiorenzato grinders). Please come visit when you're in town, the (google maps) directions are on my website: http://mokarar.com/ My phone number is: 0912122757
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Re: Hand Sorting

Postby mnasce on Fri Jul 11, 2008 11:47 am

sweetmarias wrote:By the way, Mnascé Zewdu - is this a roasting shop and cafe in Addis? Would love to come visit will be there in late August/ early Sept.


Yes it is in Addis. Please come visit when you're in town, the (google maps) directions are on my website: http://mokarar.com/ My phone number is: 0912122757
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