On the evening of September 4th we’re opening up our Holborn Coffeebar for a showcase of Kenyan coffee, and you’re invited.
For many of us in the industry, Kenya constitutes the most exciting seasonal fresh crop coffee arrival each year, and on this evening Tim Williams (our Director of Operations and green coffee buyer) is going to be providing an insight into how we go about finding the small handful of Kenyan coffees that make up our range each season.
We are continually aiming to improve every aspect of the coffee we serve - constantly in pursuit of the best coffee possible - and a fundamental part of that is the way we source coffees. We dedicate a great amount of time and effort to visiting producing countries, not only to secure the best coffee possible, but also so we know more about the farms and producers we work with, to understand their challenges, and to better tell the stories behind each and every coffee.
Alongside an introduction to coffee production in Kenya, and the intricacies (and rigours) of narrowing thousands upon thousands of samples down to just the very few best lots, we’ll be tasting fresh crop Kenyan coffee - Githiga AA and Gikirima AA from our own range, as well as Mutheka AA from Tim Wendelboe and Gathaithi AA from The Tate.
Even the faintest interest in specialty coffee, or simply a curiosity about how quality coffee is grown, harvested and exported to arrive in European cups, is all the qualification you need to attend. We look forward to telling some of these stories in person, tasting some of the best coffee available anywhere in the world, and hope you will join us for this exciting insight into Kenyan coffee.
All ticket proceeds will be donated to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, who work tirelessly to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned infant elephants and rhinos.
Getting your hands on a new coffee to roast and taste is always an enjoyable thing. A new espresso this good? Well that's a great thing! The second of our two coffees sourced from Costa Rica during a trip to the country back in February, La Plaza from the Tarrazu region is a sweet, densely dried fruit flavoured espresso that is well-balanced, rich and extremely satisfying and available to buy now.
As with the El Rodeo, the La Plaza was discovered on the cupping tables at the Exclusive Coffee labs in San José. As the team relentlessly turned tables over, one after another, it meant they were probably the most intense cuppings I have ever experienced over two days. When you get a coffee like this back in the UK though, that feeling of mass caffeination before you board an aeroplane to head home, it's definitely worth it.
Seeing the coffee in the cooling tray of the roaster and tasting it in our new QC lab at our Fitzrovia store; both visually and orally this coffee is clean and incredibly well processed. A great example of the way that through building his own micromill, Santa Rosa, and taking control of his coffee, Efrain Naranjo has produced something we at Workshop are delighted to have the chance to offer to you.
African beds at El Rodeo. Parchment awaits milling (above) - (below) Drying yellow honey processed coffee
One of two Costa Rican coffees found on Workshop's first trip to the country is in the UK and roasting. El Rodeo, situated in Tarrazu, was discovered at the cupping table during a hot day in February at the Exclusive Coffee lab in San José. Five quick-fire tables in the morning before flights out of the country, featuring coffees from all over Costa Rica, threw up a couple of standouts including this white honey processed coffee.
Owned by Roger Solis, El Rodeo is processed and milled ready for export at the La Casona mill built to service his two small farms in the region. In processing his white honeys Mr Solis leaves somewhere between 10 and 15% mucilage, using a mechanical demucilager, on the coffee before leaving to dry on raised beds for around 15 days.
We have been working hard on the profile for this one and think we have cracked it, bringing out flavours of walnut and sultanas, a rich malty biscuit and toffee sweetness and a lovely soft mouthfeel. A real comfort coffee and a perfect counter to the Africans of Kenya and Ethiopia currently making up the rest of our range.
Mechanical Demucilager (above) - (below) Micromill dehuller
Back in December last year, the coffee-buying world became aware of a political situation developing in the Nyeri region of Kenya that indicated this region’s coffee would not be for sale this season. We kept an eye on things as best we could from London, and then traveled to Kenya in February/March to speak with those involved on the ground to get a sense of whether anything could be done in time to bring the co-operative societies’ coffees to market.
Unfortunately, there had been little to no improvement and most of the coffees from the washing stations we were interested in were sitting in a warehouse; lots all mixed up, traceability questionable, but most importantly under lock-and-key, not even available for tasting.
So, instead we looked further afield. While each year we travel to places like Kenya in order to taste through hundreds of samples for prospective purchase, this year’s buying in Nairobi was particularly tricky. First off, we needed to widen the spectrum of coffees for potential inclusion dramatically, beyond Nyeri and Kirinyaga that we normally purchase from, to Murang’a, Thika and Kiambu.
While a grueling and challenging prospect - several consecutive days of little more than cupping, note-taking and decision making - the process was significantly more rewarding than we had expected. Countless lots across a variety of grades from these ‘inferior’ regions truly sparkled, showing depth, character and playfulness that in previous years we may have skimmed over. We spent a lot of time referring back to our copy of the Kenya Coffee Directory, looking up the location and co-operative structures of washing stations we’d never heard of before.
What we anticipated to be a buying season in which finding enough coffee of a quality level we expect from our Kenya offering, ended up being the usual difficult process of narrowing the field of extremely worthy contenders down to the handful of lots we can responsibly purchase. And it seems we weren’t alone in this approximation of things.
Purchasing is usually competitive, with every coffee buyer doing their best to secure for their customers what they see as the greatest coffees of that season, but this year seemed especially so. This, combined with the fact that the Nyeri coffees were held back, meant that prices were more aggressive than last year - a fact reflected in the retail price of our bags - but we find it hard to begrudge the co-operative societies trying to do the best they can for the farmers they represent, and we agreed to pay.
We’re extremely happy with the coffees that we have managed to secure from Kenya this year, including the return of Kabingara AA; a top grade selection from the Kirinyaga region that we adored last year. But a small part of us has to wonder — If the coffees from neighbouring regions are this delicious, just what did those top Nyeri lots taste like?
Since 2012 we've been purchasing all we can of the top quality lots produced at Finca Tamana; Elias Roa's farm in El Pital, Colombia. We sent Richard to visit him in November last year, just before the most recent harvest was brought in, processed and shipped to us in London.
For the most part we've roasted the coffee from Finca Tamana for filter brewing, and have packed the coffee into lovely 350g bags, distributed to retail and wholesale customers a-like, shipping Elias's coffee all over the world.
With the most recently arrived harvest, we've decided to do something a little different.
There will be, however, this fantastic coffee - roasted for espresso - in the main grinders of all our stores.
For the majority of the month of July (as long as our supplies last) we will be replacing our usual Cult of Done Espresso with Finca Tamana Espresso and using this wonderful Caturra selection for all of our espresso-based drinks.
Yes, the only way to try this coffee will be to visit one of our stores, and let our Baristas serve it for you. As an idea, it's a little different, and it's probably a bit challenging for the likes of Jay Rayner, but we're confident you're going to love it as much as we do.
Be sure to pick up your copy of the latest Caffeine Magazine, as I talk to David Burrows about Fairtrade certified coffee, why we don't buy it, and our focus on a cycle of quality instead. Additional insights from Steve Leighton and Tim Wendelboe make it an informative article for those confused about the role of certifications in specialty coffee today.
“I see better quality coffee and better prices for producers as being inextricably linked,” says Williams. “Without us committing to providing a reliable and appropriately priced market for the best quality coffees, we can’t expect farmers to go to the extra efforts and lengths that the production of that quality requires."
Caffeine Magazine is stocked at all Workshop Coffee Co. locations, and many other quality purveyors throughout the UK.
Coffee lovers in the UK are a lucky bunch. A recent upswell in the appreciation of great coffee, all around the country, means that there’s never been a better time to order a cup.
The press, blogs and social media all abound with stories of the latest cafes, roasters and, more recently, baristas who are putting energy and resource into improving this widely loved drink, celebrating them as talented harbingers of quality. And it’s true. A lot of work is required to take what is basically a handful of dried legumes, and turn them into a drink that warrants crossing town to taste.
But that quality that coffee lovers seek starts long before any roaster or barista is in the picture. The complexity, clarity and character of flavour that we now expect from roasters and cafes is not the product of the cleverest roasting, the fanciest espresso machine, or even the most ironically mustachioed barista.
Though many of us fail to appreciate it, the quality of what we look for in our daily coffee is established long before the beans arrive in Europe. It’s high time to remind ourselves that the coffee we love began the journey to us a long way away, as the seeds of a single ripe cherry, grown on a healthy coffee tree.
Just as we appreciate that the world’s best chefs are at the mercy of the producers that supply them, so too are roasters and baristas only capable of producing roasts and drinks of a quality befitting their ever-increasing price tag because of the care and diligent work of the world’s best coffee growers.
Coffee is a fickle and fragile fruit. As a tree, it’s susceptible to a wide range of diseases and attacks that can decimate crops: leaf rust, insect infestation and snap frosts to name just a few. During its preparation for export, if not dried correctly, coffee runs the risk of beginning to ferment and rot, resulting in a tainted and unsaleable product. Once dried and sitting in warehouses or on ships, the raw beans undergo organic degradation, turning woody, dry and stale. Even if all these risks are avoided, there’s still a chance that bandits will cut through warehouse locks, or hijack road transportation, and make off with a farmer’s entire year’s work.
Coffee production is hard and risky work, but it needn’t be thankless, too. In reality, it’s thanks to committed growers, millers and exporters that we as roasters and baristas have the opportunity to put that ever increasingly delicious coffee into your cup.
While it’s certainly true that the skill of baristas, and the quality of coffee being served has never been better, it’s important that as coffee lovers think beyond the barista, and give some thought to those responsible for growing our coffee.
When our freshly harvested lots arrive from Kenya and Ethiopia in a few weeks time, I’ll be reminding our baristas of my recent travels to farms there, and all the people that I met. And when customers thank our baristas for the great coffee they serve, I trust that they’ll remain humble and deferential, because we don’t magic up the quality in the customer’s drink, we’re merely a conduit that helps to maintain it from farm to cup.
Director of Operations
I still haven’t made it South of the Equator in my life but I got pretty close this time. A trip to the Huila region of Colombia for two weeks, organised by Café Imports and Fairfield Trading in November 2013, meant that I got within a few hours drive but never broke through. I did however experience a tiny part of a huge country that saw the group I travelled with welcomed openly into farmers’ houses, offered produce straight from the allotment and witness a fraction of the immense amount of work that goes into the cultivation of the coffees we buy.
Workers return from the fields of Omar Cardenas, Finca La Esperanza, Acevedo
Based at San Agustín, a small town at the southern point of Huila, the goal each day was to cup coffees from different groups in the region at the newly built Los Naranjos group cupping lab in the town centre, before visiting farms of coffees that scored highly. With cuppings set up and cleaned down by a pretty slick team of young locals led by Eduardo Sanchez, and all just starting their careers in coffee, we had but one task: cup. Over the course of four mornings more than 50 coffees from the groups of Gigante, Primaveral, Coocentral, Nariño, Palestina, Pitalito and Los Naranjos were assessed and happily each table offered up a few stand-outs that I could really focus on.
Eduardo (in red) and the local cupping team
The first table of the first day threw up a clear winner; a Caturra lot stood above the rest in terms of clarity, sweetness and aroma. Produced by the current president of the Los Naranjos group, it just so happened to be the first farm we visited too; Asturias, owned by Miguel Augusto Ortega, a modest 4 hectare farm just outside of San Agustín. At an altitude of 1650 masl and planted with well established yellow and red Caturra alongside the more disease resistant, newer strain of Castillo, Miguel keeps his two varietals separate at all times through production and processing. Fertilising twice a year, he uses no insecticides to minimise dependancy on chemicals, however, as with all the farms we visited, Roya is present and has to be contained using fungicides when necessary. His farm was impeccable in its presentation with all trees showing healthy and abundant growth in the first few weeks of main harvest, and more importantly the cherries picked showed uniformity in ripeness before pulping. As soon as I could get a quiet word with the guys at Café Imports I expressed my interest and we are now pleased to be able to offer Finca Asturias as our next Single Origin espresso release.
Miguel Augusto Ortega, President of Asociacion Los Naranjos
Ripening Red Caturra
Fully ripe Yellow Caturra
Feeding red and yellow Caturra down through a disc pulper at Finca Asturias
Unfortunately not every farm visited showed the same consistency of ripeness in cherries pre-pulping. Even though each farm washed and skimmed the floaters once pulped, the quality of the finished product at some of the farms will inevitably be debatable due to the amounts of under and overripes that make it through. From a roaster's perspective, no doubt each batch roasted would require a fair amount of hand sorting in the cooling tray to remove these defects.
A mix of ripe red and yellow Caturra with green unripes and black over-ripes
The step of pre-pulping sorting is not the norm across Colombia but one farm is leading the way whose coffee Workshop know well, Finca Tamana. As the rest of the group returned to their respective countries after a week full of cuppings and farm visits with Café Imports, I was lucky enough for Alejandro Renifo of Fairfield Trading to arrange for me to spend two nights at Tamana, his son Sascha acting as interpreter. I already had the pleasure of meeting Elias Roa, Tamana's owner, earlier in the week when we'd stopped in at his other farm in Acevedo but now I was to be a guest under his roof and shown the workings and practices that make Tamana an example for others when it comes to specialty coffee production in Colombia.
Elias cleaning pre-pulp sorting tables
Pre-pulping hand sorting
Working closely with Tim Wendelboe of Nordic Approach, Elias has embraced a number of additional steps and controls required to increase the overall quality of the final cup. Hand sorting, a zinc-lined cherry hopper that is kept spotless, a washing process that makes ample use of the natural spring found on the farm and more besides; all contribute to coffee that has superior cleanliness and clarity of flavour. Paying his workers 50% more than other farms in the area to ensure that the extra steps are duly followed, and as a man with long-term vision and a desire to produce the best coffee he possibly can, Elias is now seeing the results after just a few years hard work. The innovation doesn't stop either. With Wendelboe visiting regularly, further improvements and procedures are being introduced and experiments carried out in areas such as drying, all with the same objective of attaining a higher level of green quality and longevity.
Colombia is somewhat different to most producing countries due to it's production being split into two harvests over the course of the year; the main harvest and the mitaca, a smaller harvest that produces about a third of the main crop. Fairfield Trading explains it as follows:
Colombia has an unique advantage in terms of offering fresh coffee all year around because it has two distinct alternating harvesting seasons. Regions, located to the north, have their main primary harvest during the second semester, and a smaller secondary mitaca harvest during the first semester. The reverse occurs in the regions towards the south
Factors like altitude, luminosity, soil and unique micro-climate patterns cause exceptions to this rule. In these areas the harvest cycle tends to be evenly distributed during the year, or a single short harvest.
Due to the factors mentioned above, farms separated by as little as 100km can be in different harvests, so whilst the region around San Agustín was in full harvest, Tamana, 200km to the north but still in Huila, was in mitaca. Elias only had his core picking team of eight tasked with clearing the mitaca harvest, working the farm in separate lots to a set schedule each day, yet it is not only picking duties this team perform. All are coached in spotting the early signs of roya and combatting Broca so walking through the farm it was obvious the trees remain in great condition regardless of the problems that can befall coffee, a combination of training and teamwork being the most effective weapon.
A few isolated spots of roya, a sign of excellent farm management at Tamana
Elias and Tim are rightly very proud of what they have achieved in the space of a few years at Tamana, so much so that Finca Tamana by Tim Wendelboe has just been released, a beautiful photographic documentation featuring insight into the farming practices that make Tamana the coffee we know and love. Workshop are under no impression that the work is finished at Tamana, however we are glad that we have helped through our purchase of the coffee and look forward to tasting new crops to come and further visits to see Elias and his team at the farm. What we do have is a greater understanding of the amount of effort and dedication that goes into producing coffee both at Tamana and also the work of other farmers around the region of Huila, Colombia. And boy was this little guy awesome.
If you enjoyed any of our spectacular coffees from the Nyeri region of Kenya last year (and to be honest, even if you didn't) you should be bringing yourself up to speed with a frustrating and somewhat worrying set of developments in the region that are poised to have a dramatic effect on the traceability and quality of its coffee.
We'll be heading to Nairobi in a few weeks time to decide on the lots that will comprise our Kenyan selection for the coming season. We're hoping that for our sake, your sake and most importantly, the sake of the farmers, millers and workers of Nyeri who depend on coffee, that the situation is sorted by then.